Schools that offer dental care, mental health counseling, food assistance and other services have a significant and measurable positive impact on student achievement, according to research released this week by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center.
The 26-page brief, “Community Schools: An Evidence-based Strategy for Equitable School Improvement,” found that schools that collaborate with nonprofits and government agencies to provide extra on-campus services in many cases showed increases in attendance, graduation rates and academic achievement, especially in math and reading.
Community schools, which have been gaining popularity for the past decade as Congress increased funding for them, are traditional public schools that serve as community hubs for families and students. Services can range from health care to job training for parents and teens to English classes to high-quality after-school and summer programs.
“Well-implemented community schools work,” said Anna Maier, a research and policy associate at the Learning Policy Institute who co-authored the brief, along with Jeannie Oakes, education professor emeritus at UCLA and senior fellow in residence at the Learning Policy Institute, and Julia Daniel, a doctoral student at University of Colorado at Boulder.
In addition, struggling schools can offer the benefits of health and social services as evidence to meet the improvement-plan requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, according to the brief.
“We conclude … that the evidence supports well-implemented community schools being included” as part of federal interventions, according to the brief.
Most community schools have an on-campus coordinator who matches families with services, lines up programs to meet community needs and ensures that school leaders, teachers and those providing the extra services coordinate their efforts.
For example, at a well-run community school the teachers and after-school staff will coordinate lesson and activity plans, so after-school students might do a project or take a field trip that complements what they’re studying in the classroom.
“These are things that are often already in place at a so-called ‘good school.’ Parents expect it. So it can have great leverage when it’s implemented at high-poverty schools,” Maier said.
Deanna Niebuhr, senior director of the community schools initiative at Partnership for Children and Youth, an education nonprofit that advocates for low-income youth in California, called the brief “a really powerful look at evidence-based criteria” supporting community schools.
“This brief shows that community schools can have an impact on equity in education, which is really the heart of it in California,” she said. “Schools in middle-class neighborhoods expect access to great after-school programs and other services for kids. Community schools bring those benefits to kids in lower-income areas, and now we have evidence proving that can be successful.”
Maier and her co-authors spent about a year researching the topic, looking at 125 peer-reviewed studies and evaluating the data against the standards in the Every Student Succeeds Act. They found community schools showed gains in academic achievement and attendance, which over the long term could potentially lead to better jobs and college outcomes for graduates, Maier said.
The researchers also found that the most successful community schools feature ample collaboration between school leaders, parents, students and those providing the services, so services are tailored to what the community needs and can change when necessary.
“It’s not enough to just add stuff,” Niebuhr said. “You really need to create a community hub, with plenty of input from the community itself. Otherwise it doesn’t work.”