February 16 — 3:25 pm, 2016

What Philly should know about creating successful community schools

south philly sign community Photo: Payne Schroeder

Mayor Kenney’s first major policy announcement centered on plans to develop 25 community schools across Philadelphia.  As is the case with any ambitious policy proposal, the “how” will take time. The “what” and “why” are more clear:  By providing extended learning opportunities and access to additional services – such as preventive health care, counseling, and quality early education – community schools strive to address the effects of poverty on academic performance and provide more comprehensive supports for traditionally underserved students and families.

At the same time, research tells us that initial effects of community schools are small and that program quality matters enormously when it comes to outcomes.  

So, what can Philadelphia learn from the experiences of other districts that have invested in the community schools approach with varying results?

First, as the name underscores, the development of any true community school model must start with the right partners around the table, including educators, neighborhood leaders, parents, and service providers from across the city.  Too often policymakers pay lip service to community input without providing a substantive and accessible process by which neighborhoods can determine their own needs and have a voice in how best to address them. 

In addition, planning for community schools should engage a diverse group of funders from both the public and private sectors in conversations about sustainability from the start. Community schools that rely entirely on public funds will be at the mercy of changing financial conditions and administrative priorities.  On the other hand, models seeded by substantial external, private funding will be at risk when transitions in funding priorities or partner staff occur.  Creating a durable community school presence in Philadelphia will require a mix of resources: public funds (city, state, and federal), private support, and payments in lieu of taxes from nonprofit organizations, including higher education and the city’s health-care sector.  Homewood Children’s Village Community Schools in Pittsburgh provides an example of an urban community schools model that has been supported by a diverse array of funders, both public and private.

Because community schools will need to rely on long-term partnerships and external investments, it will be essential to establish shared and transparent expectations about both short- and long-term goals and the benchmarks and outcomes that will be used to measure them. As researchers at an organization with more than two decades of experience evaluating complex educational reform initiatives, we know first-hand that it is vital to establish a robust evaluation plan that focuses on implementation, provides plenty of feedback loops to refine the model, and accurately tracks realistic indicators of effectiveness.   

In the first few years of implementation, goals might address the integration of the community school model within each site and participation among students and their families. If the initiative is seen as external to the school instead of central to the culture, it will not be able to work in partnership with teachers and administrators or recruit students and families to access needed services. The transition from school to comprehensive community hub requires a significant shift in mission and practice.  Ongoing formative feedback from an external evaluator could help to provide perspective to schools and service providers on whether these foundational steps take place.

Next, changes in student behavior will be the building blocks for academic success. Examples of behavioral change might include decreases in chronic absenteeism and suspension rates, and increases in health-care visits and participation in afterschool activities.  Short-term benchmarks that measure these behavior changes help demonstrate incremental progress and should be balanced with long-term outcomes-based goals and a realistic timeline that takes into account the depth of the challenge. Significant change in academic performance would be considered a long-term goal, and school-wide standardized test scores are only one potential measure.

Ultimately, if policymakers are to embrace a community school model, they would be wise to also embrace a diverse set of non-academic outcomes related to student and school success. Transparency about expectations for progress and the measures that will be used to document it can help partners, funders, and the public understand the opportunities and challenges inherent in evaluating and sustaining strong community schools.

As Philadelphia’s process begins, key players are showing a heartening awareness of the importance of inclusive planning, shared goals, and transparent metrics.  The experiences of other districts demonstrate that getting off on the right foot is the best foundation for the long-term success of community schools.


Mark Duffy and Della Jenkins are researchers at Research for Action, an independent, Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that focuses on education research and evaluation.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.

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