By Kate Shaw
and Della Jenkins
Community schools are receiving increased attention in Philadelphia, at the state level, and across the country as policymakers and practitioners strive to address the effects of poverty on academic performance and provide more comprehensive supports for traditionally underserved populations.
Earlier this month, the long-awaited reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), maintained the three largest federal funding streams available to support extended day services or implementation of a community school model. And for the first time, ESSA explicitly encouraged low-income districts to use Title I funds for integrated student supports and enhanced community partnerships.
In Philadelphia, Mayor-elect Jim Kenney has called for the creation of 25 community schools over the next four years and has tapped South Philadelphia High School Principal Otis Hackney to oversee the effort as his chief education officer. Hackney cultivated many aspects of the community school model at South Philadelphia, including partnering with nonprofits and community groups to expand services for students and their families.
While many advocates and education leaders tout the promise of community schools, skepticism remains, in part due to the scarcity of rigorous research. Because community schools are as unique as the communities they serve, it is difficult to pinpoint which specific strategy or partnership is moving the needle. And with wide variety in implementation and resource levels, consistent evaluation - over time or across sites - is a challenge.
But we do know this: Quality matters when it comes to outcomes.
Overall, findings on community schools are mixed and impacts are generally small. But several models that offer comprehensive, high-quality supports and services have been linked to student achievement gains. For example, a rigorous, five-year, national evaluation of the Communities in Schools model found small but positive effects on reducing dropout rates and increasing graduation rates, as well as increased attendance in all grades. Effects were significantly larger when the model was implemented consistently over time and sites, and services were managed by on-site coordinators. Benefits were also greater for students who received two years of services and when services were targeted at transition points, such as the move from middle school to high school.
We also have strong empirical evidence that several common elements of community schools - extended learning opportunities, school-based health centers, and high-quality child care - have positive impacts. For example, research on school-based health centers (SBHCs) has demonstrated improvements in delivery of preventive care such as immunizations, management of chronic illnesses (e.g. asthma and obesity), treatment of mental-health conditions, and reproductive health services for adolescents. A Seattle study also found that use of SBHC services was related to a one-third lower likelihood of dropping out of high school.
While such services can help better prepare and support students for school, they are not substitutes for high-quality teaching and rigorous academics. Strong community school models emphasize the integration of academic and support services to break down barriers to success and align extended learning with classroom learning. These strategies do not supplant quality curriculum and instruction; they work to amplify the impact.
But it is no easy task to mount and support high-quality community schools. Extended school days and colocation of key neighborhood supports such as health clinics and early-childhood education require commitments to facility modernization, stable, long-term partnerships, and a broad net of public and private financial support.
Foremost among these supports is fair, adequate, and predictable state funding. As an example, it is probably no accident that one of the most celebrated and enduring community school models is located in Cincinnati, as Ohio's approach to school funding is very different from Pennsylvania's. The 2015 edition of "Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card" gave Ohio an A, in large part because the state "recognizes the additional resources required for students in settings of concentrated student poverty." Ohio ranked fifth in the nation on this criterion and provides on average 27 percent more resources per child to high-poverty districts than to low-poverty ones. On the same score, Pennsylvania ranked 40th, earned a grade of D-minus, and systematically provides fewer resources to the districts with the greatest need.
Emerging evidence suggests that community schools can make a real difference for traditionally underserved students, especially when the model is carefully implemented and sustained. And increasingly, policymakers - from Republican members of Congress to Democratic big-city mayors - are acknowledging that the regular school day is simply insufficient to address the out-of-school factors that overwhelmingly determine academic outcomes. But if Pennsylvania is to embrace community schools, Harrisburg will need to take - and stick to - a very different path.
In the meantime, local policymakers must seek out committed partners and diverse funding streams, and look to research from across the country for lessons on the implementation, impact, and sustainability of community schools.