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‘Community Schools’: An Education Reform With Promise

The American Conservative
June 18, 2013

By Gracy Howard

Facing a series of social and academic woes, the city of Oakland is trying a new reform strategy. The Atlantic published an article on Monday detailing how, through its “community schools” initiative, the school district hopes to offer a more holistic education.

“Community schools,” according to The Atlantic and the Coalition for Community Schools, aim to reach beyond the realm of academics and foster students’ growth through “school-community partnerships.” Rather than one all-encompassing initiative or program, a community school focuses on addressing social issues on an individual level: “There’s no one model for community schools. Advocates say each school reflects the particular needs of its students and parents.”

Each school has a “campus resource center” with nurses, therapists, and social workers. The centers provide counseling and support for needy students. Although teachers had mixed reviews, an East Oakland high school principal said these new services have already reduced suspensions.

This is not the first time Oakland has tried a “smaller is better” education reform policy: in 2000, administrators tried breaking 12 large schools into 48 small ones “in order to nurture closer relationships between students and faculty.” Although the effort made promising gains at first, it failed by 2007. One teacher reported “a campus full of disengaged students, an excess of administrators and a cumbersome bureaucracy.”

In contrast, The Atlantic report indicates that community school initiatives have achieved marked success: “Cincinnati, one of the pioneers of the current community schools push, has seen higher test scores and graduation rates since beginning … Community schools in New York, Chicago and other California cities demonstrated improvement on test scores, better attendance and reduced dropout rates compared to traditional schools.”

The “Communities in Schools” network, implemented in 27 states and Washington, D.C., has developed an extensive “integrated student services” program. Each school’s “site coordinator” monitors and helps students on a case-by-case basis, identifying those with academic, social, or health care needs. According to the network’s annual report, “Whether it’s tutoring, eyeglasses, or just a safe place to be after school, when these needs are met, students can concentrate on learning.” Elsewhere in the report, the authors note, “For children to succeed, we must address all of their needs.”

It is a little difficult to imagine one site coordinator monitoring and caring for an entire student body and meeting “all of their needs.” A school, no matter how well-funded or intentioned, cannot be a parent and a home. But in terms of providing basic support, Communities in Schools manages to be efficient, offering an integrated services program at $189 per student. (The program receives $16,992,222 yearly from donations and grants.)

Education reform initiatives often exhibit a mixture of idealism and oversimplification. Reformers fail to realize the complexity and diversity inherent in each situation. Teachers can be flawed, tired, inexperienced, or intimidated. Students are emotionally complex, and often rebellious and stubborn. Without a good dose of realism, reform efforts result in insufficient curricula, irrelevant academic programming, and implausible expectations.

However, a possible benefit of the community-based program is that, despite its ambitious idealism, it still contains specificity. It strives to create ties and accountability within a particular place. After all, the strength of smallness is community. Relationships and intimacy are dependent on people, not programs.