research shows

Community schools are expanding — but are they working? New study shows mixed results

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman

New York City’s announcement this week that it is doubling down on community schools indicates a firm belief that the program is working. But is this model effective, and by what measures? New research from an initiative in Texas and North Carolina aims to help answer those questions — and finds mixed evidence.

The precise details of community schools vary from place to place, but they generally emphasize a holistic model, by addressing factors — poverty, health, behavior — that might impede academic success.

Previous studies of similar programs have pointed to positive impacts, but the latest analyses, conducted by the research group MDRC and released last month, offered more tepid results.

The research focused on an initiative known as Communities in Schools, or CIS, which places “site coordinators” in schools to help connect students and schools with a variety of services, including mental and physical health services, family engagement, academic interventions, and college prep. The program operates in over 2,000 schools across 25 states. (CIS is not involved in the New York City program.)

The first MDRC report examined schools that participated in the program’s whole schools model that provides low-intensity services to all students in a given school; examples include “making clothing or school supplies available to students, organizing a school-wide career fair, or hosting a financial aid workshop for twelfth-graders.”

This intervention appeared to be effective in improving student attendance in elementary school and graduation in high school, but did not raise test scores — and in fact might have had a negative impact on middle schoolers’ math scores.

Another report, using a high-quality random assignment method, looked at CIS’s more intensive individualized supports, known as case management. “The site coordinator provides services appropriate to the student’s needs or connects the student to those services,” according to the paper.

The impacts were uneven: after two years, students receiving case management reported improved relationships with adults and peers and more positive attitudes about school, but had no better attendance or course grades. And the program actually caused a small increase in suspension rates.

Heather Clawson, the executive vice president of research at CIS, said that she viewed the results as “mixed,” but important.

“We’re very much a learning organization,” she told Chalkbeat. “All results are good results as long as they tell us something about what we’re doing well and what we need to improve.”

Clawson said that CIS has already made changes to its program based on MDRC studies that came out in 2015. (The latest analysis looks at schools prior to these relatively recent modifications.)

Meanwhile, as New York City plans to expand its program of community schools, the existing system has not been subject to rigorous external study, and early indicators are mixed. The city is partnering with the independent research group RAND to study its program; a look at the effect on students isn’t expected to be released for over a year.

A spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education pointed to previous research showing students can benefit from community schools in terms of achievement, high school graduation, and other outcomes. Indeed, past evidence — including national and Chicago-specific studies of CIS, an analysis of a Boston-based program, and a 2014 review of research — paints a largely encouraging picture.

Clawson said the goal of the program isn’t to raise test scores, but does expect it to improve other metrics: “We do believe behavior [and] attendance are outcomes we should be accountable for; test scores are a little more of a stretch.”

Elaine Weiss, of the Broader, Bolder coalition, which advocates for community schools, said the model is likely to improve student outcomes in the long run, but is important even if it does not.

“The services themselves are, of course worthwhile — don’t we all agree that having kids who have access to mental and physical health care, regular nutritious meals, and quality, safe afterschool and summer programs is inherently a good thing?”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”