This article is adapted from David L. Kirp’s Healthy, Wealthy and Wise: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives.
One fine spring day a few years back, a society matron and prospective donor toured the Salomé Ureña community schools at the northernmost tip of Manhattan, in Washington Heights, with her twentysomething son in tow. Although the young man had gone to a top prep school, he marveled at what he saw—classes taught by City University of New York professors that offer students nearly two years’ worth of college credits; one-on-one tutoring; a clinic delivering everything from eye exams to orthodontia; an after-school program whose riches include dance lessons led by members of the New York City ballet corps and Chinese cooking lessons; summertime academics and explorations; even some evening classes for adults that his mother might want to take.
"I wish I’d had a school like this," the young man said.
Almost unnoticed amid the bitter, protracted debate about standardized testing, teacher accountability and charter schools, a nationwide movement embracing the "community school" philosophy of Salomé Ureña is well under way.
These schools break the traditional six-and-a-half-hour-day, 180-days-a-year mold, with programs before and after school, as well as on weekends and during the summer. They supplement academics with medical care and social services. They involve parents as learners and teachers. And they partner with high-asset city agencies, community groups and businesses, attracting new funds to the schools while connecting students to the universe beyond the schoolhouse door. Community schools are up and running in at least forty-four states and the District of Columbia. A host of city school systems, including Baltimore, Portland, Cincinnati and Tulsa, have bought into the concept; and in England, Scotland and the Netherlands, such schools are part of the national education strategy.
In the summer of 2007 Barack Obama announced that he was so impressed by what Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic leader of Harlem Children’s Zone, had accomplished with the cradle-to-college "conveyor belt" approach that he pledged "several billion dollars" to replicate it in twenty sites across the country. A modest down payment, $10 million in planning grants for "Promise Neighborhoods," is now on the table. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also counts himself a believer. When he was CEO of Chicago’s public school system, Duncan converted 150 schools into community schools. "What we tried to do was…to put some of our money together—some private sector money, some philanthropic money together," he said in a speech last fall at a Children’s Aid banquet. "It was easily the best leveraged money we spent. For every dollar we spent, we were getting back five, six, seven dollars from the business community, from nonprofits, from the social service agencies, from the state, the federal government." Alongside charter schools, Duncan saw community schools as integral to the multibillion-dollar Race to the Top initiative.
Not everyone is smitten. In a U.S. News & World Report column in the spring of 2009, Joel Klein, the tough-love chancellor of New York City’s public schools, mocked "the favored solution du jour…to reduce the handicap of being poor by establishing full-service health clinics at schools…expanding preschool programs, and offering after-school services"—in other words, community schools. "No single impediment to closing the nation’s shameful achievement gap looms larger than the culture of excuse," Klein claimed.
Actually, all the evidence points the other way—the initiatives Klein derides are critical to academic success. The amount of time that youngsters spend hanging out on street corners after school is a better predictor of academic failure than family income or race. On the other side of the ledger, students who get involved with after-school and summer projects have higher math and reading scores than their "gone at 3 pm" classmates. Their attendance records are better, and so is their behavior. Growing up in a "school-like family," where parents take an active interest in their children’s schoolwork, has a sizable effect on achievement, sociologists Esther Ho Sui-Chu and Douglas Williams report: "Big gains in achievement could be realized through programs that give parents concrete information about parenting styles, teaching methods and school curricula." The research shows that at top-notch community schools fewer students are suspended and fewer drop out. The achievement gap shrinks, and more youngsters go to college.
When these schools are well run, they can alter the arc of children’s lives. Some of the best are located in New York City—twenty-two public schools in Washington Heights, Harlem and the South Bronx, Salomé Ureña among them, run by the Children’s Aid Society in tandem with the New York City public school system.
"We didn’t want an easy neighborhood," says Pete Moses, who headed Children’s Aid until 2009; and in the early 1990s, when the agency’s community schools program was getting off the ground, Washington Heights was the biggest drug distribution center in the Northeast. "We didn’t go into these schools as reformers with a solution," says Moses. "We asked everyone, ‘What is your dream?’ and we told them, ‘We’re here to stay.’ No one believed it, but we’re still there. We are powerful because we don’t turn over."
In the Children’s Aid model, doulas coach expectant mothers, supporting them during delivery as well as in the weeks after childbirth. Parents can enroll in courses that not only hone their parenting skills but also make them savvier job seekers and more knowledgeable about the life of the schools. "When we talk with parents, we talk about practicing ‘discipline and love,’ not ‘discipline and fear,’" says Erica Quezada, education director of Early Head Start at PS 8, a Children’s Aid primary school. Designed for infants and toddlers, the federally funded program combines classroom instruction with outreach to families. "Much of the learning about parenting emerges from what’s happening while we’re making home visits," says Quezada.
Two teachers and seven parents sit in a circle with their infants and toddlers in the Early Head Start class that I visit. It’s music time, and as one teacher, Patricia Jimenez, strums the guitar, the other, Carmen Gonzalez, shakes a tambourine. The kids sing in their first language, English or Spanish, and clap to the beat. In the Head Start class where I go next, most of the toddlers are busily making collages during their "free time," but one boy, Joseph, is off in another world. Quezada knows him intimately. "I was the doula, and I’ve followed Joseph ever since," she says, chronicling the family history. "He has speech issues, doesn’t shift well from one activity to another. He doesn’t pay attention. The parents came from Ecuador, and the teacher goes on home visits to do some planning with them."
For babies with developmental delays, Children’s Aid is running an intensive pilot program, with a teacher for each of the toddlers and his or her parents. It costs the moon, but there’s a big payoff: an initial evaluation shows that within seven months these babies are starting to catch up with their peers.
Transitions are effortless at PS 8. Early Head Start is down the corridor from the Head Start and state preschool classrooms, and kindergarten classes are across the hall. (The only discernible difference is that the kindergartners wear uniforms.) The preschool kids are usually at the top of their class, boasts Arnery Reyes, Children’s Aid director at PS 8.
In sixth grade, many of these youngsters will enroll in Salomé Ureña Middle School. That building, like many in New York City, has been divided into three small schools, and the community schools program sustains them all. One of these small schools, the former middle school, has had its share of academic problems, but another, City College Academy of the Arts, has earned "A" grades on Klein’s report card for the past two years. A partnership with City College brings in professors to teach classes in writing, art history and chemistry, and every ninth grader takes college-level Spanish. Some classes are held on the City College Washington Heights campus; there, the students can glimpse a future very different from what they might have imagined.
Space is at a premium at Salomé Ureña—the corridors are jampacked between classes, the classrooms too small to fit everyone comfortably—but none of the principals think about reclaiming territory by kicking out community schools. On the contrary—within minutes of my arrival, it becomes plain that the staff relies on the program for support. As I walk down the corridor, June Barnett, principal of Salomé Ureña, buttonholes psychologist Roy Laird. "Joey’s out of control," she says. "Can you see him immediately?"
Teachers and Children’s Aid staffers are so well integrated, says Migdalia Cortes Torres, who runs Salomé Ureña’s program, that it’s hard to tell who’s who. Students who are having a rough time can see a psychologist in a clinic that, with its comfortable sofas, feels like a family room, where parents can also meet with a social worker to sort out their child’s problems. There may be a shooting down the block from the school, or ICE, the immigration enforcement agency, may have deported the parents while the kids remain behind—whatever the issue, the community school’s staff is on top of it.
Jane Quinn, who directs the National Center for Community Schools and runs a national training center for interested school districts, sees life inside the school in terms of a "developmental triangle." There’s the core instructional program; the academic, social, cultural and recreational enrichment offerings, designed to expand students’ opportunities for learning; and the support services that can remove barriers to learning. "The image of the triangle is meant to emphasize the connections among these three legs," Quinn says, and those connections are obvious at Salomé Ureña. Children’s Aid doesn’t just share space in this overcrowded building—it is embedded in the school’s quotidian life.
At every community school I visit, parents and residents are a constant, taken-for-granted presence. Over the years, Children’s Aid has offered scores of adult classes, from English as a second language to a domino tournament, a popular Dominican tradition. When parents whose first language is Spanish or Arabic or Bengali meet with their child’s teacher, the organization secures translators. The nonprofit has recruited lawyers to counsel parents with immigration woes and helped families threatened with eviction to avoid homelessness. Children’s Aid is the second-biggest employer in Washington Heights, heavily recruiting its staff from the neighborhood; and because it has been there for more than a generation, some staffers have grown up in the system. Erica Quezada at PS 8 started as a high school student who tutored middle school kids after school. She never left.
There’s no cookie-cutter version of community schools. At the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, which draws 1,700 students from the five boroughs to its East Harlem site, the main goal is to keep these bright kids on track for graduation and college. Typically they’re the first generation in their families to think about going to college, and they need help in getting there. As ninth graders, many of them arrive at Manhattan Center unprepared for its rigors and consequently flunk some of their courses. That’s an all-too-reliable predictor of dropping out.
Together with Manhattan Center teachers, the Children’s Aid team devised a freshman seminar that helps students manage stress and acquire the self-discipline needed to study. The school’s freshman failure rate dropped from 36 percent to 24 percent after the first year of the seminar program, and school systems nationwide are exploring the model.
The students at Manhattan Center have a major voice in planning what happens after school. Children’s Aid has made them a deal—if ten kids sign up for a club, the nonprofit finds and pays for an adviser. That’s how the hip-hop dance club came into being, as well as the knitting club that a group of boys requested. Other projects, like peer tutoring (which relies on the top students to help their classmates), emphasize academics. Children’s Aid encourages kids to explore possibilities in higher education, paying to keep the college office at the school open long hours and taking students to see university life firsthand. The aim is to bring higher education within psychological reach, so that earning a BA seems less like an impossible dream.
Even as Joel Klein was fulminating about the culture of excuse, school officials recruited Children’s Aid to help design a new school, the High School for Excellence and Innovation (HSEI), which could turn around the city’s hardest-to-reach teens. That’s a mighty tall order. These students are 16 and 17. By rights they should be starting their junior or senior year; instead they are entering ninth grade. Many came to HSEI reading at a third-grade level, and half have been labeled "special education" youngsters. Such teens are near-certain bets to drop out and likely candidates for the prison track. Enter Children’s Aid. "We’re not just involved after school—more and more we’re part of the school day," says Richard Negrón, who runs the New York City program.
HSEI opened last fall in unpromising temporary quarters—two floors of a tired-looking building that has no gym or library, no cafeteria or health clinic—but bright paint and walls festooned with students’ written work do wonders. "In September we couldn’t have been sitting here having this conversation," principal Tyona Washington tells me. "There was too much craziness." Over the course of the year the change has been remarkable. "It was ‘Fuck this’ and ‘Fuck that’ when they arrived; now it’s ‘Good morning, Tyona.’" These adolescents aren’t cutting school—attendance is at 84 percent, considerably better than at other schools with similar students—and they’re coming on time.
Washington gives a lot of the credit to Children’s Aid. "It’s a 24/7 collaboration…a great marriage," she says. "We’re creating an environment for learning and growth, not making excuses." Trips to leafy suburban campuses have got some of these kids strategizing to improve their grades so that they can go to college. "I’ve got a 79," volunteers one boy. "I need to get my average up six points." I drop in on a seminar where a Children’s Aid staffer is leading a discussion of Robert Frost’s "The Road Not Taken." None of the students had ever heard of the poet ("He was the one who made Frosted Flakes," jokes one), and the poem is hard to absorb when you hear it for the first time. Yet its pivotal lines—"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference"—become the launching pad for these students to talk about the meaningful choices they make "every day," and their hard-knock lives punch up the conversation.
"If I didn’t come here every day," one boy says, "all my goals would go down the toilet."
It’s logical that youngsters’ test scores will improve if you give them the help they need and get their parents interested, and evaluations back up the anecdotes of accomplishment. In a study conducted during the 1990s, Fordham University researchers concluded that the Children’s Aid schools had better reading and math test results, higher attendance rates and more parent involvement than comparable public schools. Teachers’ attendance improved as well, presumably because they were less stressed, and relations between students and teachers were better. A 2005 evaluation found 25 percent fewer special education referrals than at similar schools, a key measure of future success. Progress measured in test scores exceeded the citywide average in reading by significant margins, and the schools showed far higher attendance than peer schools. The more time the youngsters spent in the after-school and summer programs, the better they did academically.
Those figures are impressive—they’re a big reason Children’s Aid is Exhibit A for the community schools movement—but they don’t tell the entire story. "Evaluating such schools is very hard, because there are so many moving parts," says Samuel Whalen, research director for the doctoral program in urban leadership at the University of Illinois, who has been following the community school experiment in Chicago for years. What’s the right metric of success: whether the schools’ reading and math test scores improve and students are on track to graduate? Whether a youngster can get a needed pair of glasses or a dental filling? Whether large numbers of kids are staying after school to learn how to sculpt or to bone up on math?
Education reform in the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top pivots on reading and math tests. Community schools are committed to literacy and numeracy, but they also pay attention to less readily measurable outcomes like health, creativity and community service. The question isn’t which approach is right—what parent would make such a choice?—but how to blend them effectively. Pitting academics against the rest of children’s lives makes for a false dichotomy.
"The ‘no excuses’ rhetoric is a reaction to a real problem—decades of failed education policy," says Richard Buery, president and CEO of Children’s Aid. "But it’s an overreaction, because it makes an enemy of a strategy that is no enemy of academic rigor. Unless a school has excellent leadership and teaching, we can’t be successful. But you need to pay attention to more than cognition. You have to treat a child as a human being, not as a collection of characteristics."
With school systems across the country drowning in red ink—New York City has announced that it’s laying off 8,500 teachers, and that Children’s Aid summer programs for middle school kids will be canceled—all eyes are on Washington. The Obama administration has made education a priority. Its 2011 budget calls for spending $49.7 billion, an increase of 6 percent at a time when cuts are widespread. But how will that money be spent? The Education Department has so far been better on rhetoric than dollars for community schools—$10 million in planning grants to Promise Neighborhoods this year and a possible $210 million next year, not much more than a rounding error in the department’s budget. "Money goes to where the crises are," says Buery. "People aren’t against us—it’s just not the priority."
Still, with solid evidence of their effectiveness and mounting political support, community schools should be a big part of the revamped No Child Left Behind Act. These academies of learning and life make for healthier, happier and more engaged students; build social capital; generate lots of money for the schools; and connect parents—what’s not to like? Going down this road, rather than obsessing about test scores, is the most promising way to bridge the achievement gap and strengthen the public schools.