Community Schools are a small step in the right direction for New York City and for education as a whole. They have the potential to empower communities to support their own children using their own resources in their own ways. To understand why this is, though, requires understanding what Community Schools are right now, which is what I will cover in this post. Then, in my next one, I can explore their potential as a stepping stone to a more effective and a more effectively administered education for all students.
Public schools, including charter schools, can be Community Schools. “Community School” can have a very wide range of meanings, but in general, according to the DOE, Community Schools stay open longer after school and during the summer, and they offer extra enrichment activities. They also offer health services to students, and adult education and social services to parents and families. Every Community School is partnered with a Community-Based Organization like Fordham University, Bronxworks, The Door, or the YMCA that helps deliver those services.
According to official data (from an unspecified point in time), there are 258 Community Schools, 50 of which are Renewal schools. The Renewal school program essentially turned typical schools into Community Schools but specifically targeted severely underperforming schools. Despite only beginning in 2014, in 2019 it was announced that Renewal school programs would be phased out, with extra budget and social services continuing indefinitely, essentially continuing the Renewal program without the Renewal label.
Twenty-one Community Schools are also Rise schools, which means that they were Renewal schools that demonstrated exemplary improvement as a result of the transition to a Community School. Although, upon receiving the Rise designation, they will retain the extra social services, other supports will be gradually reduced. One of those Rise schools is P.S. 67 Charles A. Dorsey, which experienced significant improvements in test scores and attendance after being converted to a Community School.
A more comprehensive analysis of NYC’s Community School program was published in 2017 as the result of a city-commissioned study from the RAND Corporation. The study found improvements in attendance, grade progression, graduation rates, math achievement, and high school credit accumulation. Most of the improvements were especially pronounced in elementary and middle schools. Ideally, this means that as those students age, follow-up studies could be conducted to determine long-term effects of attending Community Schools.
The researchers also found a decrease in disciplinary incidents at Community Schools. Leslie Brody of The Wall Street Journal, although generally critical of Community Schools, seems to attribute that reduction to the fact that “City principals […] say some incidents go unreported, and have complained of excessive pressure to reduce punishments in favor of peer mediation and other practices.” If true, this is a promising sign that Community Schools may also help to reduce the criminalization of students, teach conflict resolution, and, if things go exceptionally well, might help some students escape the school-to-prison pipeline.
Beyond the RAND study, there are multiple instances of the transformation into Community Schools improving student achievement, and I found no instances of it decreasing student performance. This, at very least, indicates that converting a school to a Community School does no harm. But, this also points to hope for the future, as the author of the RAND study does state that it generally takes at least five years to begin to see the impact of programs like Community Schools.
The most critical report of NYC’s Community Schools that I could find is a report from StudentsFirstNY, which calls itself a voice for students, yet has no student leadership. It’s worst criticism of the program is that it brought “little progress” in terms of academic performance.
Taking into account that community schools are beneficial regardless of their academic effects and that they can improve academic performance with negligible risk of worsening it, the next logical question should be “How do we make community schools even more helpful to students and their families?” and “What should the next step be for Community Schools?”
I will address those questions in my follow up post.