School extensions

January 03, 2007

They open early, close late and help lots of children and families in the intervening hours. Baltimore's 26 publicly funded, specially targeted community schools are linking families with needed services, while also advancing educational progress. It's a concept that should be embraced by more schools, but additional support from the city and the school system is needed.

The idea of integrating community services in schools dates back more than a century and has been reinvigorated in recent years from New York to Chicago to San Francisco to Portland, Ore., as the social needs of some students have forced schools to deal with obstacles to learning such as hunger and lack of health care. Community schools go beyond the traditional school day and offer services and extracurricular programs that help children and their parents gain skills, such as English as a second language or computer know-how, that can bridge the gap.

In Baltimore, 26 community schools operate as partnerships among the schools, city government and community-based organizations. They offer after-school programs and recreational activities, classes for parents and assistance with basic family needs. They are also distinguished by collaborative councils, which have shared authority; extended school days; family and community involvement; maximum use of the school facility; and combined funding streams for more effective use of resources. A coordinator and a collaborative council operating in each school help bring all the players together and ensure that families are matched with the most appropriate and necessary services.

Often missing, however, is greater recognition by the school system that relying on the partners to deal with social needs allows principals to focus on the essentials of teaching and learning. Providing more services to children and families could also result in fewer special-education referrals if students can get the help they need through more timely and less expensive interventions.

At the same time, the city should include at least the $2.3 million it is providing for coordinators' salaries and other community school services in the regular budget, rather than relying on the surplus to provide most of the resources. Soon-to-be Mayor Sheila Dixon has said that community schools will be "a major priority" for her administration. She can prove it by committing to an investment that would allow the creation of even more community schools and a potential payoff of better academic performance as well as healthier children and families.

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