Insider: The Hot New Schools Cure-All That Isn’t a Cure-All

Forbriger: "Community schools" are a fine idea, but they're also expensive and their effectiveness is unproven.

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

City Council released a proposal last week to create “School-Based Family Service Centers” building on the recent popularity of the community schools concept. It’s the education idea that everyone — including mayoral candidates — can get behind: Jim Kenney announced a goal to create 25 community schools; Doug Oliver’s plan “Homework” calls for bringing City agencies, like health and human services, into schools; and both Senator Anthony Williams’ and Nelson Diaz’ education proposals call for schools to provide “wraparound services.”

And what’s not to love about community schools? Defined as “both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources,” they “integrate academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement.” Supporters make this analogy: a traditional school is like a rotary phone — providing just education services — while a community school is like a smart phone — allowing a school and its community to connect with lots of needed services.

This sounds like a smart idea. So why aren’t we already doing it? The current public narrative about community schools seems to be evading a few key questions:

  1. Do community schools cost money? This is an essential question given the District’s financial situation. In Cincinnati, the city most-cited as a national model, community schools were part of the city’s 10-year, $1 billion Facilities Master Plan. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has championed community schools and committed to opening 100 within his first term. To fulfill this promise, a supportive coalition proposed a funding package calling for $500,000 per school — totaling $50 million over three years. Philadelphia City Council’s proposal appears to rely on current tax dollars by creating new efficiencies, but the School District’s role in coordinating and funding this effort is unclear.
  2. Will outside service providers ease or increase the burden on school staff? National models for community schools — including current efforts in Philly — have used extra staffing in each school to coordinate external partners and providers. In Cincinnati, a full-time “resource coordinator” manages community agencies and partnerships. In Philadelphia, these responsibilities frequently rest on the principals who are already stretched too thin. (Another staffing issue we’ll need to tackle: It’s rumored that some local leaders view community schools as a cost-savings plan, replacing school nurses and counselors with private health and behavioral service providers. Something tells me this doesn’t align with the union’s idea of community schools.)
  3. Do wraparound services improve student learning? Local boosters of community schools frequently point to the model’s success in Cincinnati and Harlem’s Children Zone, but a closer look reveals that student gains can’t be solely credited to the addition of wraparound services. In Harlem, studies show that community programs like parenting classes and after-school activities led to increased learning only “when paired with aggressive school reform efforts.” In Cincinnati, increases in graduation rates are attributed to policies like increased school autonomy, data-driven instruction and student-based budgeting. What’s more, a 2013 New York Times analysis found that since adopting the model in 2006, “many of Cincinnati’s community schools are still in dire academic straits.”
  4. Can this effort detract from the core mission of public schools? The Center on Reinventing Public Education studied Cincinnati’s reforms and found that enthusiasm over community school can lessen the focus on improving educational quality. The researchers wrote, “The special services we saw didn’t touch the core of the school, and they can give people cover to avoid the hard work of managing schools, evaluating instructional staff, seeking and strategically allocating teaching talent, and looking for more effective options.” Locally, we should keep in mind that Superintendent Hite’s 25-point action plan for our schools doesn’t include one reference to “community schools” or “wraparound services” among the dozens of District priorities directed toward improving student outcomes.

Community schools are a sensible policy idea, as is increasing collaboration among the District, city agencies, and health providers. There are several organizations, like PHENND, already leading this work in Philadelphia, and we should learn from their efforts. This is the kind of work that requires a lot of collaboration and cross-sector investment. But we should only ask schools to invest time, energy and dollars in this idea if it will result in putting more of Philadelphia’s disadvantaged students on the path to college and careers. And we should be wary of unintended costs and consequences.

Yes, poverty creates very real challenges to providing a great education to every student in Philadelphia. But wraparound services in schools can’t be viewed as a replacement for the hard work that goes into making sure that well-supported, well-prepared educators are giving students the skills and opportunities they need to learn. More importantly, we can’t make access to a great education conditional on solving all of the challenges created by poverty, especially because we know it’s possible for students to learn and thrive despite those challenges.

Kristen Forbriger is public affairs director at the Philadelphia School Partnership and executive committee member of PhillyCORE Leaders. Follow her on Twitter @kforbriger.