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First report on community schools finds them mostly on track

Emma Lee/WHYY

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The first nine schools in Mayor Kenney’s community schools initiative are mostly on track to effectively implement the model, according to a new report by Research for Action that uses national benchmarks to measure progress.

The report was done in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office of Education, which is overseeing the project, and funded by the Ford Foundation. In addition to evaluating each of the schools, the report also rated the Mayor’s Office on its management.

Evaluators judged elements including whether the Mayor’s Office had built staff capacity, gathered local input, studied similar initiatives in other cities, and collected data on each school and its neighborhood.

Schools were judged on whether they created school committees that were representative of the community, held regular meetings, established goals and a vision, built local partnerships, and created a plan for moving forward.

Some schools hit most benchmarks and others fell short on some, but all the schools were moving forward, said Mark Duffy, one of the report’s authors.

“I can’t overemphasize the complexity of the model,” Duffy said. “The majority of the elements are on track, and this represents a lot of work.”

The idea of community schools is to make school buildings into neighborhood hubs for health, recreation, and social services. It’s a model that is growing in popularity nationally. Ultimately, each school will look different after assessing the community’s unique needs, building partnerships, and developing a plan. The theory is that reaching the “whole child” and aiding families in primarily low-income neighborhoods creates a better learning environment.

It is an accepted “intervention” for struggling schools in the national Every Student Succeeds Act, as well as the ESSA plan developed by Pennsylvania.

All the schools are conducting outreach, Duffy said. Some are in more of an “emergent stage” in some areas, such as developing partnerships, he said.

“I wouldn’t characterize this as some schools doing better than others because each school is so individual. Some already had long histories of working with lots of partnerships, while others don’t have that kind of history. This is just a continuum of how far they’ve gotten, but they all didn’t start in the same place,” he said.

A statement issued by the Mayor’s Office of Education said that monitoring the initiative using national best practices is crucial.

“We have to lay the right foundation for the programs and partnerships we’re bringing into schools, and the progress report shows that we are on the right track,” said Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney. "As the report demonstrates, we’ve taken care to seek public input on the process and work with each of the school communities to make sure that we’re effectively matching services with needs.”

Susan Gobreski, the city’s community schools director, said that the report “shows that we’re taking the necessary steps for long-term success.” She noted that it is “too early” to assess student outcomes, but that the city is “already moving on some of the areas identified for development.”

The initiative is being funded through revenue from the city’s sugary drinks tax. Kenney has said he wants to expand the program to 25 community schools. Currently, there are 12. The second cohort of schools was scaled back because the tax is still in litigation.

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