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Promise Neighborhoods and Community Schools

While new, Promise Neighborhoods shares a lot in common with the concept of the community school, which has been around for a long time.

What are community schools? How are they similar? How are they different? What does the future hold for these two ideas? What are some learning resources that might be valuable to Promise Neighborhoods planners?

We asked Martin Blank, Director of the Coalition for Community Schools (also President of the Institute for Educational Leadership).

Building Neighborhoods: Many of our readers, especially those from the social services side, may not be familiar with the community school model. Can you tell us a little about it and its history?

Martin Blank: The Coalition for Community Schools defines community schools as centers of community where schools and community partners (organizations in youth development, health and social services, family support and engagement, community development and other fields) work together to help young people succeed and to develop stronger families and healthier communities.  The idea dates back to John Dewey’s vision of the schools as social center and Jane Addams work to bring settlement house into the school.  It also is built on the Mott Foundation’s community education strategy started in the 1940s in Michigan.

Today’s community schools often are run as partnerships between school and lead community partners whose job it is to mobilize community resources to support a common agenda.  A full-time site coordinator works to integrate the assets of partners into the life of the school.

There are large community school initiatives in many places today including Chicago, Multnomah Country (Portland) OR; New York, Tulsa, Lincoln, Cincinnati, and many others.  And the movement is growing.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, AFT President Randi Weingarten, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer are among the ardent supporters of community schools.

The Coalition for Community Schools is the national policy, research and advocacy arm of the community schools movement.  We are an alliance of national, state and local organizations in education K-16, youth development, community planning and development, family support, health and human services, government and philanthropy as well as national, state and local community school networks.  Our partners are our most important resource.  They spread the word about community schools and help to move our policy agenda.  Education partners include the American Association of School Administrators, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association as well as an array of student support groups among others including the Public Education Network.  United Way World-Wide, the YMCA of the USA, the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care and the Harlem Children’s Zone are among our partners.

Building Neighborhoods: How are community schools like Promise Neighborhoods and the Harlem Children's Zone model?

Martin Blank: Schools are at the center of the Promise Neighborhoods strategy and guidelines.  So from a community school perspective every school in a Promise Neighborhood will be a community school.  And in fact Geoff Canada said as much at a briefing at the Center for American Progress.

Canada said:

So the question is: Do I believe in community schools where kids get all they need?  Good health care, good social services, great after school, great culture…yes.  I believe in that, and I've fought for that my entire life.  And I will fight for that my entire life.  And I think that it's critical.

Promise Neighborhoods and community schools represent a paradigm shift from previous policies that relied solely on accountability to get results. They recognize that community issues are school issues.  They represent a recognition that we’re all in this together and respond to the President’s call for everyone to act; not only educators, but also parents, students, and the community. Like Promise Neighborhoods, community schools focus on both the quality of the academic program and of family and community support.  We know that family and community supports alone will not get our young people college and career ready.  We must have a strong academic program with high qualified teachers and a robust curriculum that engages students.  What distinguishes community schools on the academic side is an effort to develop a community-based curriculum that involves young people in the real world and in fact, as resources and problem solvers in their own communities.

Promise Neighborhoods, HCZ and community schools are also built on a very common set of principles; here are the community school principles.

  • Foster strong partnerships -- Partners share their resources and expertise and work together to design community schools and make them work.
  • Share accountability for results -- Clear, mutually agreed-upon results drive the work of community schools. Data helps partners’ measure progress toward results. Agreements enable them to hold each other accountable and move beyond "turf battles."
  • Set high expectations for all -- Community schools are organized to support learning. Children, youth and adults are expected to learn at high standards and be contributing members of their community.
  • Build on the community's strengths -- Community schools marshal the assets of the entire community -- including the people who live and work there, local organizations, and the school.
  • Embrace diversity -- Community schools know their communities. They work to develop respect and a strong, positive identity for people of diverse backgrounds and are committed to the welfare of the whole community.

Building Neighborhoods: How are community schools different from Promise Neighborhoods?

Martin Blank: At the Coalition our strategy has been to move people toward a common vision and the application of common principles.  We know that community schools will look different depending on the community context.  That is why we do not ‘certify’ community schools nor do we have required menu of services. So seeking common ground is our strategy, not making sharp distinctions, but let me try.

From my perspective community schools start with a focus on the school, engage partners in joint efforts to improve student achievement and development and in the process work to strengthen family and community.  Promise Neighborhood start with the entire neighborhood in mind and focus on the school from that starting point.  Community schools and Promise Neighborhoods are two similar approaches to what is a very complex set of challenges.

Building Neighborhoods: As you know, we are entering a tough budgetary climate. We at UNCA are working to support funding for Promise Neighborhoods and President Obama's broader neighborhoods agenda. But that is going to be a tough road looking forward. I assume the same is true for community schools. What does the future look like for these programs?

Martin Blank: The budget environment for children and families has never been tougher in my professional career.

First, from a macro perspective I am waiting for all the organizations committed to our issues to work together to expand the share of the budget going to children and families. If we keep focused only on our own programs we will not get the investment in children, families, and communities that we need to make community schools and Promise Neighborhoods a reality.

Second we want to see a larger investment in programs that include key elements of community schools: e.g., 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Title I, family engagement, school based health centers, the FSCS Act, and Promise Neighborhoods.

Finally, we want federal policy to provide incentives for programs and agencies to work together.  We know that neither community schools nor Promise Neighborhoods will ever reach scale unless we find ways to braid together the array of federal, state and local, public and private funding streams.  That means 1) building common results frameworks to drive the work of schools, neighborhoods communities and states; 2) letting communities decide who will be the fiscal agent for particular programs based on their own knowledge of who has the right expertise; and 3) funding the intermediary work required to build and sustain partnerships at the community level and for coordination of school and community resources at the school level.

Building Neighborhoods: Where are we likely to see some of that happen in the short term? ESEA reauthorization? Something else?

Martin Blank: Given President Obama’s focus on having all students’ college and career ready by 2020, and the placement of Promise in the Department of Education, we see ESEA as a primary vehicle for achieving our policy goals.  Based on current conversations with the administration and Congress, we are cautiously optimistic that we will attain our first and third goals; more money is of course a different story.

There is another arena that all of should pay attention to and that is the implementation of health care reform.  The problem with health care is not that we do not have money but that funds do not flow in a way that contribute to good health outcomes for the children and families in the neighborhoods we care most about.  We must ensure real access to services, and for us that means an expansion of school-based health centers as well education programs that empower young people to take responsibility for their own health and the health fo their communities.

We look forward to having organizations committed to Promise Neighborhoods work with us on a common policy agenda. I firmly believe, as I wrote in a report in the 1990s that only “Together We Can” make the changes we need to get better results.  To that end, we recommend that people reading your work also consider applying for the federal Full Service Community School (FSCS) grant.  The application is due July 23rd.  We encourage your readers to also join us for our webinar on the FSCS grant on Thursday, June 24th at 2 PM EST.

Building Neighborhoods: What other resources about community schools should people look at?

Martin Blank: Here are some links to publications that I think will help people understand community schools better:


President Highlights Kalamazoo Promise

We recently highlighted a conference being held in Kalamazoo, Michigan focused primarily on their local initiative, the Kalamazoo Promise, a scholarship program for children enrolled in Kalamazoo public schools. Last night (June 7), President Obama highlighted Kalamazoo's accomplishments in a commencement address.

I’m here tonight because I think that America has a lot to learn from Kalamazoo Central about what makes for a successful school in this new century. You’ve got educators raising standards and then inspiring their students to meet them.  You’ve got community members who are stepping up as tutors and mentors and coaches.  You got parents who are taking an active interest in their child’s education -- attending those teacher conferences, yes, turning off the TV once in a while, making sure homework gets done.

Arne Duncan is here tonight because these are the values, these are the changes that he’s encouraging in every school in this nation.  It’s the key to our future.

He continued:

This community could have made excuses -- well, our kids have fewer advantages, our schools have fewer resources -- how can we compete?  You could have spent years pointing fingers -- blaming parents, blaming teachers, blaming the principal, blaming the superintendent, blaming the President.  (Laughter and applause.)

But that’s -- Class of 2010, I want you to pay attention on this because that’s not what happened.  Instead, this community was honest with itself about where you were falling short.  You resolved to do better, push your kids harder, open their minds wider, expose them to all kinds of ideas and people and experiences.

He finished his address by discussing the Kalamazoo Promise.

That’s the reason those donors created the Kalamazoo Promise in the first place -- not for recognition or reward, but because of their connection to this community; because their belief in your potential; because their faith that you would use this gift not just to enrich your own lives, but the lives of others and the life of the nation.  (Applause.)

And I’m told that soon after the Promise was established, a first grader approached the superintendent at the time and declared to her:  “I’m going to college.”  First grader.  “I’m going to college.  I don’t know what it is, but I’m going.”  (Laughter and applause.)

City Limits: HCZ Charter School Expansion

The following story from City Limits magazine is nearly two weeks old. We trust you will forgive us for not finding it sooner. It begins:

Harlem — A pioneering plan by a nationally known anti-poverty group to establish a charter school at a public housing complex was greeted at a Wednesday night community meeting with more skepticism than enthusiasm.


The new Promise Academy school would eventually permit an additional 1,100 children to attend HCZ's well-regarded charter school. Priority in the enrollment lottery would be given to residents of St Nick's. In addition, Canada said, residents of St Nicholas housing would benefit from "100 full- and part-time" permanent and summer-youth jobs related to the project.

Yay! Summer jobs!

The folks at City Limits seem a bit more skeptical of all this than others (for instance, us), but healthy debate is a good thing. We have previously highlighted the controversy over charter schools in Harlem, as well as remarks of Mr. Canada (for whom we can be accused of being fan-boys, but we try to keep it balanced).

This story has national implications too, because there has been a little push back on the administration's separate Choice Neighborhoods initiative (see especially some of the competing testimony at that hearing), although not from us. In case you forgot, Choice Neighborhoods brings the neighborhoods concept to public housing. When the Choice Neighborhoods RFP comes out later this year, we will try to give it treatment similar to Promise Neighborhoods (breathe, pant pant, breathe).

Keep in mind that Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods are actually supposed to be linked in a few places. It is not entirely clear to us how that is going to happen. For those of you tracking it better than us at the moment, we appreciate the updates.

Where Do We Find Evidence?

The Promise Neighborhoods application asks you to provide evidence to support your program design, specifically "the best available evidence, including, where available, strong or moderate evidence." According to the application:

  • Moderate evidence means evidence from previous studies with designs that can support causal conclusions (i.e., studies with high internal validity) but have limited generalizability (i.e., moderate external validity) or from studies with high external validity but moderate internal validity.
  • Strong evidence means evidence from studies with designs that can support causal conclusions (i.e., studies with high internal validity), and studies that, in total, include enough of the range of participants and settings to support scaling up to the State, regional, or national level (i.e., studies with high external validity).

So, where do you find these studies and get this evidence? And what evidence is really good enough?

Perhaps one of the better sources may be DOE itself. Last week the Department released "a series of documents outlining the research that supports the proposals in its blueprint for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)." These documents contain detailed footnotes specifying all sorts of source materials. The documents cover:

  • College- and Career-Ready Students
  • Great Teachers and Great Leaders
  • Meeting the Needs of English Learners and Other Diverse Learners
  • A Complete Education: Literacy, STEM, A Well-Rounded Education, College Pathways and Accelerated Learning
  • Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students: Promise Neighborhoods, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students
  • Fostering Innovation and Excellence: Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, Supporting Effective Charter Schools, Promoting Public School Choice

Another good resource is the Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse, specifically its practice guides, which are "subjected to rigorous external peer review."

One cautionary note -- I don't know about you, but I remember sneaking by a few class requirements back in the day by reading the Cliffs Notes version of the reading assignment (can't you tell?). This may be a little like that, and I don't mean in a good way. I'd be willing to guess that any decent peer reviewer will see right through a lame cut-and-paste job that shows no underlying understanding of the source materials, or how your program design is actually tied to it. So consider this a start, not the end, of your research.

Postscript: I may be the last one aboard this particular clue train, but the realities of planning one of these efforts on the fly really suggest that planners are going to patch together something from whatever is available locally and then paste on a coat of 'evidence' to back up what they were planning to do anyway. The notion that there is deliberative planning going on out there, with evidence being placed before (and driving) the plan seems remote, even farcical, given the time constraints. The actual planning is supposed to take place during the planning year, not during this short application process. Hopefully the peer reviewers remember that.

Question: What evidence sources do you recommend? Let me know and I'll pass them on, crediting you if you say I can.

AP Questions the College End of the 'Cradle to College Pipeline'

The Associated Press ran a provocative story on May 13 questioning the universal value of a college education.  This is relevant to Promise Neighborhoods, which is based on building a continuous pipeline from "cradle to college to career."

Supporters of a focus on college as a desired educational outcome often cite the higher employment rates and incomes of college graduates compared to non-college graduates as justification. But according to the AP article, some are beginning to question the causal link. Just because college graduates are more likely to be employed and paid higher salaries does not necessarily mean that the college education is what caused those outcomes. Family supports, connections, and job experience play a major role, as do many other factors.

Our concern is for those who might get left behind. The focus on college as the preferred outcome only becomes worrisome if it causes us to undervalue or ignore our youth who choose a different path.

According to the Associated Press:

The notion that a four-year degree is essential for real success is being challenged by a growing number of economists, policy analysts and academics. They say more Americans should consider other options such as technical training or two-year schools, which have been embraced in Europe for decades.

As evidence, experts cite rising student debt, stagnant graduation rates and a struggling job market flooded with overqualified degree-holders. They pose a fundamental question: Do too many students go to college?

And this:

Federal statistics show that just 36 percent of full-time students starting college in 2001 earned a four-year degree within that allotted time. Even with an extra two years to finish, that group's graduation rate increased only to 57 percent.

Spending more time in school also means greater overall student debt. The average student debt load in 2008 was $23,200 — a nearly $5,000 increase over five years. Two-thirds of students graduating from four-year schools owe money on student loans.

And while the unemployment rate for college graduates still trails the rate for high school graduates (4.9 percent versus 10.8 percent), the figure has more than doubled in less than two years.

Regardless of the strength of the causal relationship between college, jobs and pay,  job experience is still important, which is why so many college students spend time in internships, for example. It is also one of the many reasons that we at UNCA have joined the Congressional Black Caucus in supporting summer jobs. Getting to a career is important, but there are several ways to get there.

This is important in the context of Promise Neighborhoods because the rhetoric of "cradle to college to career" seemingly undervalues the alternative of "cradle through high school to career." Fortunately, the actual indicators for Promise Neighborhoods do value alternative paths by recognizing vocational certificates or other industry-recognized certificates. This is a step in the right direction, though seemingly different from some of the rhetoric we have heard. It is important because performance measures, when they are meaningful, drive programmatic focus.

Let's not undervalue other children in an effort to send every child to college. We are happy that Promise Neighborhoods hasn't done that.


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by Dr. Radut