Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

BurgBlog: Are community schools the solution to Harrisburg’s educational woes?

Benjamin Franklin Elementary School on 6th Street in Harrisburg.

There’s a series in the online newspaper the Philadelphia Citizen that bears my favorite name in media: “Ideas we should steal.” Each column highlights a program or policy making a positive difference in communities across the United States.

I like this series because it relies on a fundamental but underutilized aspect of journalism: the power to identify proactive solutions to local problems. I try to practice this approach in my own reporting, taking notes from outlets like Keystone Crossroads (a great project by public radio stations across Pennsylvania) and the Solutions Journalism Network, which aggregates solutions-based reporting into a searchable database.

It was a story I found through the Solutions Journalism Network that catalyzed my recent feature about high rates of absenteeism in Harrisburg schools. My article, which you can read online or in our February print issue, shows how the current method for tracking student attendance inures schools to high rates of chronic absence. I explain why that can doom other well-intentioned programs in a school district, and highlight initiatives that other schools have used to reduce absenteeism.

Since sending that story to print a week ago, a story in the Philadelphia Citizen alerted me to another educational model that’s gaining steam in Ohio, California and, recently, Philadelphia: community schools. Essentially, community schools host different health and human service agencies directly in school buildings, with the belief that connecting students to these services will make it easier for them to learn.

This approach to schooling acknowledges that a student’s education can’t take place in a vacuum. The stresses of poverty don’t dissipate when a child enters a classroom, and a traditional school staff can’t overcome them on their own. (Consider the appeal by Harrisburg teachers this fall for more trauma-trained aides in schools.) But by inviting health clinics, therapists, social workers and food pantries into schools, teachers and administrators can equip students with everything they need to arrive at school healthy and clear-headed.

The benefits of community schools speak for themselves. Since Cincinnati set out to transform all 55 of its city schools into “community learning centers” a decade ago, test scores have risen uniformly across the district. Cincinnati also became the first urban district in its state to get an “effective” ranking from the Ohio Department of Education. Community schools in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., have also shown encouraging results.

“This has to be the next step in school reform,” Paul Reville, leader of Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab, told the Philadelphia Citizen. “Only when we optimize schools across the country so people come in ready to learn will we really be able to level the playing field—which is what everybody says we want.”

The services that community schools offered aren’t just available to students, but to entire neighborhoods. And it’s up to those neighborhoods to decide what services they want, whether it’s immigration aid, mental health counseling, housing assistance or parenting classes. When one neighborhood in Cincinnati wanted more green space, its school built a roof garden, according to the Citizen.

What’s encouraging is that this kind of model is already in progress in Harrisburg. Capital Area Head Start plans on co-locating with Hamilton Health Center this fall, after Hamilton Health finishes a 25,000-square-foot expansion to its S. 17th Street facility. Jeanine Peterson, CEO of Hamilton Health, explained the reasons for the partnership to TheBurg back in October. Her logic sounded a lot like the arguments for community schools.

“We are a one-stop shop for families to access what they need,” Peterson said. “Co-locating with Head Start eliminates a lot of the barriers that a lot of families have in ensuring that their kids get quality health care.”

The arrangement between Hamilton Health and Head Start also shows that creating community schools doesn’t need to be expensive. It can be as simple as relocating existing health and human service agencies into school buildings. Even so, the Harrisburg school district would need funding to remodel and expand its facilities. A district-wide effort would also require new personnel. In Oakland, Calif., where district officials hope to convert all schools to community learning centers, every school building has a designated staff member to oversee non-educational services.

Most cities opening community schools use a combination of public and private dollars to fund the transition. Cincinnati citizens voted to approve a tax levy to fund renovations for all 55 of the city’s schools. The city also applied for a federal Title 1 grant and obtained private partnership money from United Way and Proctor & Gamble. In Oakland, community schools are funded by a combination of private fundraising and collaborations between individual schools and nonprofits, including the ones that might move in to school campuses. They’ve also consolidated some schools and retooled their budget to accommodate their new priorities.

Education advocates (including the researcher Robert Balfanz, who I interviewed in my February feature) often say that schools alone can’t save children from the ills of poverty. The increasing prevalence of community schools across America shows that more and more policy-makers agree. If it takes a village to raise a child, Harrisburg should join other cities in making schools the new village square.

Read more about community schools in Philadelphia, Oakland, and Cincinnati

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