Schools that Support Students’ Whole Lives

Community schools support kids, families, and neighborhoods in their mission to improve education.

Two students wearing blue shirts stand in front of posters in their school.
Photo courtesy of the Children’s Aid Society.

Most of the educational reforms of the past decade have at best produced only modest results, in large measure because they have focused almost exclusively on the instructional side of the teaching-and-learning equation. While strengthening instruction, aligning assessments, and improving teacher effectiveness are all critical elements of school reform, these approaches fall into the “necessary but not sufficient” category.

Recent research from the Chicago Public Schools makes clear that instructional reforms can be successful only when they are combined with family and community engagement and concerted attention to school climate. In a study of 200 high-need K-8 schools in Chicago, researcher Anthony Bryk and his colleagues found, through rigorous analysis of student achievement and other data, that school improvement requires five essential ingredients: strong principal leadership; a student-centered school climate; a coherent curriculum; ongoing teacher collaboration; and authentic family and community engagement. The Bryk team demonstrated, through statistical analysis, the additive value of each ingredient.

A proven strategy for uniting these essential ingredients is community schools—a comprehensive, integrated approach to school improvement that not only promotes student success, but creates stronger families and healthier communities as well.

What Is a Community School?

At its most basic level, a community school is a strategy for organizing school and community resources around student success. This simple definition, offered by Patricia Harvey while she was superintendent of the St. Paul (Minn.) Public Schools, calls attention to several factors: school-community partnerships are central; partners are intentional about organizing their human and financial resources; and there is a clear orientation toward a shared set of results.

Another widely used definition, created by leaders in the community schools field, is this: A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, services, supports, and opportunities leads to improved student learning, stronger families, and healthier communities.

Sometimes called “full-service” or “extended-service” schools, community schools develop an array of partnerships—in the areas of health, social services, academics for children and adults, sports, recreation, and culture—transforming schools into vital neighborhood hubs that benefit students, their families, and the surrounding community.

At the National Center for Community Schools (housed at The Children’s Aid Society, which has run community schools in New York City since 1992), we often say that “a community school is a strategy, not a program,” in an effort to emphasize the long-term and transformational effect of the approach. However, there definitely are key program components that partners contribute to the core work of schools to make them into community schools. Let’s look at them through the work of my organization, Children’s Aid Society (CAS), which is the lead partner for 22 community schools across New York City.

    • In-school, after-school, holiday, and summer enrichment. CAS coordinates out-of-school-time programs to enhance school-day learning and enrich students’ academic experience. These programs combine a careful balance of academics, arts, and physical activity, ensuring that students have a chance to practice their academic skills and apply them in a variety of engaging activities such as chess clubs, book clubs, and hands-on projects. CAS also contributes to school-day learning by convening student town hall meetings, freshman seminars, and study circles, as well as offering health education instruction and, at some sites, teen pregnancy prevention programs. CAS summer camps have been shown to help prevent summer learning loss and to engage children in constructive learning opportunities, often for periods up to 10 hours a day.
    • Medical, dental, mental health, and social services. CAS’s five school-based health centers in Manhattan and its centrally located health services hub in the South Bronx are licensed by New York state to provide comprehensive primary care for students. The goal is to prevent or treat health problems that may act as barriers to learning, facilitate timely, convenient care, and make sure students do not have to miss a day of school—or parents a day of work—to keep a medical or dental appointment. CAS’s on-site mental health clinics provide age-appropriate counseling and offer bilingual services in order to ensure that children and their families have the support they need to address acculturation and separation issues common among new immigrant youth. Confidential reproductive health education and services are provided in CAS middle and high schools during the school day. More than 80 percent of students at CAS’s community schools are enrolled in the school-based health centers.
    • Early childhood education. CAS’s early childhood education for children from birth through age five consists of Early Head Start (a home-based program complemented by regular sessions at the school for infants, toddlers, and their parents) and Head Start (classroom-based program for children ages 3 to 5). Connecting these programs to a community school eases transitions as the child and parent are already familiar with the school and its classroom routine. The program also facilitates early detection of physical and/or cognitive challenges, allowing for interventions that can obviate the need for special education at a later date. Since parental participation is mandatory in early education, parents become not only better equipped to understand the developmental process of their children but also lifelong leaders in their schools. Their involvement enables them to take advantage of the school’s comprehensive services and helps their socialization, as often these parents are recent immigrants with no, or minimal, social networks.
    • Parent and family engagement. CAS community schools work to involve parents and families at all levels, starting as early as possible through vigorous outreach efforts. Parents are treated as true partners in their children’s education. They are encouraged to visit the school often, to learn and socialize, to serve as volunteers or as paid staff, as members of a parents association, and, potentially, as leaders who will advocate for their children and the school. A parent coordinator, a neighborhood resident and leader who speaks the parents’ language, is found in many CAS community schools, as is a well-stocked and friendly parent resource room; together, they communicate a positive, welcoming attitude. Based on the research indicating that students whose parents support, monitor, and advocate for their education are more likely to achieve school success, Children’s Aid considers parent and family engagement to be the responsibility of all staff, not just the parent coordinator.
    • Adult education. Many CAS and other community schools provide parents and other adult residents a wide array of opportunities to further their own education through GED and English as a Second Language courses, job training classes (such as computer or entrepreneurship classes), and college courses conducted in partnership with higher education institutions. These opportunities serve several important purposes: they help parents model for their children the importance of education and lifelong learning, they help newcomers develop positive relationships in their neighborhoods, they build economic and social capital, and they help build public support for public education, particularly when non-parents have positive opportunities in our schools and have a chance to understand firsthand how their tax dollars are benefitting the whole community.
    • Community and economic development. CAS staff reach out to community members—including local community organizations, businesses, elected officials, and faith-based organizations—to involve them in events or discussions and to cultivate them as partners and advocates. These partnerships expand the resources available for the school, improve the students’ and families’ social capital, and engender local support. Area businesses, homeowners, and landlords benefit from the improved school and neighborhood climate and from positive connections with students. Throughout our 23-year history of working in Washington Heights, Children’s Aid has intentionally supported community businesses—for example, by hiring local caterers for school events—and has employed community residents as parent coordinators and as early childhood and after-school staff. More than 50 parents of Early Head Start and Head Start students have become employees of CAS, many having gone to college and graduate school in the process of developing their careers. One result of this purposeful approach is that The Children’s Aid Society has become the second largest employer in the neighborhood, contributing strongly to its economic well-being.
    • Whole school interventions. In addition to the programmatic supports, services, and opportunities offered in many community schools, typical whole school interventions include attention to school-wide issues such as attendance, wellness, and climate. Community schools have been in the forefront of a recent movement to address issues of chronic absence (defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year), with school and community partners developing joint infrastructures (such as attendance teams) to intervene early in problem situations and link students and their families to services that can address the underlying causes of missed school days. Creating a wellness environment can include upgrading the quality of school lunches or making sure that all students have regular physical activity and daily recess, as well as ensuring access to health education and services. In community schools, the partners work together to create a climate that is safe and welcoming for students, families, teachers and other key stakeholders.
    Aligning Human and Financial Resources

    Returning to Patricia Harvey’s definition of community schools as “a strategy for organizing school and community resources around student success,” let us now consider the human and financial resources that can be brought to bear through these efforts. Many models of community schools, including The Children’s Aid Society’s model, incorporate a lead agency partner that brings human resources designed to complement and supplement those of the school—such as a deep knowledge of how to work with families and extensive experience engaging young people in out-of-school-time activities, including after-school programs and summer camps. At Children’s Aid, our school partners often tell us that they particularly value our ability to address students’ social and emotional needs—issues that they are either unprepared for, or have no time, to deal with. Teachers often observe that the partnership with Children’s Aid frees them to teach—because they have professionals in the building with complementary skills to their own.

    A wide variety of community-based organizations serve as lead agency partners in community schools across the country. Some are youth-serving organizations, such as Boys and Girls Clubs or YMCAs; others are multi-service neighborhood groups, such as settlement houses. For example, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago is one of the long-term partners in the Chicago Community Schools Initiative. In the university-assisted model of community schools, institutions of higher education serve as lead agencies, following an approach developed by the University of Pennsylvania over 20 years ago. Effective lead agencies bring a commitment and local knowledge to their work; have strong collaborative skills; and are comfortable playing both a provider (direct service) and broker role, working with other organizational partners in support of students, families, and faculty at the community school.

    Another benefit for schools in having partners like these is their ability to bring additional financial resources into their buildings. Although education dollars such as Title I may provide some of the financial resources for the additional supports, services, and opportunities that are central to the community schools strategy, most of these financial resources come from other sources—often sources that schools cannot access on their own. For example, schools cannot access Medicaid and Child Health Plus dollars without a partner that is a licensed health provider. Similarly, most United Ways and private foundations are reluctant to fund schools directly but are willing to do so when they receive proposals from a well-designed partnership and can allocate their private funding to a nonprofit.

    Although Children’s Aid started our community schools work in 1992 with private funding, we had a long-term strategy that, after a decade, our community schools would be funded equally by public and private sources. Children’s Aid was successful in meeting and exceeding this benchmark. By the early 2000’s, nearly two-thirds of the funding we raised for our community schools came from public sources:

    • Primary funding sources for medical and mental health services are Medicaid and Child Health Plus, sources that Children’s Aid as a licensed medical provider can access.
    • Principal sources for after-school and summer enrichment programs include the Federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, New York State Advantage and Extended-Day programs, and the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development’s Out-of-School Time Initiative.
    • Federal Early Head Start and Head Start dollars support the early childhood programs in three of our elementary schools.

    On the private side, support comes from foundations, corporations, and individuals—some in the form of core support for the community schools and some as restricted funds for particular programs. Community schools have turned out to be easy for donors to understand, and study visits to the schools have helped to translate their conceptual understanding into financial commitments.

    In addition, CAS has worked closely with our New York City Department of Education partners to secure substantial in-kind resources, such as custodial and security services, and to negotiate job-sharing arrangements through which CAS and DOE each pay for half the salary of selected full-time staff members.

    Evidence of Success and Results to Date

    Over the past 20-plus years, a variety of studies have shown that community schools produce academic and non-academic success:

    Academic Performance: A six-year evaluation in the mid-1990s conducted by Fordham University documented steady progress in reading and math at Intermediary School (I.S.) 218 and Public School (P.S.) 5, our first two community schools. A an evaluation conducted by ActKnowledge in 2009, just after the New York City Department of Education began assessing the progress of individual schools in comparison to all city schools and to peer schools, found that CAS community schools produced greater average student achievement gains than peer schools during the previous academic year.

    Attendance: Three separate studies found that students in CAS community schools have higher attendance than students in comparison schools, no matter how the comparisons are made (carefully matched by third-party evaluators, or designated as peer schools by the New York City Department of Education). The 2009 ActKnowledge study found that CAS community schools had “far higher” attendance than peer schools, and that schools with on-site health centers tend to have higher attendance than those without. The Fordham studies also found teacher attendance to be higher at community schools than at comparison schools. When researchers asked teachers why, they said because community schools let them do what they were hired to do: teach their students.

    School Climate: Several studies found the atmosphere of CAS community schools to be markedly different from other schools. They appeared more busy and cheerful, and exhibited few signs of violence or graffiti. Parents, students, and teachers reported feeling welcome and safe.

    Parent Involvement: According to the Fordham University researchers, the dramatic levels of parent involvement in the CAS community schools were among the most significant findings of their six-year study. Parents were more involved, took more responsibility for their children’s school work, felt more welcome within the school, and were observed to be a greater presence in the community schools than in comparison schools. Parents also took advantage of the many services offered to them, such as social services and adult education workshops.

    Mental and Physical Health: A study of mental health services in two CAS middle schools documented improvements on a wide range of mental health problems, showing that a significant portion were resolved within the school year. In addition, students in the study maintained their grade point average—a significant achievement for students facing multiple mental health challenges. Other studies of health services in CAS community schools found dramatic increases in children’s access to quality health care; better student and family management of chronic illnesses, particularly asthma; and improvements in students’ vision (which, according to their teachers, often produces immediate improvements in their behavior).

    Positive Youth Development: Several studies documented that students in CAS community schools—and particularly those who participate regularly in our high-quality after-school programs—report higher self-esteem, school engagement, career aspirations, and sense of responsibility to the community than other young people. Behavioral conduct of elementary school students at a CAS community school improved significantly more than did that of students at a comparable elementary school.

    The Coalition for Community Schools has found similar results through its analysis of community school evaluations nationally. Highlights from the most recent (2013) assessment include robust findings about positive outcomes for students, families, schools, and communities, including improved graduation rates, reduced dropout rates, improved academic achievement, and higher school attendance.

    Given these results, astute readers might ask, “Why isn’t every school a community school?” The fact of the matter is that, in more affluent communities, most schools do in fact operate as community schools. They have strong core instructional programs, they offer a rich array of extracurricular activities during the non-school hours, and they make sure that students have access to needed supports, services, and opportunities. Many charter schools and many private (independent) schools also operate in this way. And when these kinds of opportunities are not actually offered by or in the school, affluent parents seek them out and pay for them. Poor children often don’t have that scenario as an option. So, what we are facing here really is an issue of equity—an issue that involves working collectively to ensure that all children have a fair chance to achieve the American dream.

1 COMMENT

  1. Nice to see a systemic approach to an issue. THIS one seems to hit all the components and nurture each fully yet coordinating them all under one rubric. Housing, schooling, employment or any of the current issues need to abandon the traditional silos approach in our country and follow this model for true social change, effectiveness and reduced cost to tax payer. Example: I don’t imagine there’s a “resource officer” (‘policeman’) in these schools or neighborhood residents using ‘confrontational advocacy’ approaches for school change or failing budgets.

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