Beyond School: Connecting Schools with Services and Institutions in the Community

As we noted earlier, the entire environment in which students live influences their development and success in school. We have emphasized the importance of good medical care, healthy food, a supportive and language-rich environment, and at least a year of preschool as important preparation for academic learning. These conditions and other opportunities outside of school continue to be important determinants of students' success and resilience in school. While we have described the negative side of some of the poorest communities and neighborhoods, there are often NGOs, churches, and government agencies available and capable of providing support and services for the students during those 4500 waking hours outside of school.

Connecting schools with other systems is not a new idea in the U.S. In the early 1900s, John Dewey, Jane Addams, and others argued for schools in the cities to be the center of a neighborhood's life by being the center and provider for social life and services. Later on, the Mott family, working through their foundation in Michigan, supported schools that served multiple services, a model and philosophy that spread through many parts of the country. In 1974, amendments to ESEA included the creation of a small grants program for Community Schools that enabled funds to support model community schools directly as well as state activities in support of community education. This program was ended in the consolidation of programs in 1982, but the federal government came back in 1997 to support twenty-first century After Schools programs and, more recently, twenty-first century Learning Centers.

In 2014, the Coalition for Community Schools held a national forum with 1400 participants. The coalition's concept is broad and includes making full use of the school (open all of the time) for the community, health services, and social services. This concept is often called the full-service community school program, and it has schools all across the nation. Using the school as a hub, a community school organization coordinates education and social service organizations all through the neighborhood, including businesses, colleges, adult education, family support activities, and other NGOs.

Another strong organization in this area is Integrated Student Supports (ISS), which is a school-based approach to promoting students' academic success by providing academic and nonacademic support services including tutoring, mentoring, linking students to health care and families to counseling, education, food banks, and employment. Integration around individual student needs is the key factor.

Perhaps the best-known example of the systemic community-based approach— and surely one of the most expensive—has been the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ), which takes up a 100-block area in Harlem's largely African-American area of New York City. HCZ connects students and their families with the entire panoply of social and educational services; where services have not existed, the organization has raised the resources to create them. HCZ has even created its own small network of schools that admit interested students through a lottery process. [1] Recently the federal government launched a program of competitive grants called Promise Neighborhoods that is modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone; in the last four years, over 40 districts in the nation have received Promise Neighborhood grants. [2] Other settings—such as Long Beach and El Paso—have focused on developing strong collaborations between their school systems and the local community colleges and public universities, particularly those engaged in teacher preparation and development. In Oakland, the schools host farmers' markets in neighborhoods with no grocery stores. And in Silicon Valley, the John Gardner Center at Stanford works with a number of communities to link data from local social service agencies and community-based organizations to identify patterns and gaps and to ensure that students needing service have access to what they need.

Studies of these and similar efforts generally find small positive or insignificant effects on school achievement. But the afterschool activities are often not well coordinated with the instruction that students receive during the regular school day. Some interventions—such as those that connect children with food and medical service, young adolescents with counseling, and schools with teacher training institutions—have a high degree of face validity, even if they do not have evidence of a direct impact on student achievement. An integration of the Gardner Center's data strategy with health, nutrition, and some basic academic and social support services would provide a neighborhood or community with what seems to be the critical core interventions of all of these general programs and a mechanism to make sure the system is working with the students who most need assistance.

The bottom line is that there is a lot of energy around these issues across the nation. The systemic nature of the interventions and the urgency of the need for the populations they serve make a compelling case for their existence in every highpoverty neighborhood. It appears to us to be very unlikely that the achievement gaps can be closed substantially without interventions that mobilize neighborhoods that lack resources for their children around a set of strategies that engage the communitybased organizations, the local governments, and the private sector.

  • [1] See Wikipedia ('s_Zone) for a description and citations on the Harlem Children's Zone. Also, for a recent analysis that suggests that the schools in the Children's Zone are responsible for observed academic gains, see Dobbie and Fryer (2011).
  • [2] For information about the Promise Neighborhood awards, see the U.S. Department of Education website at
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