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School-Linked Services


Robert L. Crowson

Sidney L. Gardner


There has been a rapid expansion of coordinatedservices efforts throughout the United States since the late 1980s. Solid historical roots can be found in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century, as well as some of the Great Society interventions of the 1960s. However, the aggressive development of a system of coordinated services for children and families in need received its major impetus in the late 1980s in reports of some service-needs conferencing, the results of some early experimentation, and in reports of the conditions of children and families in poverty. Two of the most influential documents were The Conditions of Children in California (1989) by Michael Kirst and Joining Forces (1989) by Janet Levy and Carol Copple.

The spread of children's services programs, from the late 1980s on, was so rapid that by 1993 one of its foremost advocates, Sharon Lynn Kagan, was claiming that efforts were "blossoming across the country from Maine to California" (Kagan and Neville, p. 78). Such "blossoming" had already received a solid boost from state legislation in New Jersey (1988), Kentucky (1990), and California (1991); with each establishing statewide family services programs.

In 1993 in the American Journal of Education, Robert Crowson published the first in a series of coauthored inquiries into issues surrounding the administration and organization of school-based services. Drawing on the available reports, handbooks, evaluations, and case studies of the time, it was observed that an array of institutional realities presented a difficult, uphill climb for service coordination. Among the problematic elements were matters of professional control and turf; organizational disincentives to collaboration; legal and budgetary dilemmas; communications and confidentiality barriers; questions of governance and managerial support; and reconceptualizations of professional or organizational roles.

Through the 1990s additional reports and analyses continued to document the deep administrative problems encountered by those attempting to coordinate services. A substantial blow to the movement in the United States occurred in 1994 when the Pew Charitable Trust announced the termination of its then sizeable support of school-linked family centers. The Trust's decision came on the heels of some weak evaluation results.

Just a year later, an assessment by Julie White and Gary Wehlage of the New Futures initiative, then funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, added fuel to the no-effects fire. Among the most damaging of the findings was the observation that the outreach programs were invariably of the from-the-top-down variety, and that they ignored family and community expressions of service needs, depending instead upon professionally identified definitions of client need.

However, none of this bad press stopped, or even slowed, the movement. The notion of coordinated services has continued to increase in popularity into the twenty-first century. In a 1997 survey of school-based and school-linked initiatives across some forty states, Mary Driscoll, William Boyd, and Crowson found a particularly heavy emphasis nationwide upon programs in parenting education, family support and advocacy, and family health services. A surprising finding was that nearly a third of the programs surveyed in 1997 reported efforts in employment-related services for families, a feature not highlighted in the existing literature on service integration. Perhaps the greatest growth, however, continues to be in the specialized area of health services. Indeed, another survey in late 2000 reported a more than ten-fold increase during the 1990s in the number of school-based health clinics in operation across the United States.

Current Directions in Service Provision

Amid its continuing growth, a conception of the central problem behind much of the services effort has undergone a bit of change. The talk of a dangerously fragmented delivery system, and of the need for a heavy emphasis upon the coordination of children's and family services, has declined. Coordination, it has been discovered, is exceptionally hard to do. Instead, in the United States, there has been a reduced focus upon interagency cooperation and a greater emphasis upon the provision of an array of services, coordinated or not.

There has also been less attention paid to school-centered programs of family assistance. Instead, efforts have gone toward the development of a much greater variety of forms and strategies for outreach, including neighborhood organization–led programs, communities-of-faith efforts, private-sector interventions, and many more school-linked, rather than school-based, programs. Finally, activity in the services movement has been directed toward efforts that bridge pedagogically between schools and families and communities–particularly with programs of after-school activities and after-school tutoring, youth development and assistance programs, summer schooling, arts and music education, and day care.

This changed direction is finding roots in a sense of the ecology of community development activities, as opposed to programs of family assistance. Although interest continues in interagency partnering, the focus has increasingly been on community action rather than the delivery of professional services to a poverty-area clientele.

Lizbeth Schorr, nationally known advocate for children and youth, has argued in favor of this new paradigm, claiming that the added delivery of professional services by themselves falls far short of the full scope of efforts needed to strengthen families and improve learning opportunities in low-income neighborhoods. As Schorr puts it, people increasingly recognize that educational success necessitates a key place for the school "at the table where community reform is being organized" (p. 291).

There have been a number intellectual shifts of consequence in the movement toward a community development approach to family assistance. First, the concept of social capital has grown in importance and application. Much influenced by the work of James Coleman, social capital has, over time, become central to the rationale underlying coordinated services. The claim is that critical cultural resources and supports, as well as so-called hard resources through direct assistance, are passed from institutions to families in full-services programming.

Second, without denying the power and importance of services to children and families, the altered ecological paradigm foresees a much larger program of economic outreach beyond professional, interagency partnering. A services agenda may be necessary but not sufficient–especially in deep-poverty circumstances with major infrastructure needs in housing quality, employment opportunities, recreational outlets, law enforcement, and other areas. Matters of public and private investment, entrepreneurialism, regeneration, rebuilding, resourcefulness, incentives creation, market forces, and assisting self-help efforts can all join in creating a climate of assistance that goes far beyond the narrow scope of activity captured in a purely services agenda.

New Issues in the Organization of Services

The coordinated-services movement encountered many well-documented difficulties in the ability of cooperating partners to share information, deal with turf issues, retain and reorient participating professionals, mingle resources, merge or blend disciplinary perspectives, and involve the neighborhood clientele. In comparison, however, the newer community ecology approach is by no means without its own set of organizational issues.

As an initial issue, there has been a central question regarding basic assumptions of "approach" in assistance to families. The community development idea assumes that market forces can be effectively introduced to low-income communities–that enterprise and investment, incentives and subsidies, employment and empowerment, and rebuilding and repair can begin a transformation process that trickles down to produce much-improved opportunities for families and their children, and reformed and better-performing schools. In contrast, the earlier and narrower services approach has strong Progressive era roots in efforts to protect poor families from the ravages of the market. Healthy homes and neighborhoods, and what was thought to be "good" for families and children, were to be provided by a well-trained cadre of informed and committed persons as a hedge against the horrors of sweatshop industrialism. A residue of distrust against the market forces characterizes much of human-services professionalism.

A second unresolved organizational issue involves questions of ownership. To be sure, ownership emerged as a constraint in school-based programming–ranging from turf protection to determining just what is involved in partnering and who's in charge administratively. With its much broader scope of linkages and collaborations, with less focusing upon a from-the-school-outward delivery of services, and with overtones of community development and empowerment (as well as assistance), the new ecological paradigm is far from clear on just what, or whose, property rights are to be attended to. Foundations, banks, businesses, and schools may initiate community development activities, but the paradigm calls for a quick shift to grassroots ownership. Institutional controls may well be operative, but the paradigm calls for a full recognition of the controlling forces present in the very culture of each community.

As a key organizational issue, consider that school-based services have typically been backed by the best professional practices and undertaken by highly trained (and usually certified) service providers. Under such a structure, agency services will look much the same whatever the community. But, with lessened professional ownership, local values and some clashes around basic premises can easily introduce into best-practice professionalism some extremely strange elements of local accommodation. Professionals are put to a test around just how much ownership they are comfortable in giving up.

Implications and Conclusions

In brief recapitulation, the emerging context surrounding service provision in the United States finds less activity than earlier in school-centered programs of generalized assistance to families, and somewhat more interest today in direct pedagogical services to children. Additionally, there is a movement away from fairly narrow services agendas and toward a larger arena of community development activity, as well as a decided movement toward initiatives working up from the community rather than trickling down from professional and academic sources.

Increasingly, community-based organizations, rather than schools, are displaying an initiative in offering an array of after-school services (e.g., after-school child care, youth development programs, tutoring, successful parenting classes). These neighborhood organizations typically cover the institutional waterfront, and include local churches, city parks departments and libraries, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and YWCAs, community organizers, and banks or local for-profit organizations.

As community institutions have displayed a greater level of initiative, a larger and broader paradigm around interagency partnering has been emerging as well. A definition of the problem has proceeded from community responsiveness, through children's and family services, to cooperation in the regeneration of the community itself. By no means, however, is there less regard than before for the local school. Indeed, an added embeddedness of the school in the culture of its community, and a leadership role for the school as part of an overall community of support for families and children, are both very much a part of the revised agenda.

There are implications in the new scenario for the organization of administrative activities. One administrative implication is the need for rethinking some key mental models of school leadership. A longtime part of the lore of school principalship has been a balancing act in the school-community relationship, usually referred to as bridging and buffering. School administrators have been taught to walk the tightrope of bridging to the community while simultaneously buffering the organization and its professionals from undue intrusion by the community.

The result, a number of scholars claim, has been the maintenance over the years of a sizeable gap between schools and their communities. This has created a call for a new role that replaces bridging and buffering with a more outreach-oriented exercise of civic capacity. School administrators who exercise civic capacity reach out actively from their schools to help build or develop their respective communities.

A related implication is the need to clarify just what it means to partner in linkages with other community groups. Seymour Sarason and Elizabeth Lorentz argue that partnering in the early twenty-first century requires much more than just a bit of collaboration. It means meaningful boundary crossing–where there is resource exchange, a true network approach to shared objectives, and much more selflessness (or less ownership) than is typical of most interagency relationships. This is the type of partnership activity that was called for by White and Wehlage in 1995. Community services, they argued at that time, should be judged less by their success in providing resources and services and more by their success in reshaping the priorities and practices of schools toward a closer understanding of, and partnership with, the family and the neighborhood.


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School-linked services are health and family services that are provided to students in one or more schools through a variety of linkages. Services may be located at or near a school (e.g., a mobile medical van, a family resource center housed in a modular classroom), provided after school to some students, or students may be referred to services provided by an external agency made available based on an agreement between the school and the provider agency. Appropriate measures to assess the effectiveness of these services differ depending on the form of school-linked services being reviewed.

School-linked services is a label that overlaps with earlier phrases that describe school-connected efforts to connect students with community resources they need to perform in the classroom and to address problems that may impair their learning. Community schools, school-based clinics, full-service schools, learning supports, and family resource centers located at schools are all labels used currently as well as in earlier eras. The emphasis upon linkage is usually intended to signal that services may not be physically located at schools, but are intended to be connected with schools through a variety of administrative and policy agreements among schools and other agencies.

School-linked services are in addition to those health and social services provided by school staff, including psychologists, counselors, social workers, school nurses, and others. Within the broad field of noneducational learning supports, some policy advocates and practitioners have emphasized the need for better connections among the staff already working for schools, while others have emphasized the relatively small number of these professionals compared to the number of students with noneducational problems that affect their learning. That number may be as high as one-third of all students in some schools who are affected by poor health and other factors, including:

  • dental, physical, vision, and other health problems;
  • inadequate or no health insurance coverage;
  • family stress due to substance abuse, low income, family violence, or behavior by the students themselves that involves high-risk sexual activity, substance abuse, or criminal activity and gang involvement.

The need to tap outside agencies that are funded to work with youth is the basis for the argument that school-linked services are a critical supplement to what the school systems' own professionals can accomplish in addressing these problems.

Measuring Effectiveness–Which Outcomes?

A question that arises early in the discussions between school and agency over school-linked services is what standards and measures should be used in assessing the effectiveness of these services. Are they to be assessed based on their impact on the core mission of the school–academic performance by students–or are there other, noneducational measures of the impact of school-linked services on students?

Each party to this discussion has a different starting point. Schools naturally begin the dialog stressing the academic outcomes for which they are held accountable, while other agencies with a greater concern for health, family services, and youth development measure what school-linked services do for students and their parents. The negotiations about goals and outcomes among the sponsoring agencies and schools turn on the relative importance of classroom performance compared with interventions aimed at the external causes of classroom achievement gaps.

School-agency-community partnerships eventually need to move toward agreement on the specifics of the outcomes and indicators to be used as fair measures of progress. Three types of outcomes typically emerge from these discussions, each moving out in a wider circle from a core of education-only outcomes and indicators.

For school-based outcomes, the triad of achievement measured by test scores, attendance, and school completion/graduation rates constitutes the standard that most schools would take seriously as basic measures of school-linked services. Some schools would add the number of suspensions and classroom behavior as measured by disciplinary incidents as indicators of effectiveness. These are the core outcomes for most schools.

In the next circle of outcomes, beyond the classroom, the outcomes are still related to academic achievement, but are no longer restricted to what happens in the classroom. These outcomes include parent involvement, help with homework, reading to primary-age children, and parent engagement with teachers in responding to behavior problems in the classroom.

The third circle consists of those outcomes that are further out into the arenas of community building and youth development, and may include such things as schools' success in attracting community volunteers, children's health coverage in the immediate neighborhood, and the effects of early childhood programs that aim at school readiness goals.

These three circles of outcomes, marked by their increasing distance from academic achievement, set up a further distinction between tightly-linked learning supports, in which the objectives of school-linked services are closely connected with academic achievement and are stronger than in those looserlinked systems in which noneducational goals are given standing independent of their impact on classroom achievement. Experience suggests that the choice of which system is most appropriate should emerge from each district's negotiations with its partners, rather than being mandated by external funders. In a district with weak leadership or strained relations with its surrounding community, academic achievement may be all the partnership can handle. But in a district that has built credibility with its neighbors, parents, and nearby agencies, the wider circles of outcomes may be exactly the right way to take advantage of that history of good relationships.

At the same time, evaluation of school-linked services models in multiple sites underscores the importance of a close fit between what is being measured and what resources are devoted to achieving. To use educational outcomes to measure an after-school program that primarily focuses upon health and recreation goals, rather than academic activities, is not an appropriate use of outcomes. Improved family functioning is unlikely to result from tutoring models and using family functioning scales to measure the effects of such programs is not a good allocation of evaluation resources.

Two other sets of distinctions are also important to keep in mind when evaluating the outcomes of school-linked services.

  1. Between short-term and longer-range outcomes, that is, between those outcomes that are markers of movement in the right direction, such as student attendance improvements, and those which are long-term positive results, such as college entrance/completion or mastery of key vocational skills.
  2. Between measures of negative behavior–suspensions and expulsions–and measures of positive development. In working with youth, in particular, it is important not to overemphasize those measures that connote negative behavior, as they convey a message that youth are being monitored only for their mistakes. Emphasizing positive accomplishments in developing outcomes provides better feedback to students.

What Is Known About Outcomes?

A recent compilation of evaluation results from forty-nine different community school models was developed by Joy Dryfoos for the Community Schools Coalition, an organization based at the Institute for Educational Leadership. In forty-six of these reports, positive effects were noted. Thirty-six programs reported academic gains, nineteen reported improvements in attendance, eleven reported a reduction in suspensions, eleven reported reductions in high-risk behaviors, twelve reported increases in parent involvement, and six reported safer communities as a result of the initiative. Another compilation, developed by the UCLA School Mental Health Project, provides information on outcomes from a sample of almost 200 programs. These outcomes were organized into six basic areas that addressed barriers to learning and enhance healthy development: (1) enhancing classroom-based efforts to enable learning, (2) providing prescribed student and family assistance, (3) responding to and preventing crises, (4) supporting transitions, (5) increasing home involvement in schooling, and (6) outreaching for greater community involvement and support–including use of volunteers.

The challenges facing evaluation of these initiatives should not be underestimated. Such evaluations seek to separate the effects of programs that were deliberately designed to combine different interventions, aimed at highly disparate student populations that are hard to compare with students not receiving the interventions, and taking place in complex, partially open systems that include large bureaucracies, complex funding streams, and strongly held professional and community values. These evaluation problems correspond closely to those encountered in evaluating comprehensive community initiatives, which have been the subject of several reports by the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Initiatives.

Enduring Importance

School-linked services are a continuing effort to respond to educational challenges that arise in the wider community, reminding us that children are in school only 9 percent of the time from birth to adulthood at age eighteen. As schools come under increasing pressure for academic outcomes through discussion of statewide and national testing standards, it is important to recognize that the test scores and academic performance of some children are significantly affected by problems that arise outside the schools and that cannot be addressed by schools alone. It is crucial that that school-linked services are evaluated as broadly as possible in their impacts on academic outcomes as well as their effects in addressing the underlying problems that some students bring to school.


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