Are Community Schools the Future of Education Reform?
When Latoya Ramjit struggles to make ends meet, she turns to a food pantry that provides milk, juice, cereal, fresh fruit and vegetables, and even cleaning supplies and hygiene products. She doesn’t have to travel far, because it’s at her daughter’s elementary school, P.S. 67, just steps from their apartment in the Fort Greene community in Brooklyn, New York. Ramjit, who’s president of the PTA, helped found the pantry four years ago, certain it would become indispensable at a school where 99% of students are low-income and some are homeless.
The food pantry at P.S. 67, also known as the Charles A. Dorsey Community School, is stocked by the Food Bank for New York City. This relationship, along with an alliance with Partnership with Children, which provides wraparound services including mental health care, has helped transform P.S. 67 from a failing school in danger of closing to a thriving community school that’s a hub of services for students, their families, and the neighborhood.
The idea behind community schools is that poverty, housing instability, trauma, and subpar health care impede students’ ability to learn, so schools must mindfully address these challenges. While about 5000 community schools exist nationwide, they’re most prevalent in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the $200 million Community Schools Initiative in 2014 with the goal of creating 100 community schools. Over time, they’ve grown to 267 schools serving 135,000 students in low-income areas. According to a three-year study by the Rand Corporation released in January, they’re working.
Community schools are improving graduation rates and math scores, while reducing chronic absenteeism and disciplinary incidents. And they’re expanding across the country.
This particular reform is a departure from the punitive accountability, standardized testing, and school choice education reforms of the past 20 years that have disregarded poverty’s impact on test scores, shut stakeholders out of the decision-making process, applied market solutions to schools that function on the basis of human relationships not profits and losses, and diverted funding from public schools to privately managed charter and voucher schools. In her new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, education policy analyst and historian Diane Ravitch illustrates that these corporate education reforms have resulted in stagnant test scores, a narrowed curriculum, attacks on teachers, and public school closures, which devastate communities.
Since becoming mayor in 2014, de Blasio has moved away from his predecessor Mike Bloomberg’s tactic of closing low-performing public schools and replacing them with smaller schools and new staff. Though Bloomberg touted a 42% increase in graduation rates as a result of his reforms, his claim deserves greater scrutiny. A veteran teacher in Upper Manhattan who asked to remain anonymous recalled that credit recovery programs were rampant during Bloomberg’s regime. Pressured to increase graduation rates, administrators persuaded students to make up a year’s worth of failed classes by doing a worksheet packet, writing a few essays, and taking online quizzes where they could easily look up the answers. “After they submitted this mediocre work to their teachers, we were told to pass them,” the teacher said. It resulted in the high graduation rates Bloomberg is publicizing in his bid for the White House.
It’s emblematic of a corporate education reform movement that’s tall on rhetoric but short on results. However, a resistance is growing across the country: Parents are opting their kids out of standardized testing, communities are protesting the closing of neighborhood schools, and stakeholders are marching with striking teachers for better funding in the Red for Ed movement. The expansion of community schools can be considered part of this resistance, and their common-sense approach of providing wraparound services and prioritizing stakeholder engagement are precisely what Ravitch and other experts advocate for. In fact, a deal to create 30 community schools was in the agreement that ended the LA teachers’ strike a year ago.
During de Blasio’s January 28 news conference at P.S. 67 to celebrate the findings of the Rand report, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said that community schools happen “in an organic way, not to the community but with the community.” Echoing the importance of stakeholder involvement, PTA president Ramjit said, “The adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is true here at P.S. 67,” noting that more parents have gotten involved with the school since it became a community hub. In addition to the food pantry that’s open to families twice a month, the school also offers students onsite dental exams, vision screenings, and an asthma case manager.
Each community school forms an alliance with a community-based organization that addresses its unique needs. For P.S. 67, that organization is the aforementioned Partnership with Children, which stations a community director at the school to concentrate on attendance issues and parental involvement, allowing Principal Kyesha Jackson to focus on academics. Partnership with Children also provides social workers and counselors who connect families to legal and housing resources. Furthermore, they run in-class workshops that help students navigate their feelings, which helped Ramjit’s daughter overcome her shyness. And they provide individual counseling and group therapy that uses art to work through trauma.
The focus on mental health is grounded in neuroscience, according to PWC’s CEO Margaret Crotty. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University found that the trauma of food insecurity, homelessness, violence, and other adversities causes chronic stress. Without intervention, chronic stress becomes toxic stress, a neurological condition affecting the parts of the brain that enable kids to focus on their studies and behave in school. The Harvard center found that toxic stress can lead to depression, substance abuse, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic illness later in life. A preventive measure is connecting students to social workers who provide consistent, nurturing care.
This whole child approach tackles physical, socio-emotional, and academic needs equally. While benefiting individual students, it also addresses systemic concerns. For example, restorative discipline practices such as positive reinforcement, talking circles, and community building instead of zero-tolerance policies including suspensions and expulsions create a supportive school culture, according to Derek Anello, PWC’s VP of Programs. They also mitigate the chance that students will end up in the school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to the punitive discipline that starts in pre-K and pushes kids out of school, onto the street, and into the criminal justice system. Boys of color and those with special needs are disproportionately affected, but girls of color also face biased disciplinary action.
Community schools also emphasize attendance. Obviously, students have to be present to learn, but it goes deeper than that. When kids are absent a lot, chances are there’s trouble at home: Perhaps a family’s been evicted or there’s no heat in their apartment in the dead of winter. By identifying these issues, community directors are able to connect families to services that can help them. Conversely, when attendance is up, it’s sometimes the result of enrichment classes that students enjoy, which informs the school’s decision to offer more of them.
That’s because community schools prioritize student engagement. During the news conference at P.S. 67, Mayor de Blasio asserted, “Kids enjoy school and can’t wait to get there!” referring to classes such as art and robotics that spark creativity, and Freedom School, a summer literacy and cultural program that helps children avoid summer learning loss. This is a response to the standardized testing craze that forced schools to “teach to the test,” crowding out untested subjects and killing kids’ joy for learning.
“Our children are more than just scores; they’re human beings,” Councilman Mark Treyger, a former teacher, declared, implying that focusing primarily on tests is dehumanizing. Historian Ravitch has gone even further, calling it educational malpractice on numerous occasions.
Encouragingly, math and English scores are up at P.S. 67, as are attendance rates. Meanwhile, discipline incidents are down. Across the 113 (out of 267) community schools Rand studied over three years, it found improvements in attendance, math scores, and graduation and promotion rates. Among elementary and middle community schools, disciplinary incidents were down compared to non-community schools. Furthermore, behavioral incidents declined among Black students and students with disabilities. But disciplinary incidents among high school students didn’t decline. And while math scores improved, English scores did not. Still, the results are promising enough for Treyger to declare, “Every school should be a community school.”
The key to making this happen is patience, combining community schools with other programs, and a financial investment mixed with careful implementation. When a reporter asked de Blasio about the lack of progress in English scores, he explained that change happens slowly—child by child and school by school. Furthermore, he was confident that the collaboration with other programs such as Pre-K for All, 3-K for All, Computer Science for All, and AP for All will continue to move the needle. But careful execution is vital: An earlier initiative, Renewal, was rolled out haphazardly and failed to produce the desired results despite its $773 million cost. Still, money is essential—without proper funding, good outcomes are impossible in NYC or anywhere else.
“Our kids have endless potential,” de Blasio said. “If we help them tap it, they have endless potential.”
Florina Rodov is a former public school teacher who has written for The Atlantic, CNN, Shondaland, and others. She’s working on two books.