The UEC conducted a 3-year qualitative study of the design and implementation of small learning communities (SLCs) in Christina School District’s (Newark, DE) three high-poverty high schools. Such SLCs, also referred to as "academies," transform large high schools into smaller units, and have been one of the fastest growing approaches to improving school climate and student engagement in secondary education. The UEC report on the study is geared to helping other districts and schools considering the SLC approach. The report pays particular attention to the infrastructure for reform, the nature of teacher collaboration and professional learning communities, and the prospects of sustainability. Click here for a brief for practioners based on the full report.
Many high-poverty districts struggle to improve school discipline and safety, and the federal Safe, Smart, and Well (SAW) program sought to help districts confronting these problems. One such district on the western fringe of Philadelphia, the William Penn School District, received one of the three-year SAW grants. The systemwide approach is multidimensional, targeting physical safety, school policy, mental health, and substance abuse. Included are partnerships with a variety of community-based social service agencies, juvenile justice organizations, and local police departments (with co-located resources in a Parent Information Resource Center [PIRC]); implementation of pro-social behavior curricula targeting early childhood social competence, development of positive self-concepts, and reduction of substance abuse in middle and high school students; and teacher professional development, policy coordination, and facilities improvements. Though significantly smaller than most urban districts, William Penn’s high rate of minority and high-poverty students, incidences of school violence, and complicated local community context (including five different police departments) made it an important test site for large-scale, urban safe school initiatives.
The UEC evaluation of this comprehensive, districtwide, safe schools initiative included both qualitative (e.g., interviews, observations, focus groups) and quantitative (e.g., academic achievement, violent incidents, attrition) data collection. The study focused on program design and implementation, with special attention to providing both ongoing formative feedback (e.g., on communication among partners, implementation of adopted curricula) and information on program impacts on school climate—both actual and perceived school safety and engagement. In addition specific evaluation and support for the William Penn school district effort, the evaluation project resulted in a research brief that provides a general framework to guide any school or district seeking to develop a comprehensive plan for improving student health and safety.