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Overcoming adversity through community schools

Mary M. Harris and John H. Hoover

Children appear at our schoolhouse doors with many challenges that interface with their ability to learn. Emotional problems , illness, nutritional shortcomings, poverty, and familial strife all have the potential to limit traditional benefits of schooling. All to often, multiple psychosocial impediments to learning are concentrated in restricted segments of the population, thereby magnifying the risk experienced by the most vulnerable children. This article describes a community school initiative growing out of a flood that ravaged a heartland city.

The Full-Service Schools Movement
The full-service or community movement is part of a growing revolution against a fragmented approach to the challenges presented by children seen as at risk. National achievement goals cannot be met if, as appears to be the case, significant numbers of children come to school unprepared to learn. Simply, educational attainments have declined due to factors outside the school.

All too often, schools and other service agencies seem to be in competition for increasingly scarce resources. Tightened fiscal belts have required streamlining of the administration and delivery of educational and social services to children and families. Public skepticism about the effectiveness of social services has motivated a search for newer, more efficacious delivery models (Halpern, 1999). Policy makers have increasingly come to recognize that co-locating services, administratively, if not on-site, results in more effective services for at-risk youth, their families, and the surrounding communities (Dryfoos, 7994; Dryfoos, 1998; Huston, 7994; Kirst, 1993; Krysiak, 2001). Although a few full-service community school initiatives are older (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1995), this phenomenon took off in the 1990s. Recognized as the wave of the future by Dryfoos (1994), her work became a rallying point for those struggling to define this movement. Momentum has continued with the involvement of private philanthropic foundations and the federal government, as represented through such programs as the Department of Human Services family support and preservation initiative and Department of Education support of after-school programming through the Twenty-First Century Learning Communities funding mechanism.

What are Full-Service Schools?
Perhaps the most appropriate starting point in defining and describing full-service schools is to quote Joy Dryfoos, as her work has been both seminal and influential within the movement:

A full-service community school integrates the delivery of quality education with whatever health and social services are required in that community. These institutions draw on both school resources and outside community agencies that come into the schools and join forces to provide seamless programs.
(Dryfoos, 1998, p. 73)

The newly formed Coalition for Community Schools ( identifies five areas of attention for program and service development in community schools (Coalition for Community Schools, 2000): quality educational services, youth development programs, family support activities, family and community engagement, and community development.

Typically, community schools begin to work in just a few of these areas and then branch out as they realize the magnitude of the task and are able to bring new partners on board. The Coalition’s first publication, “Learning Together” (Melaville, 1998), offers the results of a mapping study of 20 school community initiatives nationwide in a format that defines the state of the art for the field. The study’s authors attend to such practical concerns as governance, staffing, financing, programming, and accountability. Practitioners of the movement have come together annually for the last three years under the auspices of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Collaborative for Integrated Social Services to advance understanding of how to do this work.

The full-service community school brings together under one roof the services needed by families in a particular locale. This approach supports the teaching and learning mission of the school, while making readily available such services as health screening, mental health, recreation, after-school programs, group counseling, cultural events, parent education, and family welfare services. This approach is consistent with the wrap-around model, where services are fit to the needs of children rather than fitting children into programs.

Shaw and Replogle (1996) describe six traits that characterize what they term “school linked services” (p. 9):

1. A holistic approach to children. Holism means that the relationship between health, familial adjustment, and emotional well-being and learning is recognized. Programs are set up such that all factors supporting learning are addressed in a non-fragmented manner.
2. Joint planning. To enjoy status as a full-service school, school officials, parents, and pertinent community agency personnel must plan together for the well-being of children and families. It is essential that the views of parents be elicited and considered in decision making.
3. Shared service delivery. In full-service schools, social services are either co-located or thoroughly administratively integrated.
4. Collaboration and/or coordination. To be truly effective, schools, social service agencies, and health providers must move beyond joint planning, to, if not direct sharing of resources, at least cooperation in their delivery. In the future, this may extend to joint planning of physical facilities.
5. Focus on child outcomes. Assessment of full-service school programs is predicated on measures of the wellbeing and achievement of students, rather than merely on “procedural compliance with rules and regulations” (Shaw & Replogle, p. 9).
6. Shifts in professional roles. True collaboration requires eliminating professional turf battles in the interest of children. Educators, social workers, counselors, and health professionals will ultimately learn from one another as they serve youngsters. This blending of professional roles does not imply a complete merger, such as recasting teachers as mental health providers.

Following we describe the experience of initiating a full service schools model in a specific community, Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Schools as the Center of Community: The Grand Forks Experience
Grand Forks differs demographically from most of the communities where full-service community schools are found. It is not an urban community; neither do a majority of its residents think of themselves as poor. This community of 50,000 is located on the Red River of the North, about 100 miles south of the Canadian border, in a climate that demands seasonal caution. Home of the University of North Dakota, which serves about 10,000 resident students, and neighbor to the Grand Forks Air Force Base, Grand Forks has, in fact, a fairly transient population, and this transience has intensified with a farm crisis that brings to town people recently forced off family farms as they train for other employment. 1n 1995, 13.3;i, of children under age 18 in Grand Forks County lived in poverty (North Dakota Kids Count, 1998).

Stress on this community hit a record high in April 1997, when it was the victim of a massive flood and downtown fire. The entire citizenry was evacuated, primarily to communities in North Dakota, but, in fact, to every state in the U.S. Returning days or weeks later, most residents found their basements filled with water, and those nearest the river lost their homes. Help poured in from across the nation from the Federal Emergency Management Association, the Red Cross, other cities that had been flooded, communities of faith, corporate foundations, and individuals. Grateful, at first, just to be alive, the community only gradually learned how long is the work of flood recovery and how expensive, especially when virtually every family, business, and public entity is affected. In Grand Forks, the work with full-service community schools started pre-flood in one school and escalated, afterward, as university and school district leaders sought ways simultaneously to help families and to turn the Grand Forks experience into a lesson for the community’s many benefactors. Steadfast among these has been the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which provided the financial support to enable this work to progress more surely and smoothly than is possible without external support.

Several pre-existing factors contributed directly to post-flood initiation of a sizable full-service school initiative in Grand Forks. These can be summarized by the three themes of partnerships, experience, and the degree to which the flood focused attention on need. Signs that it was time to think about a full-service community school in Grand Forks were in evidence well before the flood. Here are some of the signs that influenced thinking about this approach at the pilot site, Lake Agassiz Elementary School:

Acting from concern about such incidents and patterns of behavior, a team of school and university leaders secured in advance funding from the Knight Foundation and the Region IV Children’s Services Coordinating Committee. The latter agency is an arm of the North Dakota Department of Human Services. The funds were allocated for the addition of a full-time social worker to the staff of Lake Agassiz Elementary School.

Lake Agassiz is a professional development school of the elementary education program of the University of North Dakota. Of the 460 K-6 students attending the school at that time, 74j, were qualified for free- or reduced-price lunch. The school’s students were 27`J, non-white, including 18`j,, Native American students. The plan was that the school social worker, working on a team with the school counselor and the principal, would connect students and families with health and human service resources outside the school, enabling greater focus by other personnel on issues of teaching and learning (Kitko, 1998).

In her first year as Lake Agassiz’s social worker, Barbara Kitko supported families by working very intensively with parents, as well as with children, often seeking physical and mental health therapy, at first outside the school setting. Over time, however, cooperative agreements have led to delivery of services by other agencies at the school, drastically reducing non-attendance due to transportation and parental scheduling conflicts. In her first year, Kitko brought to the campus Health Tracks Screening and a summer programming fair. She co-facilitated two groups for children of divorce with other agencies and supported community programming for parents of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) children and school district parent education programs. She acquired funding to provide medication for chronic conditions to families when eligibility for other programs had run out and worked systematically with families of the children who made up the caseload of the school counselor, as well as those who were frequently absent or tardy. In this work, flood recovery was a factor, but this seemed to be true more for adults than for children, who were typically impatient with the ever-present nature of flood-related discussion (Silverman, 1999).

The Current Project
Experiences accrued in the Lake Agassiz phase of the Schools as the Center of the Community (SCC) were expanded ultimately to the six schools on the north side of Grand Forks most affected by the 1997 flood. The Knight Foundation assisted with expansion of the initiative. Because Lake Agassiz School was in a professional development relationship with the University of North Dakota, this pre-existing partnership proved a potent force for development and expansion of full-service schools to more buildings (Harris & Gates, 1997).

At the project’s outset, there were three school social workers district wide and a 700:1 ratio of students to school counselors. Thus, the School as the Center of Community concept was innovative in its focus on teamwork, featuring new roles and new service ratios for counselors and social workers, in its outreach to families and in its emphasis on mobilizing community resources. Other service agencies and programs serving children and families were recruited into a council of representatives. These included the Parent Education Resource Center, the Division of Special Services, and the Johnson O’Malley Program, which serves American Indian students. Other members included representatives of Northeast Human Services, Grand Forks County Social Services, Grand Forks County Health Department, NDSU Office of Extension, and the LaGrave Center of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A member of the University Department of Social Work provided the leadership for this large group, which met bi-monthly to network and seek solutions to community-wide problems (Jacobsen, 7998).

To keep this project on track, its primary personnel meet twice each semester to discuss progress toward meeting project goals. The entire staffs of the six schools meet for two days each summer to consider the implications of the full-service community school concept for their work in the coming year.

Initial Findings
Ongoing collection of data toward summative evaluation is part of the work of this project. Our evaluation plan requires annual collection of data from a parent panel at each school; from questionnaires administered to teachers, certified staff, and non-certified staff; from interviews with school counselors, social workers, and principals; from performance statistics and other records maintained for each school; and from activity logs kept by the social workers and counselors. Analysis of the first-year data indicates that the School as the Center of Community project has had a positive impact on students, families, and schools (Anderson & Hoover, 1999). The idea that the Grand Forks schools do not face the type of problems warranting a full-service school approach was dispelled by data from the interviews, focus panels, and teacher/staff surveys. Figure 1 shows the mean proportions of students identified by teachers as having experienced in the past 30 days problems in a variety of categories that inhibited learning.

Significant proportions of students came to school unprepared for the rigors of cognitive learning. At least 15% of students in the six schools were seen by teachers/staff as demonstrating problems that interfered with their learning within the previous 30 days. These behavior problems were seen as affecting the whole learning climate of the school, not just individual youth. Just over 10’,, of students in the elementary grades were seen as negatively affected by family problems, and fewer than 10i(’- were seen as affected by poverty. These factors were viewed as affecting both the learning of individual students and the climate of the school(s). Teachers cited attendance and health problems as significant negative predictors of student learning.

Perhaps more than would be expected, elementary teachers viewed the project personnel (school social worker and counselor) as performing well. Reactions were strongly positive and increased from the first to the second year of the project. Figure 1 shows the reactions of school faculty and staff to the School as the Center of Community project, as portrayed in a series of questionnaire items.

Year 1
Year 2
Percent 1
The SCC (Knight Foundation) project has helped me spend more time teaching academic material. 33.9 53.7 19.8
I am aware of the SCC (Knight) project. 75.6 94.0 18.4
The SCC (Knight) project has positively affected my school. 72.5 90.1 17.6
My students and I have sufficient access to school counseling services. 69.5 82.7 13.2
Students in our school community are better off because of the SCC (Knight Foundation) project. 79.6 92.0 12.4
Families in our school community are better off because of SCC (Knight Foundation) project. 78.4 90.6 12.2
The team made up of the principal, social worker, and counselor is effective in providing services. 82.5 93.2 10.7
My students and I have sufficient access to school nursing services. 35.8 46.1 10.3
School social workers sufficiently consider the views of teachers. 82.2 92.1 9.9
My students and I have sufficient access to school social work services. 83.8 93.6 9.8
School counselors sufficiently consider the views of teachers. 71.6 80.7 9.1
The school counselor helps students with problems which might otherwise inhibit learning. 77.0 85.1 8.1
My students and I have sufficient access to psychological services (individual/ family therapy). 41.4 45.9 4.5
 The school social worker helps students with problems which might otherwise inhibit learning

1 Significant Year 1 to Year 2 change (Bonferroni adjustment
for family-wide error rate)

89.2 92.0 2.8

Success stories of the project compiled in March 2000 displayed even more strongly than the first year data a theme of integration of services. Reading them chronologically, project evaluators (Anderson & Hoover, 2000) concluded that project counselors and social workers are coming increasingly to see their work in the context of its effect on student learning and that the team process is evolving to feature emphasis on professional activities that improve the quality of life for children by delivering services to their families.

The Potential of the approach
Although an initial injection of resources may be helpful, and perhaps necessary, to start a full-service community school, such collaborations must become self-sustaining. Organizers of the Grand Forks Project are working hard to find local sources of funding to replace contributions of the Knight Foundation.

Evaluation results that demonstrate benefits from integrated services are critical for systemic change in patterns of delivery supported at the state level. Project results so far have been useful in persuading local and state education and human service agency leaders of the promise of this approach and in directing attention to the need for participation of the health care system, as well, in seeking integrated approaches to service for children and families. Melaville (1998) concludes that strategies that blend the different cultures of service delivery through emphasis on community involvement that leads to strong constituent support (p. 100). 


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This feature: Harris, M., & Hoover, J. (2003) Overcoming adversity through community schools. Reclaiming Children and Youth. Vol. 11(4), pp.206-210