Community Learning Schools use partnerships to provide the social services students need to succeed

blogimage_CLSWe were interested to see this recent profile of PS 196, a Brooklyn elementary school that will transform into a Community Learning School (CLS) this fall. The school will be joining the larger network of the NYC Community Learning Schools Initiative (NYCCLSI), launched in 2012 as a partnership among the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City Council, the Partnership for New York City, and Trinity Wall Street. PS 196 will draw on support from various partnerships with non-profits, local businesses, and government agencies to improve student academic achievement by meeting the social service needs of the students. The Bushwick elementary school will be joining 23 other New York City schools across all five boroughs that have adopted this model.

The CLS movement, which extends beyond the New York City initiative, is partly a response to an increasing percentage of students in public schools who come from low-income families. According to federal data analyzed earlier this year, just over half of all students attending public schools in the United States are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 38 percent in 2000. Having a higher proportion of low-income students in schools brings a variety of related issues to contend with. “We in no way are providing schools and teachers in schools with what it takes to educate low-income students today,” says Steve Suitts, Vice President of the Southern Education Foundation. Administrators at schools in districts with a high percentage of poor students “have to think of many services that educators in wealthier districts do not.”

There are federal programs that aim to funnel public funds into higher-need schools. But as more school districts are serving more low-income students, Eric Gordon, Chief Executive Officer of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, explains, there may not be sufficient taxpayer money to help them all. It makes sense, then, that schools would begin to look for solutions that work at a more local level, moving outside the realm of the public sector to engage local non-profits and businesses, which have expertise and resources that would not typically be available to them.

In a New York Times op-ed from last year, Daniel J. Cardinali, the President of Communities In Schools, examines how children living in poverty are more likely to be chronically absent in school, resulting in lower test scores and lower graduation rates. “Policy makers usually treat dropout rates and chronic absenteeism as ‘school’ problems, while issues like housing and mental health are ‘social’ problems with a different set of solutions.” Communities In Schools is a national organization that uses a community school model to address the issue of chronic absenteeism by making social services inextricable from the school itself. The cost — which comes to $189 per student — is shared between government agencies and community partners, which reduces the impact on school budgets, where resources are limited.

According to the CIS website, “troubled students and their families often have a hard time accessing and navigating through the maze of public and private services.” Through a school-based coordinator position, the organization “brings local resources inside the public school setting, where they are accessible, coordinated, and accountable.” Schools can partner with local businesses, social service agencies, health care providers, and volunteers to provide a range of services, from food, school supplies, health care, counseling, academic assistance, or positive role models for their students.

To identify the top priorities at PS 196, representatives from the school will conduct a needs assessment with NYCCLSI. Those results will inform the strategies used to work with the community-based intersector partner organizations who will serve the students, their parents, and the neighborhood. The scope of this collaborative work will be overseen by a School Advisory Board. A Resource Coordinator from NYCCLSI will then manage the day-to-day work of the program. PS 196 is well-suited for the CLS program due to its strong plan, robust partnerships, diverse funding, a motivated school staff, and high-need demographics, explains Christine Schuch, Director of Policy for NYCCLSI. “It’s phenomenal how engaged and collaborative the school staff is,” she said.