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A Broader, Bolder Approach: How community schools can improve learning

Jessica T. Shiller, ACTS Associate and Towson University professor

The evidence is clear that focusing solely on academic needs of low income children is not enough. We know this because we just went through a decade where schools have been narrowly focused on academic achievement. Under No Child Left Behind, which came into law in 2002, schools doubled down and tried to improve the math and reading scores of their students. There were incentives for success and punishments for failure, hoping that carrots and sticks would motivate school staff to improve student achievement. In the end, there was not much improvement. We saw slight upticks in reading and math scores for certain grades, but that was overshadowed by cheating scandals like the one in Atlanta, Philadelphia, DC, and other cities where everyone who worked in the schools felt such enormous pressure to improve that they fudged the numbers. The slight improvement was also overshadowed by a persistent gap in achievement that did not close in spite of test score improvements.

What does this tell us? First it tells us that focusing solely on the academic needs of low income children is not enough. It is not enough because it ignores research that tells us there is more to learning than improving test score numbers. Low income students, like all students, learn best when they are supported inside and outside of school, when the curriculum is relevant to them, and when their teachers have strong relationships with them. Second, it tells us that relying on the teachers and administrators alone is not enough to improve student achievement. Any middle class parent knows that their children achievenot because of the effort of a single teacher, but because of the myriad supports that they provide their children outside of school. They have the funds to give their children these supports regardless of whether the school can or not. Poor families do not have that option.

What do we do now? We need better models than ones that narrowly focus on curriculum and assessment to educate low income children. We also need models that leverage inside and outside of school resources to support low income children in their learning. In short, we need a model that recognizes that poverty has an impact on student achievement, but that does not become debilitated by that very fact. The Broader Bolder Approach to Education is such a model. The Broader Bolder Approach, or BBA for short, is a “national campaign that acknowledges the impact of social and economic disadvantage on schools and students and proposes evidence-based policies to improve schools and remedy conditions that limit many children’s readiness to learn,” (boldapproach.org).

BBA requires a paradigm shift, away from the emptiness of the accountability movement whose whole focus has been rewards and punishments for test score improvement. BBA proposes a set of practices that will meet the challenge of poverty. BBA has launched initiatives in schools to extend the school day, to expand early childhood education, to shrink class sizes, and to recruit strong teachers to teach in schools with high populations of low income students. BBA also has advocated for “critical partnerships that will strengthen the capacity of schools to respond to student needs and enable community interests to come together so parents and their allies can hold schools and their leaders accountable for academic outcomes” (Noguera, 2011). Those partnerships include organizations and institutions that focus on health and nutrition supports to ensure that children come to school immunized, well fed, and “without toothaches or acute asthma attacks that prevent them from focusing and learning” (boldapproach.org). Partnerships also include after- and summer-school enrichment provides space to do and help with homework, adult support and mentoring, and the academic, cultural, and recreational activities that are needed to “develop creative thinkers, informed voters, and civic leaders,” (boldapproach.org).

BBA is also at the heart of what community schools do. Community schools are hubs for poor neighborhoods because they provide healthcare, adult education, recreation, tutoring, counseling, legal services, in addition to school for children. Community schools have had a good deal of success as David Kirp has noted. Kirp documented the work of the Children’s Aid Society, a 150 year old social service organization in New York City which has partnered with several public schools to form community schools. He writes, “At the Children’s Aid Society schools, test scores exceeded the city wide average, teacher attendance was better, more parents were involved in the schools, and there were less referrals of students to special education services,” (Kirp, 2011).

The community school strategy has had so much success with low income students that New York City is expanded their reach and hired the executive director of the Children’s Aid Society to lead the charge. In Baltimore, community schools are growing too with the help of ACTS and the Family League of Baltimore, a critical partnership in the expansion of community schools. In a city where a third of the residents live below the poverty line, it makes sense to have a strategy that takes poverty into account when improving schools. The Family League coordinates and oversees over 40 community schools throughout the city and wants to expand into more schools.

BBA and community schools are ideas whose time has come. The challenge will be to resist the reforms that aim to force schools that serve low income students focus narrowly on test scores. We know this doesn’t work, but yet it is still the dominant way that reformers have chosen to improve schools. As community schools grow, they need to come together and advocate for themselves and for the space to do what they do to improve learning for low income children.

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