How community schools can beat summer learning loss for low-income students

School closure over the summer widens the achievement gap between classes. School chair image via www.shutterstock.com

This article is a part of The Conversation’s series on summer learning loss. For other articles in this series, read here and here.

My children spent summers reading Harry Potter, playing chess, swimming and hiking the Adirondack high peaks in upstate New York.

As a single parent with a career as a social worker and academic, I wasn’t rich. But I had enough to make sure that my children had what they needed to excel in education and enrichment outside of school.

While middle-class homes can often provide for summer enrichment activities, studies show a different reality for children from low-income families. These children and youth often lose months of reading and math skills over the summer, widening the achievement gap between the classes.

What can schools do to address this learning loss?

Summer slide

The learning loss for youth in low-income communities adds up dramatically over the years. By ninth grade, about two-thirds of the academic achievement gap between disadvantaged youth and their more advantaged peers can be explained by how they spend their elementary school summers.

What makes this of concern is that a majority of U.S. students in public schools are now from low-income families. A 2013 study found that for the first time in U.S. history, a majority (51 percent) of public school students in the United States were eligible for a free or subsidized school lunch, indicating that they fell below the government’s low-income cutoff.

The majority of these students lack quality summer activities.

A majority of kids do not have quality summer activities. Children image via www.shutterstock.com

Furthermore, these issues do not exist in isolation. Children from low-income communities who often experience summer learning loss also often face multiple related challenges that impact their ability to attend school or focus when they’re there. These challenges include insufficient access to health care, poor nutrition, community violence and lack of adult supervision, among others.

Partnerships between schools and communities can help students’ academic success. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law in December 2015, addresses the achievement gap between children from low- and middle-income families.

Title IV of the ESSA under the program, “Community Supports for Success,” calls for a range of partnerships between schools and communities so students (especially those from low-income families) can gain access to services they need for academic achievement (e.g., physical and mental health care, adequate nutrition, supervision and access to healthy activities beyond school hours).

How can schools implement these partnerships?

Earlier this year, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a US$175 million plan that demonstrates a way to enable such partnerships. Cuomo’s plan aims to convert schools with the lowest test scores and graduation rates across the state into “community schools.”

Providing comprehensive services

So, what are community schools? And how do they help with student learning?

Community schools pursue a unique learning model whereby they supplement classroom-based instruction with out-of-school (before school, after school and summer) learning. They provide support to students whose families do not have access to academic support beyond the classroom. Their support is not limited to the school term, but continues all through the year.

My research on community schools across the U.S.and the world shows that they look different in each community as they develop in response to each school’s specific needs.

The idea behind this learning model goes back to the late 19th century. The first set of school-linked services (precursors to community schools) can be traced back to the 1890s. Back then, they were developed in response to the massive changes being brought about as a result of immigration and industrialization.

As teachers struggled with new sets of challenges in their classrooms, this model provided additional support. For example, in 1894, doctors visited Boston schools on a daily basis – a practice that helped bring down rates of communicable diseases.

The amount of school-linked services and their gold standard – community schools in the U.S. – have ebbed and flowed over the years. In the last few decades, there has been a marked increase in the number of community schools.

Many individual schools, several counties and an array of cities have incorporated the community school model to reduce the achievement gap between students from low- and middle-income homes. These include Multnomah County (Portland, Oregon), Broome County (upstate New York), Cincinnati, Chicago, Hartford, Tulsa and more recently, New York City, among others.

What’s the impact?

The community school model has shown numerous successes.

For example, Oyler School in Cincinnati had fewer than 20 percent of its students reaching 10th grade in the late 1990s. After implementing a community school model in 2010, 82 percent of students graduated high school.

Many of these schools provide extra outreach efforts to involve families that may be hard to reach in the education of their children – a critical component of the partnership. A recent study of the impact of family engagement in elementary and secondary schools found positive correlations between engaged families and improved academic achievement.

Oyler School in Cincinnati. Sean Biehle, CC BY-SA

School-based health centers are another frequent component of community schools. Studies indicate when there are school-based health centers, lost class time as a result of sickness reduces by as much as three times.

Summer programs are often part of community schools. These programs provide enriched summer activities for students, such as music, dance, crafts, athletics and academics. This enables teachers in high-poverty neighborhoods to begin teaching new content at the start of the school year, without losing months backtracking over content forgotten from the previous year.

Why we need community schools

The community school model has been so successful that universities too are making this a focus of college students’ civic engagement efforts.

In 1985, the University of Pennsylvania took the lead in developing a university-assisted community school approach. College students work with the community schools to integrate knowledge gained in their UPenn classrooms.

An example is the Moelis Access Science program where UPenn faculty and students provide STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) professional development to teachers serving students in West Philadelphia neighorhoods, which are marked by extreme poverty, violence and low educational attainment.

Over 20 universities are now part of the network of university-assisted community schools including Binghamton University (SUNY), Columbia University and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

In an increasingly diverse society facing more complex social problems, the traditional model where education occurs completely within the school building, provided solely by teachers from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and from September to June, needs reviewing.

That calendar was designed long ago to leave youth free to work in their families’ fields in the summer. Since farming is no longer a major role for the vast majority of students, time outside the classroom can either enhance academic year learning or diminish it.

Do community schools that offer year-round programming and supplemental services cost money? Of course they do. But they have also been shown to save health care costs. They can also save funds that are now being spent on residential treatment facilities for youth, prison and remediation.

With too many youth dropping out of school, the jobs and workforce necessary to compete in a global economy are at risk. Community schools make sense in a country that is committed to opportunities for educational success for any and all students, irrespective of their family income or their zip code.