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Community Schools Are Turnaround Models

Amid the disheartening news about public education comes an uplifting story that offers much needed hope ("Who Needs Charters When You Have Public Schools Like These?" Apr. 2).  Consider the Union Public Schools district in Tulsa, Okla., which has overcome practically every obstacle to provide a state-of-the-art education in science, technology, engineering, and math to its students.

Despite spending only $7,605 a year in state and local funds per student, which is about one third less than the national average, and paying its veteran teachers with advanced degrees less than $50,000,  Union had a high school graduation rate of 89 percent.  That compares with the national average of 82 percent.  Its attendance has risen while its suspensions have plummeted. It's important to note that 70 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches and more than one third are Hispanic, many of whom English language learners.

What explains these remarkable results?  In a nutshell: community schools that offer wraparound services. Union opens early and closes late.  It provides parents with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby.  Parents are given referrals to job-training, and teenage mothers are offered day care for their infants.  In short, Union has transformed itself into a comprehensive neighborhood resource.  

The question, of course, is whether this model is scalable.  So often we hear stories of high-flying schools in certain parts of the country.  But no matter how closely they are studied, they have not been able to be duplicated.  It's hard to know beforehand which ones will succeed because much depends on the unique set of circumstances at work.  That does not mean we should give up.  But it does mean having realistic expectations.  If we bear that in mind, then even if other districts do not produce results on a par with Union's, we are on the right track.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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