Perceived Needs of At-Risk Families in a Small Town: Implications for Full-Service Community Schools

Article excerpt

Abstract

Researchers agree that a needs assessment is a critical first step in designing a full-service school, but the large task of orchestrating the necessary community collaboration for such projects has occupied most of the literature to date. This study examines the process of planning and implementing a needs assessment for a rural school serving low-income students. It illustrates how needs assessments necessarily reflect the planners' assumptions about at-risk families. Caseworkers interviewed 13 at-risk and 16 not-at-risk families. Rather than finding the need for improved delivery of services that is commonly reported, especially in urban areas, what families most sought was respect. In addition, teachers and parents held different perspectives on many issues, and a successful project would need to address those differences directly.

Key Words: full service community schools, needs assessments, rural, families, low-income students, family, respect, perspectives, teachers, planning, services

Introduction

Schools that serve a preponderance of at-risk students struggle to educate them because of the students' multiple and interrelated needs. The adverse impact of problems such as poverty, violence, substance abuse, and lack of affordable medical and mental health care takes its toll on children's daily lives and hinders students' ability to benefit fully from their education (Barton, 2004; Cummings, Dyson, & Todd, 2011; Dryfoos, Quinn, & Barkin, 2005; Marks & Lawson, 2005). A promising approach for schools that serve these at-risk students is to collaborate with community agencies and programs to provide a holistic and integrated approach to meeting students' needs. Such approaches are described variously as full-service community schools, collaborative community schools, or as schools with school-linked or integrated services. The interest in this approach to ameliorate what have often seemed to schools like intractable problems is evidenced by a growing literature about such efforts. In fact, several journals have devoted issues to articles about community-school collaborations [Educational Leadership, 53(7), 1996; National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin, 83(611), 1999; New Directions for Youth Development, 2005(107), 2005; Reclaiming Children and Youth, 11(4), 2003].

The relevant literature provides many accounts of individual full-service school projects (Abrams & Gibbs, 2000; Deslandes, 2006; Dryfoos & Maguire, 2002; O'Donnell, Kirkner, & Meyer-Adams, 2008; Oppenheim, 1999; Paige, Kitzis, & Wolfe, 2003), as well as projects involving entire districts (Bundy, 2005; Diehl, Gray, & O'Connor, 2005; Ferguson, 2009) and multiple sites in a variety of cities and states (Dryfoos et al., 2005; Tagle, 2005). To date, many articles have focused on the complex task of project planning and implementation. They discuss the need for collaboration among multiple community entities, the many challenges of orchestrating such collaboration among bureaucracies (each with its own objectives), qualifying criteria, application processes, regulations, and the elements that promote success.

In addition, there is evidence that the outcomes of community schools justify the considerable effort involved. In 2002, Dryfoos reported that much of the data about project outcomes was in the form of unpublished project reports; she located 49 such reports. She acknowledged that much of the assessment data was preliminary and often collected using inadequate research designs. However, she found encouraging signs of effectiveness in terms of improved student attendance, greater parent involvement, and increased student achievement. Cummings et al. (2011) reviewed the outcome reports of community schools internationally, and in England, specifically. They characterize the evidence on outcomes as "reasonably consistent," including improved achievement and school climate and increased attendance and parent involvement. …

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