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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 7

Community Counts

Collaborations between schools and community-based organizations can help students develop lasting academic and life skills.

Research during the past 12 years supports what many parents, teachers, and other adults who spend time with young people already know: Community-based programs and organizations make significant contributions to young people's learning and development (McLaughlin, 2000). From 1987 to 1999, colleagues and I came to know hundreds of young people and their work in approximately 120 youth organizations in 34 different communities, from Massachusetts to Hawaii.
Our sample was a purposely biased one. We wanted to know what kinds of organizations young people consider worthwhile. These students led us to activities where they felt valued, respected, and challenged in positive ways. The organizations were a diverse lot: Boys and Girls Clubs, dance troupes, Ys, basketball teams, improvisational theater groups, and projects with mural artists. These organizations were not typical of many other community organizations, whose activities these young people judged as boring, inappropriate, punitive, unsafe, or otherwise off-putting—even though some of the activities had the same institutional affiliations or focus as the preferred activities.
Neither were the young people who participated in our research typical of many students who participate in after-school activities in the United States—they all were poor, and most were young people of color. All of the urban youths in our study attended schools plagued by violence and drugs; they navigated community corridors generally empty of resources for them.

Helping Students Change Their Futures

The students participating in these community-based organizations accomplished more than many in society would expect of them, and, in fact, more than many of them ever thought could be possible. Their achievements were of many different kinds—formal and informal, social and academic. From providing services for the elderly to rehabilitating an inner-city park, from performing in dance recitals to presenting proposals to community leaders—such achievements made a difference in each young person's course through adolescence and into the future.
  • 26 percent more likely to have received recognition for good grades;
  • 20 percent more likely to rate their chances of going to college as very high;
  • Nearly twice as likely to view themselves as worthy persons;
  • 13 percent more likely to believe that they would have a job that they enjoyed;
  • More than twice as likely to feel they had control over their lives; and
  • More than two and one-half times more likely to express a sense of civic responsibility and a desire to give back to their communities.
A significant number of the young people not only had positive ideas about what the future would hold, but also had the knowledge and confidence to plan and reach their goals. They expressed a sense of personal value and empowerment far greater than did their peers. These attitudes existed in stark contrast to the expressions of cynicism and paralysis we heard from other young people in the same neighborhoods.
Students emphasized the value of the life skills that they had learned in these community-based organizations. Many young people told us, for example, that participating in community service projects provided their first experience of being valued by adults. Students stressed how this regard fueled their self-confidence and changed their attitudes toward personal dependability. For example, one student who took part in a community beautification program said,It gives me a sense of responsibility, like what you've got to be [when you have a job]. . . . You've got to be there on time, work hard at it, and get done what needs to get done. I am part of this [program] because I needed that responsibility.
In consequential ways, the benefits of community service projects went in two directions—to the community that received the service and to the student who provided it.
Benefits continue into adulthood. We kept up with approximately 60 of the students who were part of our original research in three urban communities and had a chance to see how they fared over a decade. Contrary to predictions that they would be dead or in jail before they left adolescence, most of these young men and women, now in their 20s, are set firmly on positive pathways as workers, parents, and community members. A few are college graduates, and most received some kind of training after high school. With few exceptions, these young adults are employed and active members of their communities and are giving back to their communities—just as they said they would.
Would these young people have accomplished as much without the community organizations that nourished and challenged them in their free time? Little doubt exists in their minds that the community-based organizations where they spent time after school, on weekends, or in the summer months played a crucial role in nurturing their development and in mediating the risk factors in their neighborhoods and often in their schools, families, and peer groups.
These effective community organizations, in the words of one urban youth worker, help students "duck the bullet" of early pregnancies, drugs, street violence, and academic failure. These programs provide sanctuary and the kind of community support that enables young people to imagine a positive path and embark on it. The learning environments of these programs boosted the success of many students in school, but, just as important, taught these students life skills. Without these community resources, the young people we followed for more than a decade believed that they, too, would have faltered on their journey through adolescence.

Schools and Community Organizations

Community youth organizations of the type involved in this research care deeply about youth development and learning. Their programs and organizations provide opportunities for youth to learn and grow. How can schools support these community youth organizations?
Share space and facilities. A school's contribution of physical resources for club meetings, performances, sports, and other activities is crucial to the successful operation of the grassroots organizations or neighborhood groups that have little space to call their own—relying on individual resources, like the coach's car trunk, for example, to store equipment.
Set up institutional collaborations. Space and facilities are vital to the survival of community-based organizations, but schools lose valuable opportunities when they merely grant permission to use the space and do not work with the organizations on mutual goals for youth development. In the course of our research, we did not see many institutional collaborations between schools and community-based organizations that went beyond shared space. We did find collaborations between individuals—for example, the teacher who e-mailed her students' homework assignments to her friend in the Boys and Girls Club or the science teacher who worked with a colleague to develop a community-based environmental study project. Although these partnerships were valuable, they depended on individual energy rather than on institutional commitment.
Substantive partnerships call for explicit institutional attention to all aspects of healthy youth development and a commitment to considering how schools and community-based organizations can work together to advance their shared goals for youth. In the course of this research and related research on contexts for teaching and learning in high schools (McLaughlin, 2000; McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993, in press), we found that the most promising institutional partnerships between schools and community-based organizations extended beyond superficial cooperation to engage in questions of curriculums, outcomes, and planning for youth development.
Connect mutual goals. Students' lives inside and outside of school are inextricably intertwined, and what students experience outside of school is crucial to their success in school. Teachers who have the time and opportunity to become familiar with their students' contexts for learning outside of school—and who have developed long-term relationships with youth workers—can do a better job of teaching. Together, the adults inside and outside of school can use their resources to strengthen learning in ways that exceed what they could accomplish alone.
Substantive collaboration strengthens the core mission of teaching and learning and addresses the deeply interdependent dimensions—intellectual, emotional, social, and physical—of youth development. Academic achievement, for instance, will probably amount to little if a student's emotional or social development does not support a healthy transition to adulthood. Academic success alone is not enough to motivate young people to tackle challenges, succeed on the job, or effectively navigate the institutions of mainstream society. Young people need life skills as well, including a sense of personal worth, a positive assessment of the future, and the knowledge of how to plan for the future.
Integrate school and community resources for teaching and learning by codeveloping curriculums. A high school civics class in northern California collaborates with a nearby youth organization to engage students in civic leadership—most recently researching and funding a skate park for local youth. In Kentucky, a language arts class works with a Boys and Girls Club on an oral history project that takes students into the community to interview senior citizens.
To establish a dialogue with community-based youth programs, schools could highlight community programs in the daily life of school. For example, teachers could encourage students to share their work in youth organizations as part of class projects. School news-letters could devote a regular section to programs and opportunities at community-based organizations.
Support teachers' involvement in community-based organizations. Schools and community-based organizations generally operate in isolation from one another. Especially in cities where teachers commute into the neighborhood, educators know little about what exists for youth during nonschool hours. Further, as one youth advocate put it, "There is an abundance of arrogance and ignorance on both sides." Many youth workers feel that teachers and administrators do not understand their students or the value of community-based activities as learning resources.
When teachers visit the neighborhood organizations that their students attend, they can begin to build connections between community organizations and the classroom. For instance, a high school English teacher in California saw one of her low-achieving students in an entirely new light when she watched him star in a play produced by a youth group. In Pennsylvania, an English teacher who visited a church-based literacy project saw his students researching and writing for their newsletter in ways that he had not seen in his classroom, and he revised his writing curriculum to make the most of their after-school experience.
A school in southern California provides teachers with professional development time to visit the churches, athletic programs, and youth clubs in their students' neighborhoods. These teachers now view neighborhood youth organizations as valuable learning resources. In Michigan, staff members from the neighborhood Boys and Girls Club visit schools to help with teachers' lunchtime duties and to let students and teachers know what is available at the club after school. As a result of these lunchtime conversations, a sizeable group of teens now heads to the Boys and Girls Club when school closes and finds staff informed about what they are doing in school and supplied with relevant materials. Staff in youth organizations aiming to support students' achievements in school often ask for better communication with teachers and access to instructional materials.
Students appreciate the benefits of substantive integration between their school and after-school environments. For example, a recent focus group in a San Francisco Bay Area high school that serves a low-income, ethnically diverse community asked failing students, "What would make it possible for you to be a better student?" (Mitra, in press). Students pointed to a number of school improvements that would help them be more successful: additional counseling, appreciation of different learning styles, and a better rapport with teachers. Students, however, also mentioned supports that could be provided in after-school settings: access to textbooks and computers outside of class, a quiet place to do homework, and adults to work with them in a positive fashion. Community-based learning resources, students said, could provide tutoring and other assistance in a more relaxed setting, give them a safe and supportive peer environment, and allow them to juggle the demands of jobs and school more effectively.
Develop meaningful measures of youth development. The intellectual, social, emotional, and physical domains are all part of young people's development. Schools and youth organizations can work together to develop meaningful measures of students' growth and accomplishment. By providing youth organizations with information on students' school performance, schools can help youth organizations document a range of cognitive, social, and emotional outcomes for students. Youth organizations can help schools recognize and reward students' achievements. Often, a youth worker involved with a young person for many months or years will be able to gauge student growth that a teacher can't see during a single semester. Meaningful measures of a student's skills and accomplishments should express that student's development in its totality; such assessments require information from and the perspectives of both schools and community-based organizations.
Schools have become responsible for the many goals that society holds for its young people, and, as any harried administrator or teacher will be quick to say, schools can't do everything to meet the needs of contemporary youth. Schools are often overloaded and underfunded as they tackle the job of preparing young people for the future.
Our research, however, justifies action. Schools should consider how they can partner with community-based organizations to advance the goals of youth development. Through substantive connections with the youth organizations in their communities, schools can offer more opportunities for teachers to teach and for young people to learn.

McLaughlin, M. (2000). Community counts: How youth organizations matter for youth development. Washington, DC: Public Education Network. Available: www.publiceducation.org

McLaughlin, M., & Talbert, J. (1993). Contexts that matter for teaching and learning. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Center for Research on the Contexts of Secondary School Teaching.

McLaughlin, M., & Talbert, J. (in press). Communities of practice and the work of high school teachers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mitra, D. (in press). Opening the floodgates: Giving students a voice in school reform. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Center for Research on the Contexts of Secondary School Teaching.

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