Time to Learn

Will having a dentist at school keep disadvantaged students on track?

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Struggling schools and students in disadvantaged communities are at ground zero as high school graduation and college completion rates become a growing national priority.

But what about the economic, family, medical, and emotional needs that interfere with a student’s learning each and every day in underserved urban and rural communities?

For example, dental problems alone keep students in California out of school an estimated 874,000 days a year, costing schools about $29.7 million in lost attendance based-funding, according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy’s 2007 California Health Interview Survey

Elev8 dental clinic

Elev8 health clinic

A traditional school can’t do much about dental health. However, a “community school” with adequate resources can work wonders.

And it’s not just dental health. Community schools can identify and bring together resources to meet needs around primary health care, emotional and behavioral health, and even family trauma that inhibit learning.

A community school is more than a learning institution: It is a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources integrating academics, health and social services, youth, family and community engagement. This focus leads to improved student learning, stronger families, and healthier communities. And a new report from Child Trends documents the positive impact that this kind of integrated-service approach has on academics, attendance and high school dropout rates.

Many community schools offer curricula that emphasize real-world learning and community problem-solving. They become centers of the community and when done right, are open to everyone — all day, every day, evenings and weekends. They maximize existing and oftentimes untapped resources in a community to improve efficiencies in the process of schooling.

Here in New Mexico, state policymakers are getting it. After seeing the positive results in our Elev8 community schools – which are part of a national community school effort focused on middle grades – the legislature last year passed the Community Schools Act and the governor signed it.

The legislation, which received bipartisan support, will encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school approach and sets new standards for how such schools operate, in partnership with community organizations. As a result, we expect more school communities to embrace this valuable model.

While states can be primary supporters of community schools, local government and philanthropies can step up as well.

Going back to the example of dental needs in California, an article last year in EdSource Today featured a dental clinic that is offered through Elev8 at James Madison Middle School in Oakland, Calif. Two days a week, during the school day, a dental hygienist screens for decay, cleans teeth, and applies a fluoride treatment to help prevent tooth decay.

The clinic accepts dental insurance and provides free service to the uninsured. Services are funded by the Alameda County Public Health Department and The Atlantic Philanthropies, a New York-based private foundation. Of the more than 400 students screened at James Madison in the last two years, nearly three quarters of elementary school students and just over half of middle school students showed signs of tooth decay.

School reformers need to understand this because dental health also affects student performance. And if students can’t get to the dentist, some communities just might have to bring the dentist to the students and community schools provide the organization and logistical support to make that happen.

Most importantly, though, community schools engage parents and families in the educational lives of their children. Research has consistently shown that family engagement in education leads to better academic outcomes for children. In fact, New Mexico schools are now rated on their ability to effectively engage parents through the state’s A-F grading system.

A community school strategy can help schools achieve their academic goals for all students.

Policymakers and communities interested in helping schools do what they do best – teach and deliver instruction – have plenty of resources to help them learn more about community schools. The Harvard Family Research Project released a report outlining the seven steps to building community partnerships. They include a shared vision for learning, shared governance between partners, family engagement, and effective communication.

And the Coalition for Community Schools is a clearinghouse for information about community schools, including tool kits for schools to assess their own performance.

Frank Mirabal

Frank Mirabal

Our initiative, Elev8, focuses on four areas: extended learning activities, school-based health care, family and community supports, and family and community engagement. Along with New Mexico, Elev8 is operating in Chicago, Oakland and Baltimore. Years of experience in both rural and urban districts have shown us that by assembling a range of community resources to address students’ many needs, we clear a path for principals and teachers to focus on their strength: delivering high-quality instruction.

Community schools offer a way for us to support all children, especially those from disadvantaged communities, and help them do better in school, cope with health and social needs and become engaged members of the community, ready for college or careers.

If we do this, then the calls to raise the nation’s academic achievement and college completion rates will move from aspirational to doable.

Frank Mirabal, PhD., is former vice president, educational support for Youth Development Inc., a New Mexico nonprofit that serves the comprehensive needs of youth and families. He is also the former Elev8 director for New Mexico.

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