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Study on Community Schools Raises Policy Solutions and Nostalgia on What Works

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March 05, 2012 02:50 pm

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It isn’t often that I’ll read a research article and find myself getting nostalgic, but reading the recent Center for American Progress study on community schools in Redwood City was a clear exception.  Prior to going to graduate school and coming to work at the Alliance for Excellent Education, I worked as an AmeriCorps member at Fair Oaks Community School in Redwood City.  Each day, as my teammates and I crossed Woodside Road to enter the community where the elementary school resided, we were keenly aware of the challenges the primarily low-income, Latino/a youth and the community faced. Children and families were packed into small houses with very little quiet space to do homework, health challenges were pervasive, and the youth were exposed to violence more affluent peers never had to worry about.

study on community

For those of you not familiar with the concept, community schools use the school as a space to coordinate services provided by community-based partners that address both the academic and non-academic needs that drive student learning. The Center for American Progress study’s findings on the impact of this approach are noteworthy, specifically its finding that English Language Learners (ELLs) in middle school with consistent program participation demonstrated statistically significant gains on English language development scores. The study, Positive Student Outcomes in Community Schools, also finds positive results for all students in the program in the form of greater academic confidence and higher achievement scores in math.

The impressive results of this initiative are not surprising. Education, after all, is not about moving widgets but affecting the dynamics of student learning and effectively leveraging resources and stakeholders to achieve this goal. While I didn’t really understand the intricacies when I was an AmeriCorps member, it is clear to me now. For example, at the community school where I worked, I taught an English as a Second Language (ESL) class to mothers, coordinated a tutoring program between low-level readers and community volunteers, and worked at an afterschool program that helped to connect the phonics students were learning in school to their after school activities. These activities made parents more engaged in the education of their students, helped link in- and out-of-school learning experiences to facilitate student learning, and leveraged community talents to help students succeed.

On a health front, I will never forget the time I found that one of our biggest trouble students was having issues with a large cavity that had caused him pain for a week and getting him dental support.  Once that tooth was pulled, the behavior change in that student was dramatic. That, I found, was the power of community schools. Schools no longer needed to be a silo divorcing themselves from all the other factors that contributed to student learning.

While the Center for American Progress study focused on elementary and middle school students, the findings are consistent with other research about the impact of this more holistic approach at the high school level. For example, an evaluation of the Communities In Schools initiative demonstrates that 98 percent of students in the program who were monitored as potential dropouts in the 2009-2010 school year were still in school at the end of the year.

Indeed, the needs community schools address are very relevant to successful high school education. For example, research shows that compared to older mothers, teen mothers are 10 to 12 percent less likely to complete high school and 14 to 29 percent less likely to attend college. Beyond teen pregnancy, research by Russ Rumberger and others identify a variety of non-academic barriers that drive the dropout crisis. These include family structure and the lack of role models; community characteristics; drug and alcohol use; and other criminal behavior. Research on the achievement gap also points to the importance of non-academic factors such as hunger and nutrition, parent participation and safety.

With these factors in mind, focusing solely on students’ in-school academic needs cannot be seen as a viable option if we are really serious as a nation about reducing the achievement gap and preparing all students for college and career success. Too often we treat these problems as “too messy” and resign ourselves to throwing our hands in the air in a state of hopelessness. The success of community schools demonstrates that there is another option.–and that option may not cost as much as we think.  In many cases, the community partners are already there and ready to provide these services. The community school structure provides the school as a hub to connect students to these resources.

The challenges facing low-income students and students of color are indeed great and should not be underestimated. Fortunately, there are initiatives like community schools with demonstrated success at overcoming these challenges. The question now again is an issue of will.

On my office wall, I have some pictures of the students in Fair Oaks Community School from my time there.  Some of those students are in middle school and some are hopefully entering high school. Can policymakers think beyond the traditional silos of school and community, academic and non-academic challenges that students face?  For their sake and those like them, I hope policy makers can.

Ace Parsi is a policy and advocacy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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