March 14 — 4:45 pm, 2016

A comprehensive strategy for community schools made a big difference in Baltimore

wolfe street academy morning meeting 1

Fifty years of experience as an organizer, advocate, and educator at the local, state and national levels has convinced me that a school serving students and families who live in concentrated poverty cannot be successful unless it uses the Community School Strategy … period … full stop.

A Community School:

  • Is a place where strategic partnerships among the school and community resources support student achievement, positive conditions for learning, and the well-being of families and communities.
  • Maintains a core focus on children while recognizing that they are part of a family and their families are part of unique communities.
  • Builds an integrated strategy that enhances academics and student well-being through enrichment, health and social supports, family engagement, and youth and community development.
  • Is anchored by the work of a full-time site coordinator and expanded school hours.
  • Provides a base for parent and community advocacy on behalf of their children.

The Community School Strategy is NOT another program alongside other programs. It is a way of thinking about school, students, families, and the wider community that harnesses the assets of each, in a classic sense making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The full-time coordinator is a vital part of the school leadership team, the equivalent of a vice principal. Everyone understands that the strategy is essential if their students are to learn to read and do math competently. It’s not another thing for the principal to do, but something she or he must understand and embrace to do everything else.

The Community School Strategy is not a silver bullet. Good teachers and school leadership, adequate instructional materials, decent facilities, and quality early childhood programs are essential. Nevertheless, a school can have these other characteristics and still fail to help its students thrive.

Children cannot learn if they are hungry, have aching teeth, can’t see clearly, have no place to do their homework, feel unsafe in their community or at home, or lack the cultural, social and physical enrichment opportunities after school and on weekends.

The school cannot deliver these opportunities by itself but must have engaged families, neighbors and partners in the broader community. With the commitment of the principal, teachers, and daily management and outreach by a community school coordinator, robust partnerships deliver the tailored supports required. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Students, families and neighborhoods have unique assets and needs. And, for every dollar spent on this core strategy, $3 is leveraged in critical programs and opportunities for students and families. That’s part of its beauty.

Outstanding performance confirms the strategy’s effectiveness. At the school level, no one has done it better than a neighborhood school, Wolfe Street Academy, in Baltimore City, one of 54 community schools in the city. It has a 96 percent poverty level, and 80 percent of its students speak a language other than English at home. Ten years ago when the school adopted the Community School Strategy, it ranked 77th among Baltimore’s 125 elementary schools in academic performance. Last year, it was second, trailing only one of the most affluent schools in the city.  

Wolfe has outstanding teachers, parents and leadership in its principal (I’m proud to say my son Mark is now in his 11th year as principal at Wolfe Street and community school coordinator Connie Phelps in her 10th year). It has 25 partners, including the Maryland Food Bank, the University of Maryland Dental School and School of Social Work, Johns Hopkins University Medical School, a neighborhood theater, a local dance studio, and the Baltimore Ravens football team. They start every school day with a morning meeting of students, staff, and parents. Routinely, up to a quarter of the parents attend, many eating breakfast with their children.

At the state level is Kentucky’s 26 years of experience. In 1990, I had the honor of working with their legislature to design a new statewide education system. A central component was a commitment of funds and resources to make every school with 20 percent or more of students living in poverty a community school. The core component of Kentucky’s community schools (called Family Resource Centers at the elementary level and Youth Service Centers at the secondary level) is having full-time people to coordinate the services and recruit community partners that they leverage on behalf of the students. As at Wolfe Street, the full-time staff in Kentucky make the connections to provide food, clothing, dental, physical and mental medical support, and other wrap-around resources through a multitude of partners.  

Given the depth of Kentucky’s poverty, 93 percent of all Kentucky students now attend a community school. The result? In only one generation, the state has moved from nearly dead last among the 50 states — 48th — to 33rd, based on multiple attainment and achievement factors combined into a single index by the University of Kentucky.

These are the compelling reasons that a bill has been introduced in the Maryland General Assembly this year that would build the funding into the state education formula for a full-time community school coordinator and an afterschool program at every school in the state in which 40 percent or more of its students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. That’s 833 schools (58 percent) that will serve 441,000 of the state’s students (50 percent).

Why would we do this?

  • We know it works.
  • It improves educational performance.
  • It makes economic sense.
  • It’s good politically.
  • It’s the right thing to do.

In an aside, the reasoning behind community schools is precisely the same as our thinking for Family Resource Networks during my tenure as Philadelphia’s superintendent. That was just after Kentucky had taken its bold vision to reality. The difference was that we did not have the resources for the full version, so we had to settle for simply realigning existing resources. I am delighted that Philadelphia is now moving in the direction of a more robust commitment to meeting the needs of its children.

David Hornbeck was the superintendent of schools in Philadelphia from 1994 to 2000.

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