Mayor Jim Kenney talks with staff at Southwark School about expanding community school opportunities.

Mayor Jim Kenney talks with staff at Southwark School about expanding community school opportunities.

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Do community schools make better students? The jury’s still out

Mayor Jim Kenney’s plan to turn schools into community hubs may not have a short-term impact on the actual academics in Philly schools.

A major tenet of Mayor Jim Kenney’s education plan is to take 25 public schools and transform them into hubs for their neighborhoods. They’ll be anchors of their area and will do more than just teach. They’ll work to satisfy the basic needs of the community through features like health clinics, neighborhood yoga classes and adult literacy programming.

But does the community school model actually impact academics? You know, the “why” for a school existing?

When Kenney was still mayor-elect, he, members of his administration and Council President Darrell Clarke traveled to Cincinnati to take a look at how the Ohio city had implemented community schools.

The goal was to integrate community services — whether that’s health and human services, libraries, extra tutoring or activities for general wellness — into neighborhood schools. In the end, the developers of the community school model hoped an overall positive image of the school in the neighborhood would foster pride in parents, students and residents.

While there, Otis Hackney, Kenney’s chief education officer, described Oyler Community Learning Center as “awesome.” Inside the school was, according to The Inquirer: vision, medical and dental clinics, a food bank, a day-care center and a mental-health wing. The school, after undergoing a $21 million transformation, has undoubtedly had a positive impact on the neighborhood around it.

But the academic achievement at Oyler has been mixed. State test scores slightly improved, then dipped again. It still has a less than 50 percent graduation rate and received a “D” in performance index on its school-wide report card from the state government.

Kenney’s education spokeswoman Deana Gamble said the improvement of academics at the schools chosen to be converted into community schools is an indirect goal, but the city has little control over the academic side of what and how students are learning. That’s up to the district.

“The community school approach is more geared on meeting the needs of the whole child,” she said, “and in doing so, we certainly want to alleviate the barriers to academic achievement.”

If Kenney’s budget were to pass as is by City Council, including his controversial 3-cent-per-ounce soda tax, it would allocate $4 million toward community schools in fiscal year 2017 and $10 million each year after. In total, some $39.5 million will be pumped into the chosen few schools, an investment from the city and (the administration’s fingers are crossed on this) grants from government and private entities.

Over the next five years, 25 schools citywide would be converted into community schools on a rolling basis. If Kenney’s plan passes through Council, the first round of five or six schools would be named by this summer.

District officials said last month that more than 40 schools are into the Extreme Makeover, and the administration hinted it would consider traditional, neighborhood schools over charters — though all public schools are on the table.

But this is a relatively new model. That means there’s been no real study of whether it produces better students. The Center for Popular Democracy, a New York-based education research firm, produced a report on community schools in February that found additional academic support provided to students through the community schools model translated to improved academic achievement.

For instance, Webb Middle School in Austin, Texas saw a 30 percent increase in its graduation rate over five years of operating its new community school model. It went from being the lowest performing middle school in the city to the highest performing of 14 campuses around it. At Evans High School in Florida, the graduation rate went from 64 percent to 78 percent after three years as a community school. Fifth grade reading proficiency at the Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore went from 50 percent to 95 percent in four years after the community school model was implemented.

Local education researchers wrote in The Public School Notebook that student behavioral changes that can translate to academic success could come, but in the first few years, “goals might address the integration of the community school model within each site and participation among students and their families.”

Gamble said concrete metrics and performance measures haven’t been decided by the administration, largely because schools will likely come up with their own ways to measure success in partnership with an administration-placed coordinator.

Cliff Thomas, the policy director at the Philadelphia School Partnership, a nonprofit school fund that invests in both private and public schools, said while the Partnership supports the efforts of the Kenney administration to bring needed services to low-income communities, the jury’s still out on whether the model can directly translate to academic improvements.

“It’s absolutely necessary and laudable to provide disadvantaged communities with access [to services],” he said. “But I don’t think we should expect transformational improvement on academics without transformational focus on academics.”

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