A Private Model for Learning

Why government money and control will not fix education

Mariah Kelley was 14 credits short, weeks from giving birth, and seemingly light-years from getting a high school diploma when she was referred to the Performance Learning Center, which is located in a gritty industrial section of Richmond, Virginia.

A public-private partnership between the Richmond Public Schools and the Richmond affiliate of Communities in Schools, the Performance Learning Center takes the longest of long shots and, through individually tailored instructions, gets them to pay off — again and again.

The average GPA of an entering student is zero-point-nine. The percentage of students who leave with a high-school diploma is 96. A third go on to post-secondary education. “We know that kids can change their lives if given the opportunity,” says Wes Hamner, the school’s academic coordinator. The problem isn’t innate ability; it’s taking kids who derailed somewhere along the way and getting them back on the track to success.

Entire library floors groan under the weight of proposals for improving the schools. But education reform confronts a dilemma that better schools alone can’t fix: The best instruction in the world doesn’t do a bit of good to a kid who is standing on the corner instead of sitting in class. Nationwide, 7,000 students a day drop out. Nearly half are minorities. And without a diploma, they’re looking at lives likely to be one long, hard slog.

But students don’t simply wake up one morning and quit. They start to go off the rails long beforehand. Education is supposed to give everyone an equal start in life — but Harold Fitrer, president of the Richmond affiliate of Communities in Schools (CIS for short), says many pupils already have fallen behind before the first day of kindergarten: They haven’t been taught “numbers, letters, and colors.” Many then can’t make the crucial third-grade shift “from learning to read to reading to learn.” So they get held back. And get held back again. Before you know it, you have a 15-year-old seventh-grader who is frustrated, embarrassed, and dejected, with just enough math to figure out there’s no way he’ll ever graduate. He might drop out before entering high school — and never even get counted in graduation-rate statistics.

The problem is especially acute in Richmond, where 75 percent of children in the public schools come from families with incomes below the poverty line. In the Creighton Court housing project, in the city’s East End, adults who have a high school diploma are in the minority. Unemployment is rampant. Nearby Woodville Elementary School hosts holiday dinners because, says interim principal Kara Lancaster-Gay, “those don’t happen at home.”

School lockdowns are not mere drills. When Lancaster-Gay attended a vigil for the mother of one Woodville pupil, another pupil asked her why she had bothered: “Don’t you know people over here die every day?” A year and a half ago, Woodville staff were looking forward to watching the children enjoy a new $80,000 playground. Two days before classes began, somebody burned it down.

CIS plays a particularly active role in schools such as Woodville. An on-site services coordinator works with more than 20 partner groups, from the Junior League to the YMCA, to get kids the help they need. Help can be as simple as a free eye screening and a pair of eyeglasses, or as complex as grief counseling and intensive behavioral therapy for a pupil who has lost a parent to the prison system — or the cemetery.

Often the help comes in the form of food, including “pre-breakfast” — which is served to those kids who may not have eaten since lunch yesterday and are so hungry they need something even before breakfast is served. After school, dozens of children stay at the Boys and Girls Club until late evening, and get a good meal in the process. On Friday, CIS sends children home with a backpack filled with six meals from the Central Virginia Food Bank to tide them over until Monday.

But CIS does more than provide handouts. It also sets expectations surrounding the ABCs — attendance, behavior and coursework. CIS says 69 percent of its hardest cases improved attendance, 71 percent improved behavior and 75 percent improved their grades.

That’s what CIS claims, anyway. But you don’t have to take the group’s word for it. In 2011, the consulting firm ICF International completed a five-year study of CIS. The exhaustive examination compared 602 CIS schools with 602 demographically similar non-CIS schools. Just for good measure, it included controlled trials involving 573 students in two different states.

As Education Week reported, the study found “the program has a strong effect on reducing dropout rates and yielded small but consistent improvements in performance on state assessments for math. Results for reading and language arts tests were mixed. … Overall, the study concludes, the more fully and carefully the Communities in Schools model is put into practice, the more effective it is.”

None of this is cheap: Richmond’s CIS has a budget of more than $3 million, and nearly 1,800 volunteers give their time and expertise to the effort. And that goes on top of Richmond’s already-generous spending of nearly $14,000 per pupil, well above both the statewide average of $10,000 and the levels of nearby Henrico and Chesterfield, which also are about $10,000 per pupil. But spread across the 14,000 students who get CIS help, that $3 million comes to just a little more than $200 per student — which could make CIS one of the most cost-effective social interventions around.

There are 200 CIS affiliates around the country — five of them in Virginia, the rest scattered among 26 other states and the District of Columbia. All told, they help more than 1 million children every year. That kind of volume almost demands a cookie-cutter approach. But CIS may be effective precisely because it eschews uniformity. Although every CIS program abides by a few general principles, there is no procrustean, top-down formula dictated by a tower of bureaucrats in Washington or New York. Not only is every program different — every program treats every student differently. Those involved say that individualized attention is what makes it work.

When educators in Richmond and similar urban areas catch heck for lousy test scores, they often complain that they are being held responsible for factors they didn’t cause and can’t control. But that doesn’t mean those factors cannot be counteracted, or that they can be counteracted only by a massive infusion of government money and control. Private efforts can make a difference in public education. Just ask Mariah Kelley. After getting her diploma through the Performance Learning Center, she is now pursuing a degree in nurse anesthesia.

This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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  • sarcasmic||

    Not only is every program different — every program treats every student differently.

    But, but, but policy must be uniform! It must treat everyone the same! That's the only way to be fair! Not only that, but uniform policy means no one is accountable for their decisions since they're just following policy! This is the opposite of public schools! It must be stopped!

  • VicRattlehead||

    You mean to tell me that some people take to certain types of education that doesn't work for others? but what about equalllityyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!!!11111!!!!!

  • ian388||

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  • Cloudbuster||

    "Often the help comes in the form of food, including “pre-breakfast” — which is served to those kids who may not have eaten since lunch yesterday and are so hungry they need something even before breakfast is served."

    Once you go down this path, even with the best of intentions, what you're trying to do is to replace the parents and family with the state and school. If a kid doesn't get fed when he's not at school, that's a problem the school is not equipped to solve. Nor should the school try to solve it -- it's the wrong tool for the job.

  • VicRattlehead||

    Agreed, but i wouldn't chastise a teacher who takes their time and money to make food for students who seem to be going without it. if your heart is bleeding that bad then put up or shut up

  • UnCivilServant||

    The upside, however, is the probability that the generation aided by this charity won't be as inattentive to their own offspring as their parents. I want to see a longitudinal study showing how well CIS graduates take to being parents before I'd condemn the process.

  • Cloudbuster||

    "he upside, however, is the probability that the generation aided by this charity won't be as inattentive to their own offspring as their parents. "

    I'm sorry, but living history refutes your supposition. There have been school meal programs, including breakfast and after school programs for decades. There are kids who were in those programs who have adult children now. There is no indication that children who learned to rely on the state to take care of them learned to be more attentive parents -- the only thing they learned is that their kids can get free food from the state.

  • ~Knarf Yenrab~||

    Agree on the dependency front, but so long as public schools exist, part of the investment in the kids has to be food, and we should look at it as part of the education process rather than a supplement for bad/lazy parents. Having a ready supply of glucose is more important to their education than which textbook they're using, and having hungry kids with suboptimal concentration doing time in the classroom is just throwing away even more money.

    I assume that most reasonable people would settle for giving all of the kids a piece of fruit before each class with more available on demand.

  • CE||

    Having a ready supply of glucose is more important to their education than which textbook they're using...

    Don't they have pop machines for that?

  • Cloudbuster||

    Darn lack of edit button.

    I don't dispute that CIS can achieve positive effects. There is no disagreement that intensive individualized attention can turn around a problem kid.

    But it's not scalable, because it is so labor-intensive. It will be great for fairly small number of targeted kids, but it can't be expanded to cover literally millions of kids in educational trouble.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    SLD, etc., but it does seem kinda like these schools are equipped to ameliorate, if not solve, the problem. They're acting as a remote branch of the food bank.

  • Marshall Gill||

    Once you go down this path, even with the best of intentions, what you're trying to do is to replace the parents and family with the state and school.

    Public schools are about indoctrinating your children, not educating them. EG West did a historical analysis of England, Wales and New York. What he basically found was that literacy rates since compulsory and public schools have not risen and in some cases have actually gone down. Meanwhile, the costs have skyrocketed and any semblance of real choice eliminated as much as possible. Not incidentally, the teachers union has grown politically quite powerful as an advocate of more of the same. Well worth the read.


  • Cloudbuster||

    Preaching to the choir, here. ;)

  • Marshall Gill||

    Preaching to the choir, here

    I know but there remains some significant part of libertarians who can't get over the "but poor children won't learn to read without public schools" mentality. I found the book after reading an old Milton Friedman interview here and thought it would be some good ammo for any who had not heard of West.

  • Edwin||

    It doesn't have to be all or nothing. We could have vouchers funding private schools.

    Of course, the teacher's unions would riot violently before they allowed that, and the courts would find a way to strike it down.

    I can't help but thinking in the long run to back more referendums, we need policiticians in the executive branch who will promise to disobey court orders and enforce what the people vote for.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    I believe in school choice but enough with the conspiracies. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I'm sick of conspiracy theorists and home schooling-nuts giving us sane people in the education privatization movement a bad name.

  • ArbutusJoe||

    If you ascribe to the statist education establishment the *intention* of controlling the population, yes, you get close to something that one could call a conspiracy theory. But one can take a "naturalistic" view of the policies and institutions of statist education that asserts that the primary purpose of public education is the sustenance of the state, even though the stated justifications are otherwise.

    It may very well be that people arguing for state control of education believe the system they espouse will achieve its objectives, but what accounts for their attachment to the system in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

    I believe that these institutions have built-in protection mechanisms similar to those found in viruses (and memes.) They acquire those characteristics over time by selection. Its not my tinfoil hat that makes me think these institutions and the people that support and compose them are promoting the state over education outcomes, it's my appreciation of the power of natural selection.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    It's a combination of socialist wishful thinking and union thuggery. Just because two bad things happen doesn't mean they're related.

  • Cloudbuster||

    "home schooling-nuts"

    Glad to see you're open-minded and sane. Not at all a name-calling, judgmental type who makes unfounded blanket statements about large groups of people engaged in an educational undertaking that leaves the public schools in the dust at every turn.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    I said I supported school choice, ie PRIVATE SCHOOLS (that doesn't mean I don't support regulations that would prohibit creationism or supernatural nonsense from being taught in private schools). Fuck unions and fuck pubic schools.

  • Marshall Gill||

    (that doesn't mean I don't support regulations that would prohibit creationism or supernatural nonsense from being taught in private schools)

    AAAnnnnd the mask slips.

    Nothing, and I mean nothing, says classical liberal like the belief in "prohibiting" religion. You and Stalin both, eh?

  • Cloudbuster||

    I think we all saw that coming. Just had to give him enough rope.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    Classical liberal =/= libertarian

    All libertarians are classical liberals but not all classical liberals are libertarians.

    I don't believe in banning religion or racism, I just don't think they should be taught in schools.

  • LynchPin1477||

    If a kid doesn't get fed when he's not at school, that's a problem the school is not equipped to solve

    The school is equipped to provide students with food. That may not solve the underlying problem of not being fed at home, but it's a pretty good use of school cafeterias. I mean, really, of all the things that are wrong with public schools, providing meals to hungry students isn't one of them.

  • Cloudbuster||

    You misunderstand. A child not getting fed at home by his or her parents isn't an issue of food, or one that can be solved by food.

    It's an indicator of vast, malignant familial dysfunction in the child's life. A parent of even marginal quality will literally starve themselves, will walk five miles barefoot to the food pantry, before allowing his or her children to go hungry. And with WIC, Foodstamps and a wide variety of charity programs, such extreme measures are essentially never required in the U.S. If you're not feeding your kid, you're simply a terrible, terrible person.

    *That* is what the school is not equipped to address.

    The food is almost beside the point.

  • JohnTheRevelator||

    Agreed, but the population of that brand of terrible, terrible people is relatively small and generally not growing, so unlike some other kinds of handouts this one is in little danger of expanding uncontrollably. For the tiny number of cads who actually don't feed their own children, the rest of us can afford to pick up the tab.

    And before you say that maybe if it's that bad, the kids should be removed from their homes, stop and think about all the stories we hear about foster care, especially when the kids involved are "undesirable" due to their background. Giving them a free danish in the morning is probably the cheapest, best-bad option.

  • CE||

    The real problem with government schools is that they're "free". If parents aren't paying tuition, they don't kick the kid in the pants when he slacks off.

  • Robert||

    I was going to comment on the oxymoron, but then I remembered we have pre-openings and pre-premiers.

  • Archie Bunker||

    I wouldn't call it an oxymoron, but certainly a redundancy; similar to pre-boarding a plane, or pre-planning your vacation. I miss George Carlin.

  • julieejulia459||

    my buddy's step-mother makes $63 /hr on the computer . She has been fired from work for ten months but last month her payment was $17491 just working on the computer for a few hours. have a peek here...........


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