Schools Cannot Do It Alone

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Jane QuinnThe start of the academic year provides a good opportunity for us as youth workers to assess the state of our partnerships with schools. I for one am feeling quite optimistic, both about what many existing school-community partnerships have been able to achieve and about the growing recognition in education circles that such alliances are central to school improvement. 

Just last week, I participated in a workshop at a statewide school administrators’ conference in New Mexico and learned that the morning’s keynote speaker was Jamie Vollmer, author of the new book Schools Cannot Do It Alone. Now this insight may not be a newsflash to us in the youth development field — many of us have worked for two decades or more to demonstrate our value to our education colleagues. But often we were treated as tenants or, worse yet, vendors rather than as valued partners with critical skills that contribute to the learning and healthy development of young people.

A sea change has occurred in this field over the past several years.  Leading educators such as Rudy Crew, who headed up the New York City and then Miami school districts, are exhorting their peers to connect with community resources. The heads of both major teachers’ unions are urging their members to embrace the community schools strategy, which integrates health, human services and youth development partners into the life of schools. And recent research from the Consortium for Chicago School Research has demonstrated unequivocally that family and community engagement is an essential ingredient of school improvement.

Even some less positive developments, such as the fiscal crisis facing many American cities, are opening new doors to school-community alliances.  For example, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, faced with a multi-million dollar deficit, was forced to reduce its music, arts, physical education and library staff in order to safeguard the positions of regular classroom teachers. But the work of those other staff members provided necessary planning time for the classroom teachers — planning time that was guaranteed by the union contract. In the face of this dilemma, the district intends to cut 50 minutes from the K-8 school day this Fall, with the result that many Cleveland students will be dismissed at 1:45 in the afternoon. As you might imagine, parents are looking to their neighborhood youth organizations to fill this gap between the end of their children’s school day and their own work day.

In another Midwest city, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel reached out to youth organizations last year when he announced an ambitious plan to extend the school day. The difficulties presented by these seemingly contradictory public policies — shortening or lengthening the school schedule — lend themselves to the same broad conclusion: an expanded role for thoughtful school-community partnerships.

What do such partnerships look like? They might be after-school and summer enrichment programs based in the school, as we have seen for the past decade with the full implementation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Or they might be community schools, a strategy for organizing school and community resources around student success. In most variations of this latter approach, a lead agency takes responsibility for coordinating a full range of student and family supports, and for integrating them with the school’s core instructional program. Another option is extended learning time, which often involves revising the school’s schedule for all students and integrating enrichment activities into the regular school day through collaborations with youth organizations or other community agencies.   

A central feature of many extended learning time initiatives is the mandatory nature of the schedule changes: all students experience a longer day and/or year; teachers’ schedules become more flexible; and community partners are integrated into the revised schedule through joint planning.

The good news — for educators, youth workers, parents and students alike — is that all of these kinds of partnerships, when well implemented, have shown positive results. 

The National Institute for Out-of-School Time and the National Afterschool Alliance have documented positive outcomes owing to young people’s participation in after-school and summer enrichment programs. Similarly, the National Center for Community Schools and the Coalition for Community Schools have examined and publicized the benefits of multiple models that employ this strategy. And the National Center on Time and Learning has summarized the early promising results of extended school schedules. 

Taken together, this data serves to bolster the growing case that schools cannot — indeed should not — do it alone.