Still, the results offer a measure of good news in a field where failure is far more common.
“We did see a tremendous amount of promise for the program, particularly in the younger grades,” said William R. Johnston, a Rand Corp. researcher who studied it over three years. The Rand report was being published Tuesday.
The Community Schools program, operating in 267 New York schools, uses school campuses to offer a range of social services and family supports. Unlike other reform ideas, the program does not directly address teacher quality, curriculum or other core aspects of education.
Rather, it seeks to use the school as a community gathering place where children can get counseling, eyeglasses or dental care; where after-school programs help with homework and keep kids engaged; and where parents can get involved with schools, take a class or pick up extra groceries.
“When that child is hungry, it’s very hard to focus on academics,” said Luis Torres, principal for 15 years at Benjamin Franklin School, an elementary campus in the South Bronx that participates in the community school program. He said children cannot learn if they are worried about food, shelter, safety or health. “That’s the real power of the community school. You’re not just focusing on academics. You’re focusing on the overall well-being of the children.”
The program costs about $200 million a year and is funded with federal, state and city dollars. Much of the money goes to nonprofit partner organizations, which hire a community school director to work out of the school.
The program has been a priority for Mayor Bill de Blasio (D). He largely jettisoned the accountability education agenda of his predecessor, Mike Bloomberg, who focused on closing low-performing schools and replacing them with smaller schools with new employees. That approach angered teacher unions but led to an increase in high school graduation rates.
Critics argued that more funding was needed to help children with the most profound needs, and they found a champion in de Blasio.
Early in his tenure, de Blasio touted a new initiative called Renewal, which aimed to improve struggling schools by pouring resources into them and improving curriculum and teaching. The city spent $750 million on the program, but early results were disappointing, and the mayor terminated it last year. So the new study was particularly welcome news for him.
“The jury is in — community schools work,” de Blasio said in a statement. “Since Day One, we have been on a mission to no longer let zip code determine academic success, and community schools are one way we are delivering on that promise.”
Community schools have been around for decades, but there has been a dramatic expansion in recent years, as policymakers shift away from school accountability and toward the underlying challenges faced by children in poverty. In Los Angeles, a key agreement helping to end a teacher strike was the school district’s promise to transform 30 schools into community schools. Nationwide, there are more than 5,000 of these schools, Rand said.
Studies have generally found modestly positive effects. But the idea has never been tried — or evaluated — on the scale found in New York, where some 135,000 students attend a community school.
Over three years, Rand studied 113 New York schools and measured their results against similar schools not in the program. The report found several statistically significant improvements and no areas where things got worse.
In elementary and middle schools, the portion of students advancing to the next grade on time increased in the first two years, and the number of disciplinary incidents fell all three years. In high schools, the portion graduating increased in two of three years, and there was an increase in credits accumulated by students in all three years.
For all levels of school, the portion of children chronically absent fell in all three years studied.
The impact on test scores was minimal. There was no statistically significant increase in English Language Arts scores, and math scores improved only in year three.
The study offered surprisingly positive results, said Jeannie Oakes, a senior fellow at the nonprofit research group Learning Policy Institute, who co-authored a review of the research on community schools. She said the improvement in math scores in year three may be an early sign of academic growth.
“Math is usually the first to bump up because math, unlike language arts, is something the kids learn almost entirely at school,” she said.
But raising test scores may require more direct improvements to teaching, said James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University. He said evidence from the study is encouraging enough to continue the program but said the city may need to be more realistic about what is needed to increase academic performance.
“The jury is still out,” he said.