Community schools can be a successful strategy for improving schools according to a new review of research studies and program evaluations. It found strong evidence that well-implemented community schools contribute to school improvement, particularly in the case of high-poverty schools. It is a strategy that should be considered by the Gonski review on how funding should be used to improve school performance and student achievement.
Community schools are schools that partner with community agencies and local government to provide an integrated focus on academics, health and social services, and youth and community development. They provide expanded learning time and opportunities, engage families actively, and foster collaborative practices.
The brief notes that in communities where larger societal and economic factors disadvantage children, community schools provide advantages enjoyed by students in more advantaged areas. They create strong instructional programs that support children’s learning and development. In addition, they build an infrastructure of community partnerships with higher education institutions, community-based organizations, and faith-based organizations that support well-rounded learning and healthy development. Such partnerships also connect children and families to resources, opportunities and supports that can mitigate the harms of poverty and build community resilience and strengths.
The research brief was published last month by the National Education Policy Centre and the Learning Policy Institute in the United States. The brief, Community Schools – An Evidence-Based Strategy for Equitable School Improvement, found that community schools, an increasingly popular school improvement strategy, are strongly supported by research evidence.
The brief examined 125 peer-reviewed studies, program evaluations, and published research reviews on the impact of community schools or their component parts on a range of outcomes. The authors evaluated the studies against criteria for determining which interventions may be considered to have a strong evidence-base.
Community schools vary in the programs they offer and the way they operate, depending on their local context. However, four features—or pillars—appear in most community schools:
• Integrated student supports;
• Expanded learning time and opportunities;
• Family and community engagement;
• Collaborative leadership and practices.
Integrated student support (ISS) programs link schools to a range of academic, health, and social services. They address the reality that children whose families are struggling with poverty, and the housing, health and safety concerns that often go with it, cannot focus on learning unless their non-academic needs are also met. The goal is to remove barriers to school success by connecting students and families to service providers in the community, or bringing those services into the school.
A synthesis of eleven studies of ISS models that met rigorous evidence standards found them to have statistically significant positive effects on student progress in school, attendance, mathematics and reading achievement and overall grade point average. It also found positive effects on behaviour.
Expanded learning time and opportunities include after-school, weekend, and summer programs to augment traditional learning opportunities. They typically provide additional academic instruction, individualized academic support, enrichment activities as music, art, and athletics, and informal out-of-school learning experiences.
Hundreds of studies have examined the impact of these programs. Researchers have conducted rigorous reviews of this research, scrutinizing the quality of studies, conducting quantitative meta-analyses of the highest-quality studies and summarizing the most trustworthy findings. For example, a synthesis of 15 empirical studies conducted since 1985 that examined the impact of extended school days and/or school years found evidence of a positive relationship between longer days and years on achievement in mathematics or English Language Arts for at least one group of students. Notably, the researchers concluded that the quality of instruction was an important mediator of these achievement benefits.
Other reviews have assessed studies of voluntary “out-of-school” time and summer programs on a range of student outcomes. These reviews also reach positive conclusions about the evidence from well-designed studies. Out-of-school time programs with traditional instruction taught by certified teachers are found to have positive effects on students’ reading and math achievement; programs featuring experiential learning activities are found to have positive effects on social-emotional development. Students attending summer programs have better outcomes than similar non-attending peers, but high-quality programming and maximizing student attendance are critical to achieving these benefits.
Overall, these reviews provide solid evidence for policymakers and practitioners considering expanded learning time and opportunities strategies. An important message, however, is that schools must do more than simply add time to the school day/year. As the research brief states, how the time is used matters.
Family engagement strategies include school support for better parenting, communication between school and home, family volunteering, parents helping with learning at home, parents involved in school decision-making, and community organizing for school and district reform. Community schools often engage parents in a variety of activities focused on their own needs as well as those of students. Community schools connect families and the surrounding community based on the belief that building and deepening trust through partnerships is essential to promoting student success.
Rigorous studies of family engagement in schools have found a strong relationship between family involvement and improved student outcomes at school. This relationship holds across families of all economic, racial/ethnic, and educational backgrounds and for students at all ages. Several meta-analyses have also found significant relationships between parental involvement and better outcomes for students across racial backgrounds. The effects range from moderate to very large. One study of longitudinal survey and academic data found mixed results from different forms of parent engagement, concluding that regular and consistent communication about the importance of education is the best way for parents to improve their children’s academic trajectory.
Collaborative leadership results from processes whereby parents, students, teachers, and principals with different areas of expertise work together, sharing decisions and responsibilities toward a shared vision or outcome. While collaboration is important in all schools, it is particularly vital for the many stakeholders contributing to community schools. Key areas for collaborative leadership include meaningful mechanisms for parent and community engagement, teacher participation in decision-making and professional learning communities, a collaborative dynamic between principals and community school directors, partnerships with community organizations, and district-level cooperative goal-setting.
Several recent reviews of empirical literature suggest that collaborative leadership impacts growth in student learning by increasing the capacity within a school for academic improvement. For example, a synthesis of peer-reviewed empirical research on school leadership found that collaborative school cultures are central to school improvement, the development of professional learning communities and the improvement of student learning. Many studies demonstrated that relationships among principals and teachers were key to the goal-setting process and expectations, and that staff consensus about goals significantly differentiated high and low-performing schools.
The brief concludes that there is sufficient robust evidence to support the adoption of community schools as a comprehensive strategy for school improvement. Community schools hold promise for closing racial and economic achievement gaps. Because community schools foster supportive relationships, they may well promote social capital development, which, in turn, may play an important role in community schools’ success in closing gaps. Social capital doesn’t alleviate the harms of poverty directly, but strong relationships with others enable people to access resources they need and can leverage more resources for whole communities. Schools serving low-income areas can help foster increased social capital through genuine community partnerships and a shared sense of responsibility.
The brief also outlines research-based characteristics of well-implemented, successful programs. They include:
• Taking a comprehensive approach – all four features of community schools matter and they reinforce each other;
• Adapting the strategy to local contexts – community schools do not all look alike and successful implementation depends on adapting to local assets and needs;
• Providing sufficient planning time to build trusting relationships between the school and partners;
• Involving young people, parents, and community members in needs assessment, design, planning, and implementation;
• Using evaluation strategies that provide useful information about implementation and exposure to services, as well as progress toward hoped-for outcomes; and
• Using data for continuous program refinement, while allowing sufficient time for the strategy to fully mature.