The research is clear: It’s more difficult for children to learn when their lives outside school are unstable and riddled with social and economic challenges. That’s what programs like New York’s Harlem Achievement Zone and the local Northside Achievement Zone and Promise Neighborhoods are all about — offering support and services for families so they are better able to help their children do well in school.
Those initiatives have shown some success with improving student achievement and sending more disadvantaged kids to college. But they’ve done so with additional outside funding from nonprofits, businesses and individual donors.
Now the state is putting some welcome resources into supporting the concept. During the 2015 session, Minnesota legislators allocated $500,000 to support full-service community schools for the next two years. Four schools received grants — Lincoln Park Middle in Duluth; Gage Elementary in Rochester; Richard Green Elementary Central Park in Minneapolis and Earle Brown Elementary in Brooklyn Center.
To be eligible for the funds, schools must meet at least one of two criteria: They must be on a development plan for continuous academic improvement or their districts must have achievement and integration plans approved by the state education commissioner.
Brooklyn Center already has experience with the full-service model. Graduation rates and attendance have improved, and the gap on standardized tests is narrowing at Brooklyn Center Secondary School, which has a health clinic, family resource room, college access center, recreation center and an out-of-school programs office. Parents can receive help paying energy bills, tips on writing résumés and legal assistance to help obtain U.S. citizenship.
Other metro-area schools have worked with nearby agencies to provide health clinics and other services. But full-service schools aim to provide support to their individual communities. They survey their feeder neighborhoods to learn exactly what the needs are, then tailor their plans accordingly. The idea is to make schools the go-to places to find support for students, families and communities.
Critics of such plans say that parents and families — not schools — should be responsible for the support children need. They argue that teachers and schools are equipped only to educate students — not to offer health, employment and housing services to parents.
Yet as teachers and other school staff members can confirm, growing income inequality, poverty and family instability affect student learning. That’s why the state teacher’s union, Education Minnesota, actively lobbied for the initial state support and is calling for more.
Supporting full-service schools holds great promise. Strong, stable families and communities help produce better educated children who become more productive adult citizens and workers. And that ultimately benefits all Minnesotans.