Community Schools: Addressing the Poverty Gap at Its Roots

Miriam Cohen

EDST 245

Professor Debs


Community Schools: Addressing the Poverty Gap at Its Roots


What makes a school? Is it a place where children learn English, math, and science? Is it a place where children are fed, nursed, and counseled? Is a school responsible for the overall wellbeing of children, or for their academic growth alone? These are the essential questions community schools (also called community learning schools or full-service schools) grapple with. By partnering with community-based organizations to provide medical, social, and cultural services, community schools radically expand the traditional notion of a school, and represent a fascinatingly complex turn in school reform. Much of the literature on these schools has been advocacy-based: policy briefs from organizations or governments attempting to implement community schools. There is little objective literature on if and why these schools are effective. This report aims to address this gap, and finds that while community schools produce mixed results from standard accountability metrics, other metrics measuring a wider spectrum of outcomes should be considered. From a broader perspective, while community schools’ privatization of welfare is problematic, the supportive social ecologies they construct within geographical communities are positive.


Despite a wide range of reforms— based mostly around “academic rigor, discipline, and the value of test scores” (Sajnani et al. 2014, 207)— the gap in test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptances persists between children in poverty and not in poverty (McAlister 1998, 69). No Excuses charter schools are one example of these types of reforms, focusing on rigorous academics and strict discipline to produce high test scores and college acceptance rates (Golann 2015, 2). The federal policy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) implemented goals for proficiency rates on standardized tests and stringent consequences for not meeting those goals (Sajnanji et al. 2014, 207). After NCLB, further federal legislation such as Race to the Top in 2009 and the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 continued that focus (Strauss 2016). Yet these reforms have been plagued with issues, including narrowing curricula (Ravitch 2010, 159), a damaging focus on submissiveness (Golann 2015, 1), and still stagnating academic achievement (Ravitch 2010, 159).

While accountability legislation and No Excuses charter schools address the achievement gap by bearing down on academics, community schools address the problems of poverty that the achievement gap is rooted in. Children may feel unsafe in their neighborhoods; their housing and transportation systems may be inconsistent or non-existent (Walsh 2015, 131); they may not have access to medical services and nutritious food; and they may suffer from traumas such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect (Sajnani et al. 2014, 209). These strains combine to form what is called “social exclusion:” a vicious cycle in which people in poverty become further and further entangled in a web of deprivation and crisis of all forms. Social exclusion directly impacts children’s ability to learn; researchers have estimated that two-thirds of variation in student achievement is due to non-school factors such as the ones listed here (Walsh 2015, 131). Teachers are ill-equipped to teach children in the crisis of poverty, and when they do attempt to “be a doctor or a psychologist or a mommy,”  as one teacher put it, they are unable to focus on students’ learning (Callaci 2016). Thus, the narrow-minded accountability approach to closing the achievement gap is inadequate. Children in poverty face disadvantages that go well beyond better test preparation or academic instruction.

Community Schools

To combat the crisis of poverty and allow teachers to focus on teaching, community schools partner with outside organizations to provide a range of services to children and their families. Community schools have been implemented by many entities, including state governments, city governments, and private organizations. The first instance seems to have been in 1992, when the non-profit organization Children’s Aid Society (CAS) created a community school called I.S. 218 (Dryfoos 1994, 101). In 2015, 94% of students at I.S. 218 qualified for Free and Reduced lunch, 50% were English Language Learners,  and 21% had disabilities (“New York State Education Department,” 2017). To create a school that would address these populations, CAS obtained a grant from a private foundation to keep the school building open from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., provide dental and medical care, and run an after-school program. Later, the school added a family resource center and summer programs (Dryfoos 1994, 102). In addition, because I.S. 218 is located in Washington Heights, which is a majority Dominican neighborhood, the school offers cultural activities and English as a Second Language (ESL) services for both children and families (Dryfoos 1994, 104). There are countless other examples of community schools following this model, including in Boston, Dallas, and Cincinnati (Dryfoos, 9, 28, 38).

Arguably the highest-profile adoption of community schools has been in New York City, where the government has built off the success of an initiative the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) had started. In 2012, the UFT turned six existing public schools— three elementary schools and three high schools— into community schools (“UFT Press Release 2016a). The services they provided were multifaceted, extending to both students and families in the forms of both handout supports and capacity- and community-building programs. For example, Helen Keller International provided free eyesight screenings and glasses, and a food bank donated a bag of food to each student’s family every month (Alford 2013). One school provided mental health screenings for all of its students, with further supports for those who needed them (UFT Press Release 2016a). Perhaps most astonishingly, the financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald donated $1,000 to each family at one of the elementary schools (Alford 2013). UFT schools also drew families in with “more than 500 adults enrolled in ESL, adult education and wellness classes and more than 6,000 community members enrolled in the health clinic” at one school (Callaci 2016).

In 2014, Mayor Bill DeBlasio launched a Community Schools Initiative to expand UFT’s initiative, promising to create 100 community schools by 2017 (“New York City Community Schools Strategic Plan”). Thus, the schools analyzed here are products of both the UFT and the NYC government. The fact that DeBlasio decided to emphatically commit the largest school district in the nation to community schools demonstrates the greatly increased interest in the strategy. Though the NYC cohort is not old enough to be effectively analyzed, the results of the initial UFT cohort suggest its potential.


The data from that first UFT community schools cohort, now in its sixth year, shows mixed results across the standard accountability measures of test results, attendance rates, and graduation rates. At the three elementary schools, ELA and mathematics scores did increase: the combined average proficiency rate increased by 5.2 points and 15.2 points, respectively, from 2012-13 (when the initiative was implemented) to 2014-15 (see figs. 1 and 2).

Additionally, the UFT reported a 16.3% decrease in students scoring on the lowest level in ELA across all of its schools (UFT Press Release 2016a). This is an important statistic, as community schools aim to target that lowest-performing demographic (McAdoo 2013). However, on the high school level New York state data shows that the average ELA proficiency rates actually decreased by 2 percentage points. For attendance rates, the average of the six schools increased only marginally, by 1.6 percentage points (see fig. 3).

From 2013 to 2016, the average graduation rate for the three high schools increased by 4.3 points (see fig. 4). However, two of the high schools actually had decreased graduation rates, which were compensated by the other two to form an overall average increase.

This irregularity is echoed throughout the data metrics— though many of the cohort averages are positive, some schools have stagnated or declined in proficiency or attendance rates while others have improved drastically. The only two schools that seem to improve in all measures are P.S. 18 and P.S. 188. Those schools should be analyzed further, though there is little available information on the precise distinctions between the six UFT school implementations.

These mixed results are not unique to NYC but are echoed by literature on community schools in general. According to a 2011 study, “There is not a statistically significant relationship between providing a comprehensive approach to the “whole child” through wrap-around services…and school effectiveness” (Dobbie and Fryer 2011, 18). Yet how exactly are they defining and measuring “school effectiveness?” For the most part, those researchers used standardized test scores, which tend to be the most common metric used to evaluate schools. However, given the wide range of outcomes that community schools work toward, it is necessary to ask whether traditional accountability measures are sufficient to accurately gauge these schools’ success. As the president of the UFT said in 2013, “If you tell me a kid comes to school hungry and we feed them, I don’t need a database to tell me that’s a good thing” (Hernandez 2013). Community schools turn the strictly academic nature of traditional schooling on its head by forming a holistic environment of academic, social, and medical services around students and families. Therefore, they need new measures of success. For example, the instances cited above of children receiving glasses, food, and mental health supports are in themselves forms of student success— just not the ones commonly used to evaluate schools.

Existing examples of alternative measures reveal a more favorable representation of community schools, and often have more to do with reframing current data than collecting new information. In a community schools program in Des Moines, Iowa, the schools reported a 34% improvement in oral hygiene and a 36% decrease in referrals for cavities (Dryfoos, 6). Dental health may improve learning— as the principal of a UFT community school said, “If a kid has a crazy toothache, I mean, I can’t study with a toothache” (Zimmerman 2016). However, the very fact that child dental health improved in that school is a worthy success in itself. Other alternative metrics have to do with children’s attitudes and social development. A study researching the CAS schools in NYC found that the children “had more positive attitudes toward school experiences” (Dryfoos 8). A California school that adopted the CAS model found that students “significantly improved their effort, study habits, homework, and showed improved academic progress and attendance” (Dryfoos 9). Finally, community schools address mental health, which according to a survey of school-based clinic providers is the largest unmet student need (Dryfoos 1994, 52). Community schools meet this need by partnering with mental health clinics, therapists, and social workers. A team of educators who implemented a drama therapy course and mental health supports in New Haven, Connecticut schools emphasize that issues of mental health are central to students’ overall growth and outcomes. They assert that “the understanding of social development and adequate test scores cannot be construed as mutually exclusive goals” (Sajnani et al. 2014, 208). This has been born out in practice: a Dallas, Texas school that implemented full services reported that students who received mental health services had fewer discipline referrals, course failures, and absences (Dryfoos, 28). Yet as with dental health, even the fact of receiving mental health supports at all is a positive outcome.

Methodological Implications

Even aside from practical results, the broader implications of community schools’ privatization of welfare can be problematic. The basic premise of community schools is that public schools— traditionally funded by a combination of federal, state, and city governments— partner with a wide variety of actors to expand their range of services. These include businesses (Dryfoos 1994, 65), universities, and private foundations or organizations (Dryfoos 1994, 72). While some government agencies do contribute, the examples cited above in the UFT cohort— Helen Keller International, a food bank, and Cantor Fitzgerald— illustrate the range of private entities in these schools. While in the past, “schools were all too happy to accept help from any nonprofit organization” (Hernandez 2013), those partnerships would be limited and generally related to traditional academic provenance.

Now, community schools address problems like hunger, sickness, and homelessness—  previously addressed by governmental programs like SNAP, the Affordable Care Act, and public housing projects— using private philanthropy. Thus, the government— national, state, or city— is arguably unburdened from those responsibilities. Through using private organizations to solve public problems, government “becomes primarily about the governance of philanthropic networks and devolved responsibility while retaining…some semblance of steering control” (Rodger 2013, 729). This phenomenon could be seen as a “hollowing out” of the state. If government merely marshals the work of private philanthropy, it is to some extent released from obligations to, for example, provide universally accessible healthcare or food access.

One could argue that the students at UFT community schools don’t care if their food comes from SNAP tickets or from a food bank. Yet there are several hidden disadvantages to servicing students in a public school with private organizations. First, shifting schools’ focus from academics to social and medical services potentially shields the school itself from criticism, deflecting attention from “ sub-optimal school structures, routines, classroom practices, and especially workforce characteristics and competencies” (Lawson and Van Veen 2015, 62). A commitment to community schools must not come at the cost of efforts to improve the quality of teaching and curricula. In addition, privatization of welfare creates unbalanced relationships between community members. A study of the Big Society social intervention project in the United Kingdom argued that “the philanthropic environment promotes and facilitates one-way, inherently unequal relationships between donors and recipients” (Rodger 2013, 737). Certain community members providing essential services to other community members creates an imbalanced benefactor-benefited relationship, and additionally represents an imbalanced distribution of “power and control over resources” (Rodger 2013, 737). Though this is not necessarily a reason to entirely shut down private philanthropy, community schools should strive to facilitate equal social communal relationships. A final difficulty with this model is that it depends on whatever existing resources are in the community, and so is potentially unscalable. In a city like New York, where a vast number of organizations already working to provide services exist, community schools can easily draw on those organizations. Yet more rural or impoverished areas may not have the requisite resources.

However, it may be possible that government funds can be marshaled for elements of community school services. To start its cohort of community schools, the UFT used not only funds from a collective of businesses but also from the New York City Council (UFT Press Release 2016b). When Mayor DeBlasio added his community schools initiative, he used $150 million in city funds (Harris 2014). Absent an initiative dedicated specifically to community schools, it seems in general that government funds could most easily be used for health services. Departments of Health in New York, California, and Minnesota have all created programs for school-based health clinics (Dryfoos 1994, 178). In addition, there is potential for utilizing Medicaid funds to implement school-based clinics and healthcare providers. Baltimore, for example, has placed clinics in seven high schools using Medicaid funding (Dryfoos 1994, 174). However, there are several limitations to using Medicaid, including ineligibility, complex bureaucracy and forms, and various qualifications that schools must meet (Dryfoos 1994, 175).

Furthermore, despite its drawbacks, privatization of welfare does bring new actors into the web of policy solutions. The fact that private actors are enabled to provide formerly public services means that “new policy discourses and…new forms of policy influence and enactment” are brought into the policy process (Ball 2008, 748). In some ways, then, privatization is a “filling in,” not a “hollowing out” as was previously posited (Ball 2008, 762). The government here is not abdicating its responsibilities but rather creating new networks of services, utilizing more resources than before.

These new networks of actors creates positive communal relationships and social ecologies. Social ecologies are the collective of environments in which development occurs: for children, this includes school, home, and neighborhood (Lawson and Lawson 2013, 441). Community schools integrate those environments into a centralized location where a multitude of adults “form a kind of child-centered and school-focused chorus” (Lawson and Van Veen 2015, 65). In these schools, children interact positively with not only teachers but medical professionals, community leaders, and parents. This has a large potential for increasing student engagement. Traditionally, “classroom instruction is thought to influence students’ motivations in school [and] students’ motivations are thought to predict engagement” (Lawson and Lawson 2013, 433). However, engagement may depend more on the interactions of children’s social ecologies (Lawson and Lawson 2013, 434)— interactions that community schools are poised to facilitate.


Over the past few decades, there have been many drastic attempts at school reform, often aiming to close the achievement gap through strict accountability and academic rigor. Community schools have a similar goal. However, the approach they take is to holistically address the manifold disadvantages low-income children face: hunger, physical and mental health issues, and lack of safe spaces to play and learn while not in school. By partnering mainly with private organizations, they engage a whole new range of actors in providing food and health services,  extending the school day, and various other programs geared toward both children and families. This creates an integrated web of social ecologies centered at school: a place that all children regardless of income are required to go and a place that parents tend to trust and can easily locate (Dryfoos 1994, xi). Thus, while new ways of evaluation are needed to more realistically and accurately measure community schools’ success, and while the drawbacks to the privatization of social services should be taken into account, community schools should continue to expand. In the never-ending process of education reform, they represent an exciting new step toward equitable education for all.


Thanks to Mira Debs for the advice and for an excellent grounding in education reform,  and to Caitlin Dermody for very helpful and thorough edits.

Works Cited

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Sajnani, Nisha; Jewers-Dailley, Kimberly; Brillante, Ann; Puglisi, Judith; Read Johnson, David; “Animating Learning by Integrating and Validating Experience.” In Trauma-Informed Drama Therapy: Transforming Clinics, Classrooms, and Communities, edited by Nisha Sajnani and David Read Johnson, 206-242. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas Publishers, 2014.

Strauss, Valerie, “Obama’s real education legacy: Common Core, testing, charter schools.” The Washington Post, October 21, 2016. Accessed May 1, 2017.

b) UFT Press Release, “Partnership for New York City joins UFT and City Council in awarding $600,000 to link schools with community health and social service programs.” United Federation of Teachers, June 27, 2012. Accessed May 1, 2017. releases/partnership-new-york-city-joins-uft-and-city-council.

a) UFT Press Release, “UFT’s Community Learning Schools are moving in the right direction.” United Federation of Teachers, September 7, 2016. Accessed May 1, 2017.

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