One in four public schools in America is a high-poverty school — one where more than 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Many of these students face serious challenges such as housing instability and hunger, and the high levels of stress in their daily lives can affect their school attendance and performance. While high school graduation rates have increased nationwide, students from poor families still lag far behind other students.
Communities In Schools (CIS) works to integrate a variety of support services for students to keep them on a path to graduation. CIS takes a tiered approach to service provision: some services are broadly available to all students at a school and others are directed at those most at risk of dropping out.
CIS provides services to students in 10 areas, delivered with varying intensity and duration based on students’ levels of need: academics, behavior, social skills and life skills, resources to meet basic needs, college and career preparation, enrichment and motivation, family outreach and engagement, health and physical wellness, community service, and mental health. CIS places site coordinators in schools who then establish systems that provide services to both the whole school and individual students. Site coordinators deliver some services directly and find outside partners to deliver others.
MDRC has conducted two separate studies of Communities In Schools: a quasi-experimental study of the effect of the whole model and a randomized controlled trial of one component of the model — case management for students at higher risk. Both studies were funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s Social Innovation Fund, a program of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, with additional funding from The Wallace Foundation. CIS’s engagement in third-party evaluations reflects the organization’s commitment to continuous learning and to improving the CIS model in the service of schools and students.
Using Integrated Student Supports To Keep Kids In School: A Quasi-Experimental Evaluation of Communities In Schools by Marie-Andrée Somers and Zeest Haider
This evaluation examined the effects of the CIS whole-school model in high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. For high schools, on-time graduation rates increased — and dropout rates decreased — in the schools implementing the CIS model. Graduation and dropout rates also improved in a group of similar comparison schools, so it is unclear whether the CIS model was more effective than the strategies used by the comparison schools. The findings do suggest that the CIS model may be at least as effective as these other approaches.
In elementary schools, attendance rates (a central outcome the CIS model aims to effect in the elementary grades) improved in schools implementing the CIS model more than they did in a group of comparison schools. This combination of results suggests that the CIS model was more effective than the strategies used by the comparison schools. At the high school level, attendance rates improved in schools implementing the CIS model, but they also improved in the comparison schools. At the middle school level, attendance rates did not improve.
In middle schools, state test scores in English/language arts and math did not improve in schools implementing the CIS model, whereas they did improve in a group of comparison schools. This combination of results suggests that at the middle school level, the CIS model was not as effective as the strategies used by the comparison schools. State test scores did improve for elementary schools and high schools implementing the CIS model, but they improved by similar amounts in the comparison schools.
Unfortunately, it was not possible to evaluate whether the CIS model improved students’ behavioral outcomes, which is the CIS model’s primary goal at the middle school level.
Two Years of Case Management: Final Findings from the Communities In Schools Random Assignment Evaluation by Leigh Parise, William Corrin, Kelly Granito, Zeest Haider, Marie-Andrée Somers, and Oscar Cerna
The case management CIS provides succeeded in getting targeted students into more support activities and improving several of their nonacademic outcomes. Students randomly assigned to receive case management reported higher levels of meeting with adults in school to discuss academics, to set personal goals, and to address life-changing events; of meeting with mentors; of receiving tutoring; and of participating in career planning activities. Students assigned to case management also reported feeling more connected to adults, maintained more positive and supportive relationships with peers, were more engaged and had more positive attitudes toward school, and held stronger beliefs that education has value for their future. However, the study found that these services did not have a positive effect on students’ attendance, academic performance, or behavior after two years.
How has CIS used the results from these evaluations to strengthen its programs? In addition to assessing the effects of CIS services overall, both evaluations analyzed the model’s effects on different subgroups of students. The studies also collected information from students, CIS staff members, and staff members from participating schools to understand the factors that affect the model’s implementation. All of this information helped CIS make decisions about its program, so that evaluation was a constructive process rather than simply a thumbs-up or thumbs-down endeavor.
CIS has committed itself to being a learning organization, regularly evaluating aspects of its program in order to improve its work on behalf of students. Evaluations do suggest that whole-school models of integrated student services offer the promise of positive effects, and that it is important to pay attention to how tiered support services are implemented, to ensure that they improve conditions for students above and beyond the kinds of support already available to them. As a separate brief outlines, CIS has used evaluation findings to continue to refine its model, to increase its effects on the students and schools it serves, to reach the students who need support the most, and to connect students to high-quality services.