06/20/2011 07:10 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2011

True Education Reform: Community Schools And Collective Impact

A recent article in the prestigious Stanford Social Innovation Review assessed the merits of a change strategy known as "collective impact," which the authors (John Kania and Mark Kramer) describe as "the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem." Of particular interest to Kania and Kramer is the issue of education, which they describe as having "thwarted attempted reforms for decades," often because individualized interventions -- operated in silos -- were not powerful enough to move the achievement needle. The authors recognize that fixing one point on the educational continuum won't make much of a difference unless all parts of the continuum improve at the same time.

This is a powerful message for both policymakers and practitioners. Policymakers often pit early childhood funding against programs for adolescents, rather than recognizing and investing in the obvious: that young people need supports and opportunities all along the road to productive adulthood. Similarly, practitioners often resist the urge to partner with other sectors and to share accountability for results. A notable exception to this isolationist phenomenon is a reform strategy called community schools, an approach through which community organizations partner with public schools to promote student achievement.

Community schools differ from traditional schools in several respects: they are open longer hours (often well into the evening, on weekends and holidays, and throughout the summer); they offer more services, supports, and opportunities for students and their families; and they bring together an array of partners that share accountability for results. Typically, community schools operate from a framework that can best be described as a "developmental triangle," a model that connects the school's core instructional program to enrichment opportunities during out-of-school time (before and after school and during the summer months) and to a set of services designed to remove barriers to students' learning, such as medical, dental, mental health, and social services. Community schools bring additional human and financial resources into schools and align these resources with the schools' goals for student learning and development. Across the country, the kinds of community resources that partner with their local schools include health centers, social service and youth development organizations, mental health agencies, and community development groups. Often one of these partners serves as a lead agency, ensuring that the work of the various community resources is well coordinated and fully aligned with the school's goals.

Community schools are producing powerful results. The organization I direct -- The Children's Aid Society in New York City -- has commissioned a variety of independent evaluations of community schools we operate in partnership with the New York City Department of Education. These schools have consistently shown positive results around academic achievement, student and teacher attendance, parental engagement, positive school climate, and school safety. And a recent analysis of community school evaluations nationally, conducted by the Coalition for Community Schools, documented similar results. Working in deliberate and long-term partnership with their local schools has required community resources to change their practice in fundamental ways. Many after-school providers have strengthened the academic components of their work, making sure that they are providing students with multiple opportunities to practice their academic skills during the non-school hours. In addition to providing tutoring and homework help, these organizations intentionally embed opportunities for students to use their reading, writing, and speaking skills in theatre programs; they promote critical thinking skills through chess clubs; and they sneak math and science content into sports and culinary arts programs. Mental health providers will work closely with children's teachers to make sure their clients are staying on track academically during periods of personal or family crisis; and they will make sure they are scheduling appointments in ways that do not cause students to miss core academic classes.

Community schools also pay attention to transitions -- addressing school readiness issues as children enter elementary school; preparing young adolescents for the social and academic differences they will experience in middle school; supporting ninth graders as they face the rigors of high school; and helping older adolescents plan for post-secondary success.

The Stanford authors note that successful collective impact organizations share five characteristics: common agenda; shared measurement systems; mutually reinforcing activities; continuous communication; and supportive infrastructure. Mature community school initiatives across the country, many of which have operated for 15 or more years, have learned how to operationalize these principles -- and to demonstrate the power of collective action.

Evidence shows that education reform can be achieved only by truly reforming the current education system. The current silos that exist among the agencies and organizations responsible for the healthy development and education of American youth hinder true progress and reform. America's education system ranks far behind developed countries across the world; policymakers and educators take note: through collective impact we can radically improve American education and ensure that the next generations of Americans are world class leaders.