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Community Schools: An Equitable Strategy for School Improvement

Blog: Community Schools: An Equitable Strategy for School Improvement

The Learning Policy Institute Blog sat down with the authors of Community Schools: An Evidence-Based Strategy for Equitable School Improvement, Jeannie Oakes, Anna Maier, and Julia Daniel, to explore how community schools provide students and their families with needed supports and services and can be a strategy for whole-school transformation. This research is particularly timely because states must identify evidence-based strategies for supporting struggling schools as part of their plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Based on their review of over 100 studies, the authors conclude that the evidence supports including community schools as a targeted and comprehensive intervention under ESSA. In this interview, they share key findings on the design, implementation, and impact of community schools.

Q: The new brief, Community Schools: An Evidence-Based Strategy for Equitable School Improvement, identifies four pillars of high-quality community schools. What are those pillars, and why are they important?

JD: Although there is great variation among community schools, our research indicates that four features are critical to achieving student and school success through this model. They are: integrated student supports that include health care and other social services, expanded learning time and opportunities, family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership and practices—both among educators and between educators and family and community partners. Attention is often focused on the integrated services offered by community schools, which are vital to students and families. Our analysis, however, explores the interaction among all four of these features, which we have found to create the conditions that support high-quality teaching and learning and that lead to school success.

What’s most important, within these broad areas, is that the district work with the community and staff to determine the mix of services and supports and the engagement and collaboration practices that are best aligned with local assets, priorities, and needs. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. Implementation—making sure that each component is high functioning and that all of the services and structures work well together—is crucial. One weak link can be a challenge for the whole system and can undermine gains.

“Good implementation” has been defined differently across research studies, which can complicate those wishing to understand and follow best practices. A group of practitioners and advocates convened by the Coalition for Community Schools has developed a shared definition from the field of “good implementation” of community schools. Key features of these draft implementation standards include having a cross-sector team of partners who collaborate closely and share responsibility for student outcomes, using disaggregated data to consider the assets and needs of different student groups when developing community school plans, and putting a coordinating infrastructure in place—including a dedicated full-time manager—to oversee the carefully planned provision of school and community resources.

Q: How did you define “community schools” when selecting studies to include in the review?

JO: This was not always a straightforward process, because community school programs and the language used to describe them can vary. In the end, we chose to classify programs as community schools if they showed evidence of the multiple pillars we identified in our research review as central to this model. We included programs that use “community school” in the name, and programs that did not, but still shared a common approach with other programs in our study. For example, aside from the services offered in the Promise Zone neighborhoods, the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) charter schools have many of our research-based pillars built into their own design, including expanded learning time, free medical, dental, and mental health services; early childhood programming; and family partnership strategies. Therefore, we considered positive school outcomes for the HCZ charters to be in part a function of their community school characteristics.

Q: Do teaching and learning look different in community schools?

JO: There is a prevailing view that the only feature setting community schools apart is the provision of integrated student supports, or wraparound services. What we found in the research is that well-implemented community schools also pay a great deal of attention to teaching and learning during the traditional school day.  For example, they connect academic learning to community projects and community issues—what some people call “community-based learning.” This creates opportunities for deeper or more authentic learning than traditional “skill and drill” instruction, because community-based learning draws on students’ prior knowledge and experiences, engages them in problem- or project-based instruction, and helps them see the connections between academic content and real-world contexts. They also take care to ensure that extended learning time supports and extends classroom lessons.

Q: Why do you describe community schools as an “equitable” model for school improvement?

AM: There are two primary reasons for this characterization. The first is the way in which parents, families, and staff in community schools are engaged in a more equitable process of school improvement. Recent efforts to “turn around” struggling schools in lower-income communities have often resulted in more top-down measures, such as reconstitution (replacing a significant percentage of staff and/or the principal) or school closure. In contrast, a community schools model of school transformation recognizes a community’s assets and needs and engages all stakeholders, including parents, in identifying what will most help students learn, and then in coming together to provide it. Through this process, community schools can provide families with a neighborhood school option that includes high-quality, challenging curriculum and instructional practices and that is grounded in what the community needs and wants. A number of studies show that parents who are engaged in meaningful ways in school structures and decisions can become leaders at the school site. This, in turn, helps shape both the array of services offered at the school and its ability to sustain progress.

Additionally, the characteristics of a community school increase equity by providing children and families with services, supports, and engagement that wealthier parents take for granted, but that are often lacking in schools serving lower-income communities.

Q: Community schools, which have been around for decades, are getting increased attention as states develop their plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). What’s the policy opportunity under ESSA, and how does Community Schools: An Evidence-Based Strategy for Equitable School Improvement provide policymakers and advocates with the information they need to capitalize on this opportunity?

AM: Under ESSA, states are required to develop school improvement plans for the lowest-performing 5% of their schools. ESSA requires that states employ evidence-based interventions and use 7% of their Title I dollars to support these school-improvement efforts. Our research focused on evaluating whether the existing research supports classifying community schools as an allowable evidence-based intervention under ESSA. To answer that question, we analyzed 125 studies against ESSA’s evidence-based criteria. We examined peer-reviewed research from all four tiers of ESSA evidence standards, including thoughtfully designed case studies, comprehensive syntheses of research, and carefully constructed program evaluations. Based on our review, we concluded that well-implemented community schools fit the requirements of an evidence-based intervention, both in terms of comprehensive community school evaluations and in terms of the evidence supporting each of the four community school pillars we identified. Our brief provides policymakers with research-backed recommendations to consider when including this strategy in their state ESSA plans.

Q: What are some of the key benefits of community schools, based on your review of 125 studies?

AM: Studies we reviewed have found community schools to have a positive impact on achievement, attendance, and graduation rates, as well as behavioral and attitudinal outcomes, such as more trusting and positive peer and adult relationships. For example, the City Connects program places coordinators at 18 school sites in Boston to link the schools with community agencies that provide integrated student services like mental health care and intensive academic supports. Boston College launched this program as a school turnaround strategy, and researchers from there have spent years documenting the results, which showed that elementary students scored lower in math and reading than similar peers at the start of the program, but caught up by 4th or 5th grade. The program also helped narrow the achievement gap between English learners and English proficient students by 75% in math and 50% in reading. Moreover, it produces $3 in benefits for every $1 spent.

Q: You mentioned the importance of high-quality implementation. What are the other key lessons for policymakers and others considering adopting a community schools approach to school improvement?

JD: Perhaps one of the most important findings for policymakers is the importance of taking the long view with the community schools model. Districts should not expect to see student achievement gains right away. Instead, they may first see improved attendance or graduation rates before they begin to see improvements in other measures of academic success. This isn’t a strategy that you implement for five years and then stop. It requires an ongoing commitment and sustainable resources.