Why This Research Partnership
Community schools are gaining increased attention nationwide as a promising reform strategy, but there are relatively few empirical studies of comprehensive community school implementation and outcomes. Premised on the assumption that the traditional school model, including time, resources, and personnel, is not sufficient to address the role of poverty in equitable access to learning, community schools partner with community-based organizations to deliver integrated services that comprehensively address student barriers to learning and increase the amount of time available for instruction and enrichment. Community schools provide programs and practices that support students' physical and behavioral health needs and social-emotional learning, provide expanded learning opportunities, and build stronger relationships with families.
In 2011, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) embarked on a broad-based strategic planning process to leverage a full service community schools (FSCS) approach as a central strategy to redress inequitable outcomes for students. After several years of supporting an initial cohort of pilot community schools, OUSD was looking to assess and scale-up this complex district-led effort. The John Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University had expertise in community schools research and long standing relationships within Oakland's education community, and starting in 2014, OUSD engaged the Gardner Center as a partner to support research on implementation and early outcomes of FSCS.
What The Research Has Examined and Found So Far
Our research-practice partnership aims to provide research that informs decision making as the district continues to develop, expand, and improve its FSCS initiative, while also informing the field of community schools research more broadly. The partnership meets regularly as we co-design our research and interpret results. Over the past four years, the work has yielded findings on various aspects of the implementation and outcomes of the FSCS initiative, which we have written about in short briefs, longer reports (which we now realize were too long), as well as a journal article and a book chapter.
When our partnership began, the FSCS initiative in Oakland was only three years out and the FSCS model still emerging. In our first year together we collaborated to create a system strategy map (found on page 5 of our Year 1 report), often referred to as a Theory of Change, to better articulate the goals, strategies, and outcomes of the initiative. This mapping process yielded a detailed schematic for the district to use in planning and communicating the FSCS initiative to their constituents, as well as a guide to frame our research. We then co-developed a set of research questions regarding program implementation and student outcomes that have guided the work throughout.
Initially, the partnership was interested in the extent to which key FSCS features were being implemented in practice, as well as any early indications of outcomes/benefits for students and schools. We focused on a purposive sample of five early adopting community schools representing a range of grade levels, school sizes, and student populations, with relatively developed instantiations of the model. We posited that lessons from the research at these mature sites could inform future implementation and scale-up. Mixed-methods research included interviews with principals, teachers, community school managers, and partner staff, as well as analysis of OUSD's student-level data.
Our findings bolstered the district's understanding of their FSCS model—for example, essential elements that supported high quality implementation—and resulted in a series of short research briefs that helped communicate the FSCS work to a broad range of internal and external audiences.
By the second year of the partnership, the FSCS initiative was expanding quickly, with an additional 18 schools becoming official community schools. Our partners at the district office were eager to learn about these new community schools' experiences to better support their development. As such, the partnership's research that year focused on 1) how community schools (new and old) were implementing the FSCS model, such as the ways in which school and partner staff were or were not collaborating and coherently working towards shared goals, and 2) the role of the district in supporting community school implementation.
This research highlighted key implementation levers, such as the essential role of the principal in setting the tone to shift school culture. The research reinforced OUSD's emerging work of targeted support for school principals.
Years Three and Four
During the third and fourth years of the partnership, we have focused on deepening our understanding of how critical FSCS elements may strengthen teaching and learning. This timely focus responds to the opportunity to align the FSCS work with district-wide efforts to improve conditions for teaching and learning. It has included focus groups with community school managers, developing a teacher survey, and interviews with district leaders.
We are still in-process, but we anticipate this work will illuminate important findings for OUSD's planning, as well as the field more broadly, around student- and community-centered instruction in community schools.
Implications for Practice and Research
This research offers guiding lessons and examples illustrating how community schools can be more than a collection of school-based services, but rather, a web of supports and partnerships integrated into the academic life and mission of the school. In mature Oakland community schools, we observed evidence of a culture in which the adults in the school work together to support students' needs, and students and families are more deeply engaged in students' success and learning. Community school strategies also represented an expansion of the traditional school model by leveraging and aligning community partners to improve student outcomes.
Our joint research has helped inform OUSD's strategy, planning, and communications. Examples include decisions on new school application and "onboarding" processes, professional development for community school managers, engagement with community school principals, and other training and development. Our research so far has provided an empirical understanding of key organizational structures that support FSCS implementation and the conditions that enhance teaching and learning, with the goal of ultimately supporting more equitable outcomes for students.