Broadening What's Meant by School

August 2004

This commentary was originally published by The Hoover Institution, August 18, 2004.

To be effective, schools serving poor children must do a lot. They can't assume that their children come to first grade knowing that letters make sounds or that older children get family support to do homework. It's not enough to provide coherent and interesting instruction. Schools that serve the disadvantaged must motivate and compensate as well as instruct.

Schools in which children and teachers occupy the same space five hours a day, five days a week can be enough for children who have lots of support. But they aren't enough for children disadvantaged by poverty, violence, or lack of English-language skills.

The most successful schools for poor children keep much longer days (9–12 hours) and include nutritional, health, counseling, and recreational programs designed to compliment instruction.

The value of such an approach may be seen in of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), developed for middle schools by Teach for America alumni to serve poor Hispanic children, and the Beacons' middle-school network. Religious groups have also created similar schools for poor children. The Jesuits' Nativity schools, for example, provide moral instruction (actions have consequences, what you become is up to you) and organize sports and fun. By adding hours to the school day, they also ensure that students are available for extra tutoring and supervised homework.

If these schools aren't the ultimate solution to the education of poor city children, they are a big step toward it. Unfortunately they are hard to reproduce. They put big burdens on teachers, and they need adults in school for 12 hours each day, not just 5 or 6.

By expanding the meaning of school, KIPP and similar programs also expand the costs. It costs a great deal more money to run a school 9-12 hours a day, rather than 6, and to develop integrated learning-focused approaches to instruction, recreation, and family services. Today, KIPP and similar schools live on donations. Even when they operate as charter schools and receive public funding, such schools must draw as much as one-third of their income from foundations and businesses.

But philanthropic support isn't adequate to reach the millions of city children now in narrowly defined six-hour schools. We have to find a way to support enlarged schools with public funds.

The extra money could come from funds normally used to support separate health and social service agencies, which would require a wrenching change in social services. Funds that now sustain separate social service agencies would go instead to schools, such as KIPP, that serve as comprehensive service providers. Schools would then be more like parishes than government agencies, able to draw from a wider array of expertise—and to spend more money—than is available to support their purely instructional roles.

Effective schools for poor children require more money than is available for other schools and more than is in the education budget. But increasing school-specific spending is not necessarily the right answer. We need to make much better use of the funds available for youth services.

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