Winnowing applicants to become Philly’s first class of community schools

Philadelphia Council President Darrell Clarke and Mayor Jim Kenney convened at Duckrey Tanner School in  November to talk about the creation of community schools. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Council President Darrell Clarke and Mayor Jim Kenney convened at Duckrey Tanner School in November to talk about the creation of community schools. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In mid-July, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney will anoint five to seven community schools. When he does, it’ll be the first major public announcement in the mayor’s push to create 25 such schools over the next four years — and the opening scene in a story that may define Kenney’s legacy on K-12 education.

The mayor has lobbied hard for community schools, even pledging a chunk of the revenue from his hard-fought sweetened drinks tax to seed the initiative. That fight played out in public, defined by the fierce debate that so often attaches itself to big policy showdowns.

The community school selection process has been less public, partly by design. The mayor’s office doesn’t want the process to turn into a political frenzy.

It’s also indicative of the fact that the mayor’s office doesn’t have a set of rigid criteria for picking community schools. There’s no formula or set of weights city officials are using to narrow the pool of candidates. And that’s not unique to Philadelphia. Across the country, there’s no real consensus on how cities should select community schools

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“There really aren’t existing best practices out there,” said Della Jenkins, an analyst at Research for Action who recently co-authored a report on community schools in practice.

Philadelphia’s selection process began late last year, before Kenney even took office. The School District of Philadelphia took a straw poll to see which district schools might be interested in becoming community schools. Roughly 50 expressed interest, said Susan Gobreski, director of community schools in the Mayor’s Office of Education.

In early spring, the school district invited schools for informational meetings on the initiative. By late May, 31 schools formally applied.

Who applied? We don’t know

The mayor’s office hasn’t released the formal list of applicants, but it’s offered some hints. Most are elementary schools and most are located near the Broad Street corridor. North Philadelphia is well represented, as is South Philly. There are a small handful of schools in Southwest Philadelphia and the Greater Northeast. Northwest Philadelphia has no representatives in the applicant pool.

It’s likely the first cohort of schools will represent a wide berth of neighborhoods.

“People wanted to see this throughout the city,” says Gobreski. “They didn’t want to see this isolated to just a few neighborhoods”

In addition to geographic diversity, Gobreski’s team is looking at a slew of other indicators as it sorts through applications. They include:

neighborhood poverty rates;
health indicators related to obesity, asthma, diabetes, and immunization;
school truancy rates;
crime rates.

Some of those indicators are meant to gauge need in the neighborhoods surrounding the schools. When functioning well, community schools can be used to host services that benefit folks who live nearby.

But don’t expect every school to be in the most impoverished communities, said Gobreski. Some buildings in relatively well-to-do areas still have needy school populations, demonstrating that wealthier families often opt out of the public system.

“The neighborhood may not be as poor, but the school population might actually be poor or have a high number of English language learners or a high number of special needs students,” said Gobreski.

Taken altogether, Gobreski’s mandate seems impossibly vague. Under the community schools umbrella, her team could pick a school in a poor neighborhood or a middle-class one. They could lock in on communities with high crime rates, or rally around those with poor health indices. So what exactly makes a school a good community school candidate?

Three main inputs

Though there’s no magic formula, the mayor’s office is focusing on three main types of inputs.

The first set of inputs emerge from the publicly available data Gobreski’s team has collected. Many of those are listed above and relate in some way to the well-being of the students who attend the schools. At its core, the community schools movement strives to meet the nonacademic needs of low-income students — hunger, trauma, poor health, etc. — in order to lessen the burden on schools in poor communities.

“If you’ve got teachers who can spend their time doing lesson planning instead of figuring out whether or not their kids can get shoes, then I think that’s a supportive and cooperative strategy with the school district,” said Gobreski.

Standardized tests on the sidelines

There’s one high-visibility data point the mayor’s office won’t be using in its selection process: standardized test scores.

In other cities, community schools have been framed as turnaround initiatives designed explicitly to improve academic performance. Kenney’s office, however, doesn’t seem to hold that view. Gobreski and others said academic outcomes will eventually improve at community schools, but they believe it will take a while. In the meantime, they won’t tinker with the way schools teach or even keep a critical eye on mainstream academic indicators such as test scores.

“This strategy is really around identifying barriers to academic success,” said Gobreski. “We are not the curriculum specialists or the pedagogy specialists.”

In addition to hard data, Kenney’s office will also look at whether the communities surrounding the applicant schools have a genuine desire to be part of the initiative.  The mayor’s office has done “extensive community outreach,” according to Gobreski, in order to determine what types of services already exist in applicant neighborhoods and whether the community is engaged in the application process.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the mayor’s office wants to be sure that staff and leadership at the applicant schools are fully on board. For principals, that means pledging to work with community members and share decision-making responsibility.

“We want people who are willing to look at the school as the hub for the community and who to want work with a broader set of partners around strategies to get some of these services in,” said Gobreski. “We definitely think that principal willingness and principal mindset is a critically important part of this at this point.”

Translation: Controlling principals need not apply.

Gauging buy-in

Schools filled out a fairly simple questionnaire in order to be considered for the initiative. The application asked basic information about school leadership and contained just eight primary questions. Many referenced school leadership’s willingness to work with others and its ability to diagnose the ills in the surrounding neighborhoods

They included questions such as:

What are the strengths and assets of your community? 
What are the areas of greatest need in your school community that you believe the community schools strategy can be effective in addressing?
Do you currently engage stakeholders outside of your school staff to participate in planning and/or decision-making for your school? If so, who are they or what organization do they represent? 
In your community school planning process, who would you like to see participate? 
What is important to you with regard to involving others in planning and decision-making? 
Do you have active parents, through formal or informal structures, and in what ways do they participate?

Buy-in is a high priority, something city officials believe is crucial to making the entire concept work. They aren’t alone in that assessment.

“[Community schools] work well when you have the commitment from the school and in particular the principal to really implement and embrace the strategy,” said Mary Kingston Roche, director of public policy at the Coalition for Community Schools in Washington, D.C.

Community schools often fall flat, she said, when cities or districts look purely at need and don’t think hard about the commitment of those potentially involved. “You do want to have schools that actually want this strategy,” said Roche.

Meaning that for all the questions Kenney’s office has asked when selecting its first cohort of community schools, perhaps the most important will be the simplest: Do you want to be a part of this or not?

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