Features

School-Community Partnering

Turf struggles can be overcome to provide a full array of services to students and families by Priscilla Pardini

When Jorge Izquierdo was named acting superintendent of New York City's Community School District 6 late last fall, he took on a big challenge: running 27 schools in the city's Washington Heights neighborhood. The area, which includes northern Manhattan and Harlem, serves mostly low-income, immigrant families. Yet Izquierdo soon realized that at five of those schools he had a lot of help.

From early in the morning until late at night, six days a week and 12 months a year, students and their families could count on the schools for medical and dental care, mental health counseling, immigration advice, food and housing assistance and legal aid. Parents could sign their children up for before- and afterschool activities, summer day camps and early childhood programs. They could enroll themselves in a wide range of adult education classes.

"I have to say, I was really impressed," Izquierdo says. "I wished I had had all those services at my school when I was a principal."

In all, nine such schools—known as community schools—operate in New York City under a partnership between the New York City Board of Education and The Children's Aid Society. Jane Quinn, assistant executive director for Community Schools at the Children's Aid Society, says the goal of the partnership was twofold: to remove barriers that keep students from learning and to provide the kind of educational and cultural enrichment activities often lacking in schools located in impoverished neighborhoods. "We're there to supplement the school's core instructional program, and to bring human and financial resources to the table as a long-term, committed partner," Quinn says.

For Izquierdo's five schools that commitment has meant an investment of roughly $50 million over the last 10 years. Researchers at New York City's Fordham University, who have spent the last six years studying two community schools in Washington Heights, say it is paying off. Student attendance and academic achievement are higher and suspension rates lower than at comparable New York City schools. In addition, parents say they feel comfortable in their children's schools. As a result, they are more involved in their children's education.

To Izquierdo, the reason is obvious. "You can talk about raising test scores all you want, but until you do something concrete to meet children's most basic needs, you can't begin to deal with instructional issues."

A Daunting Task

To be sure, the Washington Heights community school model, one of the most comprehensive in the country, was designed as a prototype to demonstrate virtually everything community schooling has to offer. In addition, the Children's Aid Society, an organization with a long and proven track record in the area of child and family welfare, affords Community School District 6 a level of support unlikely to be matched by many other agencies.

Yet even experts in the field of community schooling say the job of putting such programs together is daunting. "These multifaceted projects are very complicated and can be hard to manage," says Stan Wellborn, director of external affairs at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.

Through its Making Connections initiative, the foundation is building connections at the neighborhood level between schools, churches and health care agencies in 22 communities around the country. Helping guide the project are a series of lessons learned from the foundation's New Futures program, which in the late 1980s underwrote collaborative projects aimed at integrating education, employment, health and human services. According to Wellborn, most projects failed to accomplish their goals, and only the one in Little Rock, Ark., exists today.

"One thing we learned is that these efforts take a lot of upfront planning and a lot more oversight and direction than we realized," Wellborn says.

A 1995 evaluation of the program says, "True integration at the service-delivery level … requires unprecedented commitments by school boards, child welfare agencies, and other youth-serving institutions to subordinate their traditional authority over critical functions including budgeting, staffing and resource allocation in favor of collective decision making."

Growing Movement

Yet despite such cautions, the number of school-community partnerships nationwide is soaring as school leaders capitalize on the potential benefits that can be gleaned from bringing schools, parents and community agencies together to help students learn. Their goal: to develop "community," "full-service" or "extended-service" schools that deliver not only educational excellence, but also a menu of social services tailored to the needs of individual communities.

"Nothing substitutes for what happens in the classroom," says Marty Blank, staff director of the Coalition for Community Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that promotes community education. "But more and more school districts are realizing that outside partners can help create conditions in schools that make them more conducive to learning."

Some examples:

* The Missoula County, Mont., school district has teamed up with a number of partners, including the local United Way and the Western Montana Mental Health Clinic, to develop initiatives designed to help students at risk of doing poorly in school become responsible and productive citizens. Specifically, the collaborative effort has provided the schools with mental health services, family resource centers, on-site child care, bullying prevention and community service programs and mentoring. Teachers and administrators report that the students involved in the programs the longest are demonstrating the biggest improvement in attitude and behavior.

* In Tukwila, Wash., a social worker from the county's Department of Social and Health Services has worked for years out of a local school in order to be more accessible to the students and families she serves. Also operating out of schools are counselors employed by several nonprofit community-based agencies. Other partnerships provide students with on-site tutoring and parents with Saturday morning training programs. School district data reveal that as such services increase, so do student test scores.

* An extended school-day program in Central Falls, R.I., provides after-school, weekend and summer programs specifically designed to boost academic achievement. The effort was the result of myriad collaborations with small, local agencies, such as the local chapters of the YMCA and Boy Scouts, several Hispanic social service agencies and the City of Central Falls. Money from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund allowed the district to expand the number of schools offering the program from three to seven. School officials say students participating in the program miss less school and earn higher grades than those who do not.

Neighborhood Anchors

The origins of today's community schools can be found in the neighborhood improvement and child welfare missions of the settlement houses of the 1880s and the Lighted Schoolhouse movement of the 1930s, which saw progressive educators begin to open their buildings to the public after hours.

Most school districts over the years have endorsed the concept of the school as a neighborhood anchor. School buildings long have housed adult education classes and recreation programs, hosted community events and served as polling places. School officials also have been open to partnerships, teaming up with local businesses, for example, to improve classroom technology or introduce students to the world of work. In time, as increasing numbers of children were found to be at risk of school failure, other local organizations signed on to help schools "fix" their problems.

In the last 10 to 15 years, however, interest in such partnerships has grown at unprecedented rates. "As more and more pressure is brought to bear on schools to increase achievement, there is an increasing realization that schools simply can't do it all alone," says Joan Wynn, a research fellow at the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. "Most students who are struggling to succeed in school don't just have learning problems. They may be living in poverty or be sick or have parents who are unemployed or abusive. All these things come together in the life of a child, and the social service and health care providers and school personnel are beginning to understand that responding to problems in a comprehensive way holds greater promise for success."

Sid Gardner, director of the Center for Collaboration for Children at California State University at Fullerton, believes today's community-school partnerships differ from those of the past in that they reflect a keener sense of the devastating effects of noneducational barriers to learning, such as poverty, poor health or an unstable home life. "The greatest curriculum, the best teacher, the most beautiful school building in the world can't make up for the lack of a caring adult in the life of the kid in foster care who is bouncing from placement to placement," Gardner says.

Community school programs that include a day-care component, for example, reflect heightened awareness of the importance of quality child care for children from birth to three years of age. "That's because we now have a much better notion of the correlation between continuity of care during early childhood and school readiness," Gardner says.

Wider Options

Today's community school initiatives take many forms. Some are oriented toward solving the multiple problems facing students at risk. "Addressing those problems--be they health, mental health, juvenile justice or abuse--together in one place can be a powerful strategy," Wynn says. "Often, it's one of the initial impulses of cities and schools."

Programs that take this approach emphasize social services. Health and dental clinics and family resource and daycare centers are set up in school buildings. Social workers, counselors and therapists are hired to supplement school staff.

In other cases, programs are designed in response to demands to raise student achievement and student test scores. Those programs have a decidedly academic bent and focus on remediation, test-taking skills, homework help and one-on-one tutoring. Still others choose to provide enrichment and youth development opportunities. They emphasize music, arts and sports programs; get kids involved in chess and computer classes; and offer teen-agers leadership training. Almost all community schools include an afterschool component designed to increase the amount of time students spend in productive activities.

Gardner says that because any number of philosophies are at work in the community school movement, it is important for proponents of a community school to clearly define the particular philosophy behind their effort. For example, "Is what they offer coequal in importance to education reform, a minor adjunct to making schools better, or a place to put community services?" he asks.

Wynn cautions school leaders not to allow partnerships to distract a school district from its main role of educating children. "There needs to be a well-articulated strategy about why a district is undertaking a specific project and how it fits with its core mission," she says.

Missoula's Mission

Articulating such strategies is one of the main tasks confronting the leaders of community schools, says Mary Vagner, who served as superintendent in Missoula until this summer. In her case, that meant collaborating with outside partners to design a series of youth development programs with strong ties to the school district's goals and mission.

Specifically, the programs seek to increase students' self-esteem, teach decision-making skills and instill a sense of commitment to the community. The goal is to make students more resilient to factors that could put them at risk of doing poorly in school. "We want to help students become responsible and productive citizens," says Vagner.

The impetus for the focus on resiliency as a way of boosting school success stemmed from changing demographics in the 9,200-student district. "We had observed over time more poverty and a greater disconnect between home, school and community," Vagner says. The focus also ties in with the district's Safe Schools Healthy Schools Initiative. "As kids become more resilient, schools become safer and more orderly."

Vagner says it is up to superintendents to convince outside partners to buy into the school district's mission. "Ultimately, key entities in the community have to be willing to accept part of the responsibility of enhancing what we do for kids. That doesn't mean the school district gives up responsibility, but we do have to open the district up to other entities."

The biggest problems encountered in Missoula, she explains, had to do with making sure the school district's partners were working within school district guidelines. That meant, for example, curtailing a proposed midnight basketball program that conflicted with local curfews, and summer whitewater rafting trips that raised liability issues. "It was a matter of judgment and learning to function within our school structures," says Vagner.

Tukwila's Tack

As superintendent in Tukwila, Wash., a 2,600-student suburban district just outside Seattle, Michael Silver has been a catalyst for school-community partnerships for 12 years. The effort began with the establishment of a human services providers network made up of representatives from local community-based nonprofits, social service agencies and the schools. "Fairly soon, people started identifying things we could accomplish together that one of us alone could not do," he says.

A community summit in 1990 gave Silver a forum at which to enlist formal, public support for the schools. "The message was that we were working hard to improve student achievement ... but that we couldn't do it alone," he says. The result was a series of formal agreements between the school district and the city, one of which called for establishing a department of human services that would work closely with the schools.

The Tukwila Community Schools Collaboration includes the City of Tukwila, Puget Sound Educational Service District, the state Department of Social and Health Services, the Tukwila School District and the Casey Family Programs, a national charitable foundation based in Seattle. The collaborative has won grants totaling more than $1.3 million to create what Silver calls full-service community schools. Such schools, he says, "start out as centers of learning, but should ultimately become full service centers where parents can be encouraged to help themselves and neighborhood residents can learn, too."

The first component of the effort is already in place: extended-day programs after school and during winter break at four district schools. The programs aim to offer students more learning opportunities by focusing on homework and tutoring, computer training, recreation and the arts.

Silver says that although superintendents have always been responsible for eliciting support for their schools, the stakes have never been higher, the opportunities never greater. He believes superintendents need to take decisive steps to start and sustain partnerships with community groups.

In his case, that has meant working with representatives of the school district's partners to overcome potential barriers. In one case, policies on confidentiality barred the state Department of Social and Health Services from revealing to the school district which students attending an afterschool program were in need of special case management services. In the end, "It came down to their trusting us enough to share the information," says Silver.

Sustaining partnerships requires open lines of communication, the flexibility to find solutions to problems, ample time to plan and evaluate programs, and a persistent effort to "keep the notion of the importance of what you're doing out there." The district's first Health Fair, featuring 30 different agencies, was held last spring. Silver says the event, which was designed to be fun as well as informative, helped sustain the optimism of the key collaborators in the notion that "what we are doing makes a difference."

Central Falls' Welcome

Even when school leaders are sold on the concept of community schools, turning a good idea into reality can be tough. "Because we're a poor district, everyone wants to come in and fix us," says Maureen Chevrette, superintendent in Central Falls, R.I. "We have the type of demographics that grantmakers look on favorably."

No wonder. Central Falls, located just outside Providence, is the poorest city and the second most densely populated, in the state. Enrollment stands at 3,500 students, 96 percent of whom qualify for the federal lunch program.

Chevrette says while she welcomes help from outside the district, every offer has to be weighed against the value of the program as well as the district's capacity to implement it. "Groups like to collaborate with us, but we have to ask ourselves if what people want to work with us on is really going to benefit kids," she says.

One collaborator, an agency that focused on substance abuse prevention, had traditionally offered afterschool tutoring. "But once we began working together, we agreed the schools were in a better position to take over tutoring because we could align it with the curriculum," Chevrette says.

The district's SCOPE Community School Initiative, four years in the making, is a collaborative between the schools, the United Way of Southeastern New England, community-based organizations and local businesses. Financed with a $325,000 grant from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and a $1.2 million 21st Century Community Learning Center grant from the federal government, SCOPE is designed to deliver up to 25 hours a week of services to almost 700 students and 250 families. The programs aim to improve students' academic performance and social and emotional competencies, increase family involvement in schools and increase job opportunities for students and adults.

Before any initiative is undertaken, Chevrette wants to know how it will help meet student needs. Among her key questions: "Do we as a district have the capacity to be a viable member of this collaboration? What resources can the other agencies in the partnership bring to the table? What can we bring? Will the combination of those resources result in the capacity to meet our objective?"

She also feels strongly that all programs up and running in the school district should be part of a coordinated plan. "We have to make sure every initiative is reaching the audience for which it is intended and that we aren't duplicating something we're already doing."

Chevrette advises superintendents undertaking partnerships to be prepared to spend considerable time establishing relationships. "It's a lot of work for a superintendent, especially up front. You have to get to know people before you start working with them," she says. Still, turf battles will occur. "We've learned to defer to one another based on our areas of strength."

It is also important, Chevrette says, to ensure all stakeholders in a project are part of the decision-making process. "Sometimes, that control is hard to give up. It was for me," she admits. "But in the long run, many of these partnerships, if they are done well, can benefit kids immensely, and that has to be the bottom line."

Other Challenges

Quinn, at the Children's Aid Society, says it was easy for superintendents to feel overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to meet a wide range of community needs with a community school. Services can be phased in over time, starting perhaps by designating one room in a school as a Family Resource Center and finding partners to collaborate with school officials to offer afterschool programs. Summer programs, health screenings and programs for teens and adults can be added later, depending on available resources.

Funding sources could include government reimbursements, grants from community foundations, in-kind services from community-based organizations, and fees for services. Federal funding through Title I, Head Start, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities program also help finance such efforts.

Running a school district, difficult under the best of circumstances, becomes even more complicated when new players are brought on board. "There will be turf battles over the use of space, money, other resources and staff," says Wynn, the University of Chicago researcher. "There will be disputes about who's in charge."

Don Crary, former executive director at New Futures in Little Rock and now Kids Count state coordinator for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, recall one such dispute between school-based case managers employed by Little Rock social service agencies and classroom teachers. "When there were crises in kids' lives, the case managers' first instinct was to pull the kids out of class to work with them," recalls Crary. "The teachers understood the need, but didn't want their students missing class."

Eventually, the case managers and teachers came to an agreement under which students generally were not removed from core classes such as reading and math.

Wynn, of the University of Chicago, says such incidents are fairly common given the fact that the very notion of community schools is based on developing relationships that cross traditional boundaries. "These partnerships are difficult to negotiate, which is precisely why schools have maintained those boundaries for so long."

Wellborn, with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, agrees. "My sense is that schools already feel like a lot has been loaded on them and that they are providing a lot of services already. Trying to become part of yet another initiative can be overwhelming."

Wynn says superintendents poised to enter into new collaborations need to determine the motivation of potential partners and to assess how their presence in schools will affect a school's governing structure and culture. "Bringing a group of younger, non-professionals into a school setting can help make a school more responsive to its surrounding community," Wynn says. "But it also means you have to be prepared to deal with issues, such as authority, that arise when different cultures begin to interact.'"

It is also the superintendent's responsibility, Wynn says, to make sure potential partners are truly competent at what they do. "That's not always obvious, but quality matters. Check everyone out."

Ben Canada, who has worked as superintendent in Portland, Ore., Atlanta and Jackson, Miss., sees genuine value in the collaborative model. "I think the tendency in public education is to think that because a district has money it can go it alone or contract out [services]," he says. "But for me, it's more than just entering into a partnership. It's the philosophy behind the partnership--a philosophy about engaging the whole community in the process of making all of us better citizens."

Adds Canada, immediate past president of AASA: "When other organizations work closely with schools, people begin to learn and have greater appreciation for what we do. They come to understand the effects of changing demographics of a community and the misconceptions that are sometimes [disseminated] by the media. They buy into what we're trying to accomplish. And I don't think any school district should deny itself the opportunity for those kinds of long-term benefits."

Priscilla Pardini is a free-lance education writer in Shorewood, Wis. E-mail: pardini@execpc.com