Monday, August 29, 2011

Community Schools: Supporting Children, Families and Neighborhoods

What is a 'Community School'?

Through a set of partnerships with external agencies and businesses, community schools purposefully integrate health and social services, youth and community development, and community/civic engagement with academics (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009). The concept of the community school represents a vehicle for aligning the assets of students, families, teachers, and the community around a common goal - improving the success of young people. Although the specific form each community school takes is heavily dependent on its unique community context, they do share some of the same core principles: 1) fostering strong partnerships 2) sharing accountability for results 3) setting high expectations for all 4) embracing diversity and 5) developing homegrown, sustainable solutions (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009). More specifically, each community school provides services tailored to meet the needs of its community and may include family literacy nights, affordable housing information, nutrition counseling, English as a second language and/or GED classes, mental health services and yoga classes (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009). Through this model of education, the hope is to ensure that children are healthy physically, socially, and emotionally and, as a result, ready to learn when they enter school; community schools also strive to develop stronger families and healthier communities. Additionally, community schools help to ensure that families and neighborhoods are supportive and engaged and that parents and community members are involved with the school and lifelong learning (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009). Community schools also promote the better use of school buildings which results in neighborhoods that enjoy increased security, heightened community pride, and better rapport among students and residents. The supports provided through partnerships result in healthier and happier children and allow teachers to teach children that are more equipped and ready to learn all while residing in strengthened communities (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009). 

Here are some examples of community schools in the United States: 
  • Communities in Schools (CIS) was established 30 years ago to prevent students from dropping out of school. CIS is a national network of 194 local affiliates in 27 states and Washington, D.C. and provides a model with a core set of values called the Five Basics that each site pursues: 1) a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult 2) a safe place to learn and grow 3) a healthy start and a healthy future 4) a marketable skill to use upon graduation and 5) a chance to give back to community and peers. Each site, however, is different in that each site assesses its students' particular needs and then finds the appropriate services. Thus, one site may provide dental exams and drug/alcohol education while another may provide extended-hours education and help for teen parents. See: (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • Children's Aid Society (CAS) was founded in 1853 and has long served New York City's disadvantaged children with a wide variety of programs. It began developing community schools in 1992 and now serves as the lead partner in 21 New York City community schools. The CAS model provides expanded educational, health, social and recreational services through enrichment programs  offered before and after school, medical, dental, mental health and social services, parent involvement and adult education classes, and events designed for the whole community. See: (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • SUN (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods) Community Schools consist of 54 schools in 6 districts in Multnomah County, Oregon. SUN community schools have created a regional approach to providing educational, recreational, social and health services as they are collaboration of the Multnomah County Department of Human Services, Portland Park and Recreation, various nonprofits, and local school districts. SUN community school hope to unite the neighborhood by extending the school day and serving as a community "hub;" extended-day academic and enrichment programs are linked with the school day and include family involvement and strengthening programs, health and social services for students, and adult education classes. Direct services are supported by partnerships with other community institutions such as libraries, parks and community centers, area churches, and neighborhood health clinics. See: (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • Tulsa Area Community Schools Initiative also uses a regional approach serving elementary schools in 2 districts. The initiative has a strong health component through the Oklahoma University at Tulsa Health Sciences Center. Working groups focus on early childhood, health and health education, mental health and social services, youth development, out-of-school time, and lifelong learning. The Tulsa Area Community Schools is coordinated and supported by the Community Service Council of Greater Tulsa, a nonprofit, citizen-led United Way agency. See: (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).

What Does the Research Say About Community Schools?

Academic Performance
When community schools initiatives are well executed, students show significant gains in academic achievement (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • CIS, the largest nationwide model of community schools, reported that schools that fully implement the CIS model have higher percentages of students achieving math and reading proficiency than did students in other schools.
  • CAS (NYC) schools do particularly well with the lowest 1/3 of students, making at least one year of academic progress in both elementary and middle schools. All CAS middles schools but one outperformed peer and city-wide schools in making one year of progress and CAS middle schools academically outperformed peer schools in math progress for the lowest 1/3 of students.
  • In 2007-08, nine Cincinnati pilot community schools showed 10% increases in proficient or better on standardized tests and met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). 
  • San Mateo County (CA) Community Schools' most seasoned schools have students who regularly reach the state's Academic Performance Index standards (which are more rigorous than AYP) and achieved advanced scores on the state's English Language Arts assessment. 
  • The 150 schools in the Chicago Community Schools Initiative (CSI) delivered standardized test results from 2001 to 2006 that show a steady closing of the achievement gap with other Chicago public schools. CSI schools improved close to 8 percentage points more than non-CSI schools in both math and reading standardized achievement tests (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
Attendance & Graduation Rates
Community schools tend to have a significant effect on increasing attendance and decreasing dropout rates (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • CIS is the only research-based dropout prevention program in the country proven to increase graduation rates, graduating students on time with a regular diploma compared to organizations listed by the U.S. Department of Education What Works Clearinghouse. 
  • A 2009 study found that CAS schools with on site health clinics tend to have higher attendance rates than other New York City schools without them. 
  • In Providence, RI, there were 55% fewer incidences of chronic absenteeism among participants in Providence Full Service Community Schools' programs than in the general population; children with parents in Family Literacy had a 97.3% attendance rate. 
  • Across the four schools on the Little Village campus in Chicago, there was a less than 1% truancy rate.
  • In Tukwila, WA, Community Schools Collaboration's on-time graduation rate has increased annually since 2001; the rate of absentee and dropouts for middle and high school students also decreased. 
  • From 2000 to 2008, the Cincinnati school district's high schools have seen the graduation rate improve from 51% to 82% (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
Improved Behavior
Community schools report beneficial shifts in the attitudes, interests, motivations, and relationships of children and youth who attend a community school (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • In Chicago, CSI students have consistently demonstrated significantly lower numbers of serious disciplinary incidents compared to schools with similar demographics.
  • Shaw Middle School (PA), which partners with the University of Pennsylvania, saw suspensions decrease from 464 to 163 over the course of 6 years.
  • CAS schools found significant increases in self-esteem, career, and other aspirations for surveyed students and decreased reports of problems with communication.
  • Students in Beacons, a New York City-based community school model, reported that they were less likely to intentionally hurt someone physically, damage other people’s property, steal money or get into a fight (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
Parent Involvement
Consistent parental involvement at home and school, at every grade level and throughout the year is important for students’ sustained success. Studies have found that parents of community school students are more engaged on their children’s learning and are more involved in their school (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • Carlin Springs Elementary School (VA) serves a high population of children from non-English speaking families; because of this the school offers adult ESL classes. Ninety-five percent of parents taking ESL classes also attended parent-teacher conferences and reported that they were more likely to be engaged in their children's education. 
  • Results from a community school study in San Mateo County show that 93% of parents attended parent-teacher conferences and a high percentage of parents encouraged their children to complete homework and talked to their children about school. Parent skills and capacities also improved as a result of the schools' offered programs. 
  • In Providence’s Full Service Community School, which serves 350 students, a total of 333 different adult family members participated in school-based family engagement events during the school year; 116 parents participated in 3 or more school based events. Eighty-nine percent of parents demonstrated significant improvement in their ability to communicate and relate to their child’s school environment; 46% of parents in Family Literacy classes increased an Educational Functional Level which is the equivalent of 2 grade levels in reading (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).

A Local Example: Robert L. Ford School

Built in the 1900s, the Robert L. Ford School is located in the Highlands in Lynn, Massachusetts. It consists of grades K through 5, though Ford was Pre-K through 8 until 2009.  In terms of demographics, the student body is currently 12.6% Black/African American, 11.3% Asian, 60.9% Hispanic, and 11.3% White. Eighty-eight percent of the students are considered low income and there is a significant number of homeless students. Additionally, of the 547 students at Ford, 63.3% speak English as a Second Language while 38.8% have limited English Proficiency. 

According to the Ford School website, "With the help of various community partners, networking and a "never say no" attitude, the Ford School is able to support students and their families." Through its many partnerships the Ford School is able to offer services such as teacher aide training classes and free computer classes for parents through the Salem State University, information regarding affordable housing through the Lynn Housing Authority, both after- and in-school tutoring through Salem State, General Electric and Gordon College, and free eyeglasses through Lens Crafters. The school's principal, Dr. Claire Crane, encourages Saturday school for chronic underachievers. One of the Ford School's most fruitful programs has been its over 20 year partnership with the Cohen Hillel Academy, a private Jewish school in Marblehead, MA. Hillel students have served as both reading buddies and math tutors to the Ford School students. Of the 44 students that were tutored in math by Hillel students during the 10 week spring program, 43 successfully passed the MCAS test (see here). Hillel has also organized clothing drives, book donations, field days on their campus and outings to cultural events, programs which are beneficial for both the Ford and Hillel students. The Ford School has also sponsored Family Literacy Nights, GED classes, ESL classes and citizenship classes and serves as the home to the Highlands Coalition, a community-based organization (see Ford has also enjoyed a unique partnership with NASA and the Food Project which sponsors a community garden; these programs have helped students to learn about science, technology, math, gardening, and nutrition.

In terms of specific outcomes, the average number of school absences at the Ford school is 7.6 days compared to 10.8 for the district as a whole; the overall attendance is 95.6% compared to 93.6% for the district. The number of disciplinary actions is also much lower than average as indicated by the 3.7% suspension rate compared to 18.1% suspension rate for the district as a whole. Ford also has one of the lowest special education referral rates in the city. As a result of its efforts to involve parents including morning coffee times and free night school classes that offer childcare, attendance at parent-teacher conferences has increased from 10-20% to 90-95% over the past 20 years (see here). As far as standardized tests, 40% of students received either proficient or advanced on the English MCAS while 36% score proficient or above on the math MCAS. While these numbers could be improved, it should be noted that only 11% of students failed the English MCAS and 16% failed the math MCAS despite the fact that Ford has been challenged with educating such a large English language learner and low income population. The Ford School continues to offer a wide variety of programming for both students and families endearing it to all who have benefited from its offerings.


All  Test Score and Demographic Data from:

Blank, M., Jacobson, R., & Pearson, S.S. (2009). A coordinated effort: well-conducted partnerships meet students’ academic, health and social service needs. American Educator, 30- 36.

Coalition for Community Schools. (2009). Community schools: research brief.

Coalition for Community Schools. (2010). Community schools- results that turn around failing schools: test scores, attendance, graduation and college-going rates.

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