Community Schools Strategy Focuses on Results

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With talk of education reform picking up as we near the Fall elections, it seems worthwhile to look again at results from the implementation of Community Schools across the country. Public discussions about voucher systems, high-stakes testing and teacher evaluations are commonplace these days, but the rationale or evidence behind these ideas are not always so clear cut. The Community Schools strategy, however, is rooted in a very solid base of theoretical and empirical evidence.

The theory underlying community schools is drawn from multiple professional disciplines, including child and adolescent development, parent and family engagement, school improvement, coordinated services, the resilience literature and out-of-school time (among others). This research base has been outlined by the National Center for Community Schools—most recently in our new book, Building Community Schools: A Guide for Action—as well as by the Coalition for Community Schools in several of its highly regarded publications. Meanwhile, the empirical evidence supporting the community schools strategy has gotten stronger and stronger over the past 20 years.

Based on the National Center’s work across the country and our observation of the growing body of evidence about the effectiveness of community schools, we focused our entire national community schools Practicum conference (Fall 2011) on examining the latest results of community school initiatives. The following highlights were presented at the conference:

City Connects (CCNX), an initiative of the Boston Public Schools and Boston College, is making an impact on students through an evidence-based approach to providing student support services. The program targets four areas of student strength and need: academic; social/emotional; health; and family. All students in each CCNX school are assessed at the beginning of the school year by their teachers and CCNX staff and receive a customized student support plan that builds on their strengths and addresses their unmet needs. These plans draw on both school and community resources, and families are engaged as partners in developing and implementing the support plans. A research team at Boston College has documented a host of positive outcomes, including major gains in student academic achievement and other aspects of “student thriving,” especially for those students who are most at risk, including English language learners. With an estimated cost of less than $500 per student, this model of comprehensive and integrated services is gaining national recognition and is beginning to be implemented in cities and districts beyond Boston.

Another recent study, also conducted by a university partner, documents the positive effects of children’s participation in the Tulsa Area Community Schools Initiative (TASCI). Conducted by Dr. Curt Adams of the University of Oklahoma at Tulsa, this study examined achievement in 18 Tulsa-area community schools as compared to 18 equivalent non-TASCI schools. TASCI schools showed stronger student achievement and school capacity, higher levels of collective trust and more robust human and social capacity. Through building a culture of trust, TASCI schools were able to shape relationships between teachers, students, parents, administrators and mentors in a positive and engaging way, leading to a more effective learning environment. The TASCI study also noted the importance of principals as the engine for reform diffusion—principals drove the change and inspired their colleagues to participate and engage. This, along with a commitment to collective responsibility and frequent and open communication, helped support and sustain the community school model in Tulsa. This study also highlighted the value of community schools as an approach to promoting equity. Like the City Connects study, the TACSI study found the greatest positive change among the neediest students.

Echoing these findings, Communities in Schools (CIS) noted in their October 2010 National Evaluation that the CIS model of integrated services in schools, when implemented with fidelity, leads to “substantive improvements in school and student-level outcomes.” Strong leadership, sound business practices, support across networks, and school and teacher support were all found to be necessary for stable and sustained implementation of the CIS model. These intentionally targeted services and resources provided by schools did indeed result in positive student impacts—and CIS found that outcomes continuously improve throughout multiple years of services.

The Children’s Aid Society has commissioned a variety of studies of our community schools over a 20-year period, and the findings of the studies completed as of 2011 are also reported in Building Community Schools: A Guide for Action. Current studies are examining the results of young adolescents’ participation in high quality after-school programs in six CAS community schools (a follow-up to a 2004-7 study); and the social return on investment of CAS community schools. Our research partners—ActKnowledge and The Finance Project—both presented at the Fall 2011 Practicum conference. The middle school study will be completed in 2013 and the social return on investment study will be completed later this year. We look forward to contributing the findings from these two studies to the growing body of evidence about the effectiveness of the community schools strategy nationwide.