Adequacy Testimony to Arkansas State Legislature on Community Schools

ForwARd Arkansas had the opportunity to present testimony to the Arkansas state legislature on November 5, 2019. Jerri Derlikowski, director of research and innovation, and Thurman Green, policy and community engagement associate, delivered the below testimony on the benefits of the Community Schools model.

I am Jerri Derlikowski, the Research Director of ForwARd Arkansas. Thank you for the opportunity to participate in the adequacy determination process through testimony today. Our Executive Director, Susan Harriman, had hoped to be here today but has a family matter where she is needed.

For those of you who don’t know, ForwARd Arkansas is a public-private partnership first conceived in 2014 and formally established in 2016 in partnership with the Arkansas State Board of Education, the Walton Family Foundation and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.

We believe that every student should graduate high school prepared for success in college and the workplace. This desire for educational equity guides ForwARd’s work. In partnership with parents, educators, philanthropy, government, business leaders and community residents, we work to advance public policy and accelerate progress by leveraging state, federal and private resources to pilot innovative new approaches that can potentially be replicated statewide.  We’re a champion for equity, a connector and convener for shared opportunity and a catalyst for innovation.

Some of you may remember me from my work for the Bureau of Legislative Research on the adequacy process as it was just beginning. My work on adequacy and subsequent research to find solutions for low-income children brings me here today. I have traveled the state extensively, working specifically with some our most challenged communities – I have seen firsthand both the promise and the shortfalls of various education policies.

Here in Arkansas, of the 188 schools across the state labeled as “D” or “F” schools under our state’s ESSA framework in the 2018-2019 school year, 85 percent of those were high-poverty schools (70% or more). Additional educational programs and social services are needed to ensure that the more than 74,000 students enrolled in such persistently low-performing schools and can thrive.

While I pause here to note some students in high-poverty schools excel and some high-poverty schools excel, this data shows us that this is the exception, not the rule. This is unacceptable. All students may not be successful in even the best schools, but we must ensure that all students have equitable opportunity for success.

Efforts within the school setting of high poverty schools, by a wide range of talented and resourceful organizations and committed educators, have been unable to turn the tide in a sustainable way. When the highest poverty schools remain underperforming year after year, when a cohort of students’ needs are repeatedly unmet, we must advocate for systemic change.

Today, I want to focus on what ForwARd Arkansas believes is a sustainable, successful model to drive this change. Commonly proposed solutions used to bolster underperforming schools – such as new reading initiatives, curriculum updates and additional professional development – are unlikely to succeed if students are not ready to learn due of a host of challenges related to poverty. In persistently low-performing high-poverty schools, both educational improvements AND supports for students and families are needed. Either alone will be inadequate.

That is why we recommend that the state require and/or incentivize low-performing schools to use their ESA funding to intentionally implement a Community School Model to meet student support needs. This would only be applicable to “D” and “F” schools, leaving higher-performing schools to manage ESA resources at the local district level.

The Community Schools approach focuses on identifying the needs in a specific school and connecting students and families to community-based resources and supports that can help remove barriers to learning. Examples include partnering with health care and dental providers to provide mobile clinics, creating an on-campus food pantry, hosting computer classes for parents and more.

Community schools operate under whatever the existing governance model is – such as a school board or other arrangement. And while community schools are often best known in urban settings, we are seeing many states implementing them in rural areas as well, where poverty exists and resources are lacking or not connected.

We believe in this model for a number of reasons, but there are three that I wanted to highlight for you today:

  1. There is minimal implementation cost,
  2. It doesn’t place the burden of implementation on existing school staff, and,
  3. We have seen it work.

I’ll elaborate quickly on those three points.

First, the cost. Community Schools can be set up with existing ESA and federal funding. No new state dollars are needed. The main cost here is the full-time community coordinator at each school, which we estimate as $45,000 or less with benefits. Federal funds may also be available for this work.

Second, the Community School Model can efficiently and effectively address student needs without overburdening existing school staff – the teachers, administrators and counselors that are already working to address educational needs. A community coordinator will serve as a liaison between school staff, students and their families to identify individual needs and build partnerships that connect the school to the community around them.

Finally, we have seen it work. Community Schools are not a recent initiative of ForwARd. We have been at it for nearly four years now. We have observed Community Schools in practice and seen them succeed.

For example, we have participated in site visits to community schools across the country – in Chicago, New York, Baltimore and Albuquerque to name a few. Through those visits, we’ve seen family dinner and homework nights with teachers, student and community gardens, and partnerships for a food pantry operated by students for students. And, in those communities, they’ve seen better student attendance, increased parental engagement, and improved graduation rates as a result of the Community Schools model.

About two weeks ago, ForwARd was proud to host the national Director of the Coalition for Community Schools in a meeting with the Arkansas Coalition, the Little Rock School District, the Little Rock Mayor’s Office, three Pulaski County legislators and the Arkansas Department of Education’s liaison for this work. We are proud to support these ongoing efforts and will continue to work with our partners in Little Rock and across the state to push for equity and opportunity for all Arkansas students.

Thank you again for inviting ForwARd here today. As you continue to reflect on your recommendations for Arkansas schools, we want to suggest again that educational improvements AND student/family supports are needed for sustainable improvement. ForwARd Arkansas believes that the Community Schools approach is a smart and efficient way to advance equity and excellence for all high-poverty students in any school.