Half a dozen police cars ring the entrance to the Morris Educational Campus in the Bronx. To enter this venerable Gothic-style building, I have to make my way through a phalanx of policemen and be scanned by a metal detector.
But the show of force doesn’t signal that the high school students inside pose a threat. It is intended to protect the students, who fear getting mugged, or worse, in a high-crime neighborhood situated in the nation’s poorest congressional district.
No one could confuse the Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies, one of four small schools that share this building, with the powerhouse Bronx High School of Science, just five miles away. Some students who arrive at Morris Academy for the ninth grade are reading at the third-grade level. A quarter of the 463 students are classified as special-needs students and a fifth are learning English as a second language. Eighty-seven percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
But compared with demographically similar high schools, Morris Academy is doing well. The rate of chronic absenteeism—students who miss more than 10 percent of school days—dropped to 41.1 percent from 56.5 percent in one year. The graduation rate is 67 percent, an eight percent increase in the past two years, and the school is closing in on the citywide average. In the context of the neighborhood and its cohort of schools, Morris Academy feels like another world.
The main explanation, says the principal, Matthew Mazzaroppi, is that Morris Academy is among the 130 schools that have been converted into “community schools,” a cornerstone initiative in the crusade by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Carmen Fariña, the schools chancellor, to improve public education.
A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships with local organizations intended to deliver health, social and recreational supports for students and their families. The idea of a school that serves as a neighborhood hub holds widespread appeal, and 150 school districts, including Chicago, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Albuquerque, Tulsa, Okla., and Lincoln, Neb., have bought into the idea.
The community school is the contemporary version of the 19th-century settlement houses founded by the progressive activist and sociologist Jane Addams on the theory that social ills are interconnected and must be approached holistically. The mission of community schools is to confront the dogged persistence of conditions like untreated asthma, vision and dental problems, and emotional trauma, which mar the lives of children in hardscrabble neighborhoods.
“You wouldn’t think it’s acceptable to send a child to school without having glasses or without dental care, but it’s O.K. for that child to take a reading or math test,” Mark Gaither, the principal of Wolfe Street Academy, a justly renowned community school in Baltimore, told Maryland lawmakers. “But that’s the situation poor parents face.”
A growing body of research establishes that community schools can have an outsize impact. City Connects, which operates in 79 elementary schools mainly in the Northeast, has erased two-thirds of the achievement gap in math and half the achievement gap in English, compared with the Massachusetts statewide average. Students were substantially less likely to be chronically absent or held back, and the high school dropout rate was cut nearly in half. Other nationwide models, such as Communities in Schools, have succeeded in substantially reducing dropouts and raising graduation rates.
City Connects costs less than $800 per student annually—about 6 percent on top of the typical cost to educate one. An analysis of the program carried out by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education at Columbia found that it generates a return of at least $3 for every dollar spent. “Providing the program to 100 students over six years would cost society $457,000 but yield $1,385,000 in social benefits”—higher incomes, lower incarceration rates, better health and less reliance on welfare, according to the analysis. If City Connects were a company, Warren Buffett would snatch it up.
Morris Academy opens early—breakfast is provided, along with before-class tutoring. It’s open until 6:30, as well as on some Saturdays and during the summer. Students can choose among clubs for chess players, step-team dancers and bloggers. The robotics team competes with high schools nationwide. During lunchtime and after school, tutors offer one-on-one help to struggling students. An in-house clinic provides medical, dental and psychological services.
Community school funds enabled Mr. Mazzaroppi to deliver the emotional support that battle-scarred children badly need—recruiting a squadron of social workers, training teachers to counsel students and teaching older students how to mentor their younger classmates. “Our problem wasn’t lack of an academic strategy but our inability to answer students’ pleas for help,” he says. Now, remarkably, Morris Academy students are more likely than their peers citywide to say they feel safe in school and believe that their teachers care about them.
After-school and summer programs not only keep poor kids off the streets, but they also give them the academic leg up and the array of opportunities that better-off families can afford to buy. When he was the chief executive of Chicago’s public school system, Arne Duncan, the former United States secretary of education, opened 150 community schools. “Making every school a community school—that’s got to be our collective vision,” he asserted.
Results-hungry policy makers expect test scores to rise overnight, but getting students engaged in their own education must come first. A recent evaluation of Baltimore’s community schools concluded that the schools whose students did best academically were those in the program longest.
“The key is perseverance,” says Mr. Gaither. “When you hold the course, you get more than what you pay for.” His experience bears him out. Since adopting the community schools strategy a decade ago, Wolfe Street Academy has moved from being the city’s second-worst-performing elementary school to its second-highest.
New York rarely does things by halves, and community schools are no exception. In the span of just two years, 51,616 students started attending schools like Morris Academy—more students than in the entire District of Columbia school system. Most of them go to one of the 94 “renewal schools,” the city’s lowest-performing schools. Patience is in short supply in New York, however, and these troubled schools have just three years to show substantial progress.
“Ailing schools often struggle to turn around, even with an influx of new energy, resources and staff,” says Aaron Pallas, a Columbia Teachers College professor. An evaluation of 602 Communities in Schools programs reinforces this point. The model increased grades and graduation rates—but only in schools that followed it with “a high degree of fidelity,” with closegrained assessments of students’ diverse needs and high-quality supports to match those needs.
New York’s experiment is drawing attention among educators nationwide. If the venture succeeds, other cities may follow suit, but if fails, the community schools movement will take a hit. The impressive evaluations will recede in significance, and critics will dismiss the strategy as just another failed fad. Fingers crossed, then, that the city gives the experiment enough time before rushing to judgment.
David L. Kirp is a professor at the graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley and a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute. He is also a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, where he has authored numerous articles including "What Can Stop Kids From Dropping Out," "How New York Made Pre-K a Success," "A New Way to Improve College Enrollment," and many more.
This article was originally posted on The New York Times.