Initiative trains students to successfully connect schools with resourcesBy William Harms
As the nation’s only master’s program devoted to training social workers in leading efforts to connect community resources with the needs of schools, the Community Schools initiative at the School of Social Service Administration already has made important progress.
“Community schooling is a comprehensive school reform strategy that has shown great results in Chicago. Community schools are partnerships between schools and non-profit agencies that work together to improve student outcomes,” said Sarah Duncan, Coordinator of SSA’s Community Schools program.
The program began in 2004, and already 13 students have been trained, and five are working in the community school field in Chicago Public Schools.
Thus far, 110 schools have been designated as community schools and as such, they have extended hours and offer services that include health clinics and programs for parents, which typically are not part of a school curriculum. Some of the community schools also receive funding for their programs from outside agencies.
Ten students are currently enrolled in the program at SSA, said Michael Woolley, Assistant Professor in SSA, who teaches one of the courses in the program sequence, “Public School Systems and Service Populations.”
In the class, students discuss research findings and intervention and prevention programs as well as strategies to improve the social climate in a school.
“We look at the school as a work environment for teachers and a learning environment for students and explore how that social climate affects students’ attitudes and beliefs about school, their engagement with school emotionally, psychologically and behaviorally, and how the relationships between students and teachers and other staff are important factors in student success,” Woolley said.
The SSA students also learn how to increase family participation in the day-to-day activities and governance of a school, which helps create a supportive learning environment for students. They also learn how to create partnerships with other community agencies that serve youths to provide resources and services that will meet children’s developmental needs in other areas that support school success.
SSA is doing some partnering work itself as it establishes the program. “We’ve successfully developed 27 community school placement sites and significantly integrated the school social work and community schools’ concentrations with joint classes, joint workshops and school visits,” Duncan said.
Duncan attributes that success to April Porter, Associate Coordinator of the Community Schools Program, who assists in the program by meeting with students to talk about their experiences and challenges in the field.
Those involved in the Community Schools program collaborate with members of the Center for Urban School Improvement and the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which, like SSA, are part of the University’s Urban Education Initiative, a comprehensive effort to link the ways in which the University is engaged in education. Additionally, SSA has played an important role in the development of the Federation for Community Schools, working with Chicago Public Schools leaders and foundation, non-profit and community leaders. It also has piloted a professional development curriculum for community school leaders, Duncan said.
School social workers trained as community school leaders are able to identify problems in a variety of contexts, she said. Social workers frequently work with special education students, who need individual education plans in order to improve their achievement. But the problems students face often come from a larger setting and stem from situations such as poverty and a lack of resources.
For example, some students who are identified as needing special education actually have vision problems, which if caught early enough and remedied would keep those students in mainstream classes, Duncan pointed out. A social worker in a community school can help find resources that would provide vision testing and free eyeglasses, she said.
In their second year of the master’s program, SSA students choose their placements in community schools and participate in a yearlong integrative field seminar. Some of them are assigned to the Donoghue campus of the University of Chicago Charter School.
The field seminar provides a link between placements and classroom learning and engages students in the broad issues and debates surrounding school reform in urban communities.
Among the students in the first group of graduates from the program is Colleen Coyle, who works in the office of Extended Learning Opportunities for the Chicago Public Schools.
“Chicago is moving toward having more community schools,” she said.
“We are looking to include 40 more schools in CPS’ Community Schools Initiative to provide support to some of the many schools that are already successfully leveraging community resources but aren’t formally included in CPS’ initiative,” she said.
Some of the community schools have health centers that can assist students in dealing with conditions such as asthma. Others bring in community volunteers, including parents, to create music programs, said Coyle, who works to develop community schools programs.
“I think what I learned at SSA was how to think about problems in a larger, policy context. We can learn about a policy such as No Child Left Behind and understand better how to work with community resources to deal with the challenges and opportunities that program poses,” said Coyle (A.M.,’06).
John Fanning (A.M.,’07), who was in the community schools program, said his SSA training has helped him in his work as a college counselor at Jones College Preparatory School. “We deal with lots of issues in the transition to high school, including helping students succeed academically. We have a homework club, for instance, for 90 minutes after school for students who need extra help,” he said.
He said his experiences at SSA helped him better understand the needs of his students and the environments in which they live.
The early evaluations of the community schools initiatives in Chicago have been positive. A report by Samuel Whalen of the University of Illinois at Chicago points out that achievement improves among students enrolled in the after-school programs operated by community schools. Of the students identified as needing extra help, 70 percent improved their completion of homework, 72 percent improved their participation in classes, and 66 percent improved their classroom behavior.
The schools also became safer places for students, as community schools reported a reduced rate of school discipline incidents.