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A School Reform Strategy That Works

The education reform debate has been stuck for too long between competing advocates offering a set of false choices.
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In her education policy speech at The New School last week and his state of the state address earlier this month, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Governor Andrew Cuomo respectively called for the broad expansion of a strategy that we know yields measurable results for students: community schools. This model, pioneered in New York City schools for more than 20 years and adapted by thousands of schools around the world, is finally getting the kind of attention back home in New York that it deserves.

The community school model partners schools and community-based organizations to share responsibility for students' progress. Community schools are typically open longer hours and operate from a three-pronged framework: a rigorous core instructional program; expanded learning opportunities before and after school and during the summer months; and services designed to remove barriers to students' learning such as on-site medical, dental, mental health and social services.

Community schools address a fundamental truth: Even the best teachers will find it challenging to educate children who come to school hungry, are experiencing trauma or violence, lack stable housing or are frequently absent due to illness. This truth isn't an excuse for why some kids won't succeed; but it does require us to effectively address these barriers to learning so that all kids can succeed.

This approach changed everything for Pilar.

Pilar grew up in Washington Heights in the early 1990s. The predominantly immigrant community was beleaguered by substance abuse and crime, and area schools were unsafe, underfunded and underperforming.

Pilar attended one of the first community schools in New York City, which was established in 1992 in Washington Heights by The Children's Aid Society and the public school system. High expectations from her teachers coupled with access to an array of supportive services led Pilar to increased academic achievement. Her parents got involved, too; her mom took ESL and GED classes and her dad coached the basketball team. She participated in a range of after-school programs that built her confidence and leadership skills and she applied those tools as a summer camp counselor.

These experiences ignited Pilar's interest in education. And because her parents were actively engaged in the school, her educational aspirations were embraced by her whole family.

In order to create opportunities for more children like Pilar, we need to bring community schools to scale in New York City.

Since opening our first community school, The Children's Aid Society has expanded this approach to 15 schools across New York City. But that is just a drop in the bucket in a system of over 1,700 schools. With leadership from City Hall and the Department of Education, we and so many others could do much more. In cities such as Cincinnati and Oakland, where entire school systems have widely adopted the model, the human and financial resources of the entire community are now organized around student success. Indeed, Children's Aid's National Center for Community Schools has helped thousands of schools and districts worldwide, including Cincinnati's, learn from and adapt our model.

Community schools are producing powerful results. Independent evaluations of New York City community schools have seen marked improvements in academic achievement, student and teacher attendance, parental engagement and school safety. A recent three-year evaluation shows that middle school students who participated in after-school programs at Children's Aid community schools attained steadily rising and significantly higher scores on math and reading tests than non-participants. Studies of community schools implementations in other communities show outcomes including higher immunization rates, increased enrollment in breakfast programs, improved teacher and student attendance and higher college matriculation rates.

The education reform debate has been stuck for too long between competing advocates offering a set of false choices. One set of advocates believe that schools must be held accountable for student success regardless of what challenges students bring to the schoolhouse doors. They argue that excellent teaching will overcome hunger, homelessness and family instability. The other side argues that schools cannot be expected to educate children unless we can overcome the challenges poverty places in their paths, and that schools cannot be expected to accomplish this alone.

Community schools offer a way out of this tired debate, because the truth is that both sides are right. We need to provide schools with the resources to address the poverty-related barriers to student learning. And we must hold schools accountable for ensuring that all students achieve, regardless of race, creed, nationality, or class.

I applaud Speaker Quinn and Governor Cuomo for their bold vision of a collaborative, coordinated and accountable education system. Education reform that will benefit all children can be achieved only by revolutionizing what schools can and should be, and ensuring that institutions like hospitals and businesses become part of the solution. If we are truly serious about changing the odds for the one-third of New York City children who are growing up in poverty, then we must make every New York City school a community school and give every child an opportunity to achieve the American dream.