Time for Mass. to invest in a community schools strategy

Broader services crucial for students in high-poverty communities

STATE LEADERS BEGAN this year with a renewed commitment to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged students. But one proven approach to doing so has not gotten enough attention: community schools.

A community school organizes school and community resources around student success. If the governor and legislators are serious about improving outcomes for all students, they should make it possible for every school serving a disadvantaged community to adopt a community schools strategy.

Policymakers recognize that poverty affects individual students, but current policies fail to address how concentrated disadvantage challenges schools. Communities where poverty is concentrated, typically defined as areas where at least 40 percent of residents are poor, struggle with high unemployment and lack of access to basic necessities, both of which constrain opportunity for social mobility and weaken institutions like schools. Children in school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels behind children in the richest districts, in both reading and math.

Here in Massachusetts, the opportunity gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers are well-documented. But the more significant issue is that disadvantaged students are concentrated in a handful of communities of limited opportunity, many of which were shaped by a legacy of inequitable policies managing housing, transportation, and development.

Thirty-nine school districts serve populations where at least 40 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. Together these districts serve almost 300,000 students, and account for more than half of the state’s low-income students (55.9 percent) and black students (57.4 percent), and two-thirds of the state’s Latino students (64.6 percent) and English language learners (66.2 percent). All of the state-operated schools and districts are among this cohort, and just one of these school districts was meeting performance targets in 2018. Any effort to improve outcomes for these populations at scale must systemically address concentrated disadvantage.

The community schools strategy equips educators to comprehensively address the holistic needs of their students, and overcome the obstacles to learning that arise from concentrated disadvantage. While the needs of a student population determine the specific services and supports a community school provides, the Learning Policy Institute and National Education Policy Center identified four “pillars” common to a community schools strategy: wraparound services, family and community engagement, expanded learning opportunities, and collaborative leadership. Ideally, a site-level community schools director brings these four components together.

A growing body of evidence shows the community schools strategy strengthens conditions for teaching and learning, and ultimately improves student outcomes.

Providing wraparound services has been shown to raise student attendance and mathematics and reading achievement, and decrease grade retention, dropout rates, and chronic absenteeism. Family engagement activities improve student achievement and reduce absenteeism. Expanded learning opportunities improve student attendance, course completion, and behavior. Collaboration supports the development of relational trust and teachers’ sense of efficacy, and deep ties among parents, community members, and educators, all of which are associated with positive student outcomes.

The community schools strategy satisfies the evidence requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), meaning that studies of multiple levels of rigor support the strategy. In fact, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found the only schools that exited Level 4 status had invested in elements of the community schools strategy, and concludes these practices may be essential to school improvement.

Not surprisingly, a growing number of educators are taking up the community schools strategy. The Coalition for Community Schools estimates there are roughly 5,000 individual community schools nationwide. Now systems leaders in communities such as Oakland, Hartford, and New York City are adopting the strategy districtwide and seeing attendance and student achievement rise.

But it is up to state leaders to put the community schools strategy in reach for all schools that need it. By clarifying expectations regarding performance and functioning and providing resources, states set the direction for public school systems. Massachusetts currently funds elements of the community schools strategy, like out-of-school time programming, but this funding is limited, and there is no high-level guidance or technical assistance. State leaders should follow the example of New Mexico or New York, where governors and legislators have passed policy and issued guidance defining the community schools strategy, and provided funding to implement it.

Meet the Author
Leaders in Massachusetts have the opportunity to take similar action now. With the 2020 budget now in the Legislature’s hands, the addition by lawmakers of just $7.8 million would cover modest planning grants for all 39 school districts serving high concentrations of students in poverty. For the long term, the Legislature can account for the cost of coordinating a community schools strategy at the district level by adding a small further amount to the increment for low-income students as they debate revisions to the state’s foundation budget formula.

The need and the research is clear: the state fails students in communities of concentrated disadvantage, and the community schools strategy is a proven way to give all students a high quality education. Aides and analysts on Beacon Hill do not have to search further this legislative session; a century old solution is right in front of them.

Abel McDaniels is a masters’ student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is interning with the leadership team at a full-service community school in Boston.