It’s lunchtime at Benjamin Franklin High School, and as students stream in and out of crowded hallways, a small group of teenage moms congregates around a low, circular table in a closed-off room. With them are their toddlers and young children — some eating, one singing and another breastfeeding.

The South Baltimore institution launched a family center in 2014 in response to a number of Benjamin Franklin students juggling families with studies and needing more resources to stay in school. Since the center’s inception, Benjamin Franklin has seen fewer absences, more students going to college and a teen parent graduation rate of 67% to 80%, school representatives say. There are 13 student-parents using the family center this year; most days, they have lunch with their kids.

In Maryland and across the country, Benjamin Franklin High School is considered a model among community schools, a term gaining more attention around the state as they expand rapidly under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. The 2019 landmark legislation attaches nearly $4 billion a year in state and local funding over 10 years to a set of reforms intended to improve the state’s public school system.

The model has been implemented in hundreds of schools across Maryland, a win for education advocates who say the approach can help more children thrive and compensate for wealth and race disparities in the classroom. At their core, community schools are equipped with extra funding and social services designed to improve learning and attendance outcomes among vulnerable students.

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“It’s an inclusive process,” said Anna Maier, senior policy advisor and researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, a national education research organization. Supporters of community schools say the model empowers the community, democratizes the educational process and better connects schools with the neighborhoods they anchor.

Since the Blueprint went into effect, there are more than 300 across the state. It’s estimated that about a third of the state’s schools will qualify as community schools by fiscal year 2027.

But what does such fast expansion mean for the success of community schools? Already, even some of the strongest supporters acknowledge that growth comes with some downsides. And across the state, public school students are still struggling with reading and math, the latest test score data shows. Many wonder: When will the massive investment pay off?

‘This is not a new idea’

Berkshire Elementary School’s designation as a community school may not be apparent without a trip to its resource room, which holds children’s clothes, cleaning products, car seats and other necessities available to parents at no cost.

The Dundalk school is in its second year as a community school, and school principal Cheryl Brooks says she already sees a difference in family outreach and engagement. She credits a range of new partnerships and resources, including a mentorship program with Amazon and partnership with a local barbershop that gives free haircuts to students.

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Schools are designated as community schools based on their percentages of students living in poverty, with priority placed on schools with the highest percentages of those students. Funding amounts are higher for schools with larger levels of poverty. The money enables a school to hire a “coordinator,” who acts as a kind of social worker and health practitioner.

The model follows a “whole-child” approach, which looks at each student holistically and is grounded in data showing that children living with limited means and on society’s margins tend to fare worse in school. This translates to lower test scores, lower graduation rates and more absences than their wealthier peers.

Data shows schools in more affluent areas tend to score higher on standardized tests than schools with high poverty levels, helping to fuel the race gap in standardized testing. Proponents of community schools say progress can be made if students’ basic needs — food, clothing, and shelter, for example — are met.

“This is not a new idea; schools have been seen as hubs for the community for a long time,” said Maier, of the Learning Policy Institute.

Each school coordinator conducts a needs assessment for their school, surveying students, teachers, families and community members about their priorities and obstacles in the classroom. Each school’s end result may look different — the barriers could be high rates of pregnancy in one school and limited English proficiency in another.

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A school’s own priorities may also change over time. At Benjamin Franklin, for example, school coordinator Kelly Oglesbee said she expects the latest needs assessment to reveal new fault lines. Since 2015, the school’s population of immigrants has grown from about 18% to a projected 43% by next year.

‘Quantity isn’t quality’

Despite progress, some say the state’s quick scale-up of community schools may have abandoned best practices.

“Quantity isn’t necessarily quality,” said Shamoyia Gardiner, executive director of Strong Schools Maryland, which was founded in 2017 as the advocacy arm behind the Blueprint.

Gardiner said some school coordinators don’t feel they’ve received enough support from the state’s education department, especially under the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan, who opposed the Blueprint. The state’s director of community schools position, responsible for overseeing more than 300 schools, is currently occupied by an interim director, according to the state’s website. And some coordinators say they need more resources to address language barriers in the schools. Representatives from the Maryland State Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

Another problem, Gardiner said, is that some local school districts — and even some principals — view implementing community schools as a mandate rather than an opportunity.

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“Everyone who was involved, pre-Blueprint, had to buy in: fiscally and in terms of ideology,” she said. “It’s different in community schools when you’re told you are one, versus principals who are enthusiastic.”

Now, a majority of post-Blueprint schools work in tandem with their local school districts and their coordinators are employed by the state rather than nonprofit partners. But some say this minimizes coordinators’ power.

Lead agencies can typically leverage more resources than school employees, said Ellie Mitchell, executive director of the Maryland Out of School Time Network, a statewide youth development organization that houses the Maryland Coalition for Community Schools. “They can grant write more easily, enlist volunteers or bring social workers into their schools; it makes the coordinator and the principal more like partners and gives the coordinator more autonomy.”

Measuring success among community schools also poses challenges because each one is so different. And some data shows the ones that do the best have been around the longest.

“Everything takes practice, everything takes time,” said Claudia Galindo, associate professor of education policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Test scores are not the only measures of success, Galindo added. And some unexpected factors, such as the coronavirus pandemic or statewide teacher shortages, may influence how much progress an otherwise successful community school is making.

In more remote parts of the state, which have fewer nonprofit partners to help implement the strategy, Gardiner tends to hear more complaints about community schools. But she thinks more people will come around as awareness grows.

Strong Schools Maryland this year is pushing for an amendment to the Blueprint that would require the Maryland education department to identify low-performing community schools and have the governor appropriate more annual money for technical assistance for them. Meanwhile, the Blueprint’s accountability board is staffing up, inspiring more confidence, Gardiner said.

David Hornbeck, a former Maryland schools superintendent and an adviser to the commission that helped inform the Blueprint, acknowledges the flaws in the model’s quick expansion — but thinks they are still making a difference.

“There have been so many successful community schools, we don’t need to fiddle with it,” Hornbeck said. “Just do what works.”

Steps forward

Before Berkshire Elementary became a community school, just one part-time teacher on staff spoke Spanish. Principal Brooks said that teacher wasn’t in the building every day nor hired to counsel and support families with language barriers.

Now, the community school has translation devices to help Spanish-speaking parents and students. They are also able to pay a parent to act as a liaison between the school and Spanish-speaking families.

Brooks said more Latino parents are now showing up to after-school programs and school events. Malik Sollas, a community school coordinator, has connected parents without documentation or insurance to health care providers. And some parents have attended school-sponsored English classes.

“We’ve had situations where we’ve had to take parents to get food stamps, so I personally drove them to the food stamp office,” Sollas said.

It takes time for change to impact school performance. However, state test score data shows the elementary school has improved since the 2018-2019 school year. And the state report card showed it has maintained its 3-star rating.

Brooks said the school is headed in the right direction.

“We’ve been able to reach families that never came through the door,” Brooks said, “Families that may not have felt comfortable in our environment.”

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