Educational transformation doesn’t end at the classroom door, Cincinnati has found. The only way to really improve student’s ability to learn? Work to fix everything else in their lives as well.
by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy
As the school year started in Philadelphia this year, Superintendent William Hite announced that all students, regardless of income, would automatically be eligible to receive a free breakfast and lunch. The reasoning was clear: Kids who come to school hungry cannot possibly learn.
But it isn’t hunger alone that keeps Philly students from being able to concentrate in class. In this city, where 40 percent of children live in poverty, 87 percent of public school students are economically disadvantaged. Their lives outside of school are often filled with the ills that go along with a poor urban existence: Neighborhood violence; parents who are unemployed; poor medical and dental care; frequent moves or homelessness. Study after study has shown that the effects of poverty are the biggest factors in maintaining the learning gap among students. Again, the message is clear: No matter how skilled their teacher is, students cannot succeed if the rest of their lives are in chaos.
“Schools try to take the position that they’re just about reading, writing and arithmetic,” says Paul Reville, former Massachusetts Education Secretary who leads Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab. “But if you have students afflicted with profound issues outside of school, they can’t be accountable if they don’t perform.”
To Reville, the only answer is a complete overhaul of schools in America so that they offer students not just education, but also access to the social and health services that keep a child in school and ready to learn. In Philadelphia, some schools have adopted a version of Reville’s vision. In October, the District announced plans for its first two community schools, at Strawberry Mansion and South Philadelphia High, which in the last few years has incorporated community groups into the building. Last June, Mayor Nutter announced plans to put social workers into schools with high concentrations of children in the care of the Department of Human Services. And North Philly’s Young Scholars Frederick Douglass, a charter-run Renaissance School, has three full-time social workers and six behavioral health workers on staff, and a parent resource room with Internet access to help, among other things, with job searches. (Other charter schools have similar staffing.) Still, when most schools don’t even have full-time counselors or nurses, it’s hard to imagine this sort of whole-scale change in Philadelphia.
Cincinnati’s attention to social service needs has transformed the way the city educates its children. “People have the attitude that, ‘So goes the schools, so goes the city.’ It has transcended school boards, council members, mayors.”
But it could be possible. Just take a look at the city of Cincinnati. Like Philadelphia, Cincinnati is a high-poverty city with a decayed industrial core and high levels of unemployment and urban blight. Its school district is much smaller—just 33,000 students—but like in Philly, most of its students suffer the effects of poverty. Ten years ago, Cincinnati embarked on a campaign it calls “Transforming Schools. Revitalizing Communities.” The school board convinced voters to approve a tax levy for renovating or rebuilding all 55 schools with a promise that all the new buildings would be “community learning centers” with space not only for improved instruction, but also health and social services for the whole neighborhood. Continue reading