The No-Bullshit Guide to Community Schools

A clear-eyed look at the latest education buzzword.

A dentist peered into his two-year-old patient’s mouth and grimaced. Almost all of her teeth were rotten, and he hated to think what would have happened to her health had she not had access to this small dental clinic — a place that, despite its humble proportions and location (three chairs, tucked into a pre-K-12 public school called Oyler Learning Center), serves about 4,000 children a year.

When Philly Mayor-elect Jim Kenney and City Council President Darrell Clarke saw that clinic during a visit last month to Oyler, which is in Cincinnati, they were moved.

A week later, standing in the brightly lit gymnasium at Tanner G. Duckrey School in North Philly, flanked by prominent city leaders, including Superintendent William Hite, School Reform Commission Chair Marjorie Neff, and teachers union president Jerry Jordan, they were ready to rally the room.

“We can’t just wait for Superman. We have to fix this,” Kenney said. In front of a crowd of students and reporters, he formalized his campaign promise to bring 25 community learning centers like Oyler to Philadelphia by the end of his first term.

But what the heck is a community learning center? Is it just a buzzword?

Community learning centers like Cincinnati’s Oyler, also known as “community schools,” function simultaneously as schools and hubs that deliver resources to students, their families, and their neighbors.

At its best, the model is cost-efficient (it relies heavily on businesses, nonprofits and universities to carry service costs), customizable (each school has its own advisory board, which selects resources and chooses partners), and empowering (in Cincinnati, each advisory board annually reviews partner-school outcomes to decide if changes are necessary).

It’s an exchange: Locals get improved access to services that keep them healthy, and community partners get free facilities and a competition-free market.

In Philly, the closest thing we have to a community school is Sayre High School in West Philly, or South Philadelphia High. The first has a strong relationship with the University of Pennsylvania, and the second is led by principal (and Kenney’s soon-to-be Chief Education Officer) Otis Hackney, who has helped it partner with dozens of organizations over the last few years.

How are community schools in Cincinnati working out? 

Oyler doesn’t just have a dental clinic — it also boasts a vision clinic, medical clinic, food bank, mental-health arm and a day care center. And it doesn’t stand alone: Over the last 15 years, Cincinnati has turned every one of its 55 public schools into community schools, transforming the city into a beacon for the community school movement. (Oyler’s offerings are easily the most impressive in the city, so it serves as the movement’s poster child.)

Since Cincinnati began transitioning to the community school model, the prototype has cropped up, among other places, in cities as far-flung as New York, Chicago, Oakland and Portland. Today, an estimated 150 municipalities across the country have community schools.

So Kenney is just the latest in a series of politicians and community leaders to fly to Cincinnati to see Oyler — to stroll its hallowed halls, to better understand it, and above all, to puzzle through how its model can be brought home.

There’s got to be a tradeoff, though. Are community schools expensive?

In Cincinnati, community schools derive most of their funding from the businesses, nonprofits and universities that they partner with. The medical providers involved, for instance, can get reimbursed by Medicaid for their school-related efforts. But the citywide conversion to the community school model didn’t come without a price tag: The operation was fueled by a $1 billion, 10-year budget set-aside by the city to rebuild its schools.

That’s a lot of money. But Kenney’s current plan — at least what we know of it — is less ambitious than Cincinnati’s model. That city created new schools, renovated old ones, and found space in every neighborhood school for services.

Kenney has said his proposal will take about $8 million annually, although Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt told Citified in an email that the administration hasn’t formalized an expected total cost for the project yet. “That will be determined over the transition period and the early months of Jim’s administration,” she said vaguely. She also said it also may require construction, though that hasn’t been pinned down yet either. “We’re in the process of discerning those details as part of the transition,” she said.

Darlene Kamine, executive director at the Cincinnati Community Learning Center Institute and one of the founders of Cincinnati’s community school model, warns that a potentially tricky part of funding community schools is figuring out how to pay “resource coordinators,” the individuals charged with keeping community-school operations running smoothly on the ground. Every community school needs a resource coordinator, she says, adding that the coordinators must be hired by an external institution, rather than the district, to maintain a sense of objectivity.

“That’s the piece financially that’s always the head-scratcher,” says Kamine. “There’s no little shop of resource coordinators anywhere. It’s not like we’re repurposing them.”

Do community schools work?

Kenney’s push for community schools has been met with strong local support, in part, because – let’s face it — many of the district’s schools are in bad shape. And no one really wants to publicly oppose a movement that promises to deliver kids the resources that they desperately need.

But here’s the thing: As Kristen Forbriger, public affairs director at the Philadelphia School Partnership (and a Citified insider), pointed out back in May, there’s no evidence that wraparound services improve academic achievement.

School Reform Commissioner (and longtime Kenney critic) Bill Green has noticed the lack of proof, too, and he has concerns about what it would mean to throw dollars at a schools model before using that money to help schools do their No. 1 job: teach.

“We need hundreds of millions to fulfill [schools’] basic function properly, and we should not spend money on anything else until we get that,” he says. “Not that those services aren’t great. … But I certainly wouldn’t want to divert money that should be going into schools directly to a program that doesn’t demonstrably increase academic outcomes for children.”

Richard Gray, director of community organizing and engagement at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, says it’s important to remember that the community schools model is still in development, a factor that has limited the collection of data.

“There are a range of models that could work, but they have to be adapted to the particular school and context,” he continues. “[The data] is emerging as the model’s emerging.”

Both Gray and Kamine seem unperturbed by the idea that community schools might not lead to increased test scores.* From their perspective, it’s not the most important metric.

Kamine makes the case that experts and leaders should instead pay attention to retention numbers — outcomes like changes in enrollment, attendance and graduation rates. That’s what the model was about from the start, she says — keeping kids in school.

When it was first introduced in Cincinnati, families were fleeing the public school system: A population of 90,000 students in 1970 had plummeted to 45,000 in 1999. The city’s student population has since dwindled further — to about 34,000 — but Kamine insists that the model has increased retention. In 2004, the district projected a 2010 enrollment of 28,000.

“Our question, neighborhood by neighborhood, is, ‘What would it take to send your child to this school?'” she says. “‘What would it take to get people to send their kids to public schools again?'”

*This paraphrase has been clarified since the original publication of this story.