Mental health is not just an attribute of individuals, but is also a product of community conditions. The places where people live, learn, work, play and pray have an enormous impact on individual and collective well-being. Nowhere is this more true than in schools. A ground-breaking initiative from our past paints a revealing picture that holds many important lessons for today.
From 1990 to 1995, the Hogg Foundation funded the School of the Future, a demonstration project involving elementary and middle schools in four Texas cities: Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. The program was conceived as a way to deliver a range of health and human services, with a focus on early intervention and prevention, to low-income, predominantly minority students and their families.
The idea of a “full-service” school grew out of the work of two pioneers in child development: Dr. James Comer and Dr. Edward Zigler, both of Yale University. Two key elements of their work influenced the School of the Future program: first, recognizing the link between a child’s developmental needs and academic achievement; and second, emphasizing collaborative approaches involving parents, teachers and staff in achieving measurable student outcomes. As envisioned, the School of the Future wouldn’t just boost student achievement, but would be a watershed for community renewal, collaboration and service delivery.
A total of $1 million was pledged to support the School of the Future project over five years, as well as an additional $1 million for evaluation. Four middle schools were chosen, along with the seven feeder elementary schools. The demonstration sites were uniformly characterized by high rates of poverty and high concentrations of minority students.
The most important early decision was the selection of four project coordinators. These individuals needed the skills to lead the multifaceted, intensely collaborative work the project demanded. The project had five core elements:
- Integration of a broad array of health and human services. At its core, the School of the Future was a partnership with schools to address impediments to learning—psychosocial, economic or health-related—that originate outside the classroom.
- Involvement of parents and teachers in program activities. Throughout the life of the project, it was paramount to “sell” teachers and parents on the School of the Future concept, and to gain their trust and buy-in.
- Involvement of multiple community stakeholders. The team-based approach was at the heart of School of the Future. To be successful, project sites had to create shared decision-making structures that were solid enough to create accountability while being flexible enough to enable every participant to take some ownership of the project.
- Strong commitment to the project by superintendents, principals and administrators. Even with the initial rush of enthusiasm, the project’s future sustainability largely depended on the ability of principals and other administrators to keep up their commitment beyond the five-year project period.
- Willingness to participate in the evaluation of the project. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected at recurring intervals to gauge the effectiveness of project implementation and to help chart its course. In addition, a two-year follow-up report, Revisiting the School of the Future, was written in 1997 to assess the School of the Future’s overall impact to date.
The foundation deemed the School of the Future project a success as of 1997. All sites succeeded at expanding the size and scope of the services they provided; reported gains in school climate, student achievement and teacher perceptions; and were convinced the full-service model had staying power. The foundation highlighted three key lessons with important implications for today:
- Size of the grants. Because of the modest level of funding—just $50,000 per year per site for each of the four sites—project coordinators had a powerful incentive to start developing partnerships with service providers and outside funding sources. This was decisively important for the sustainability of the project.
- Flexibility of design. While the project concept and goals were consistent across sites, each were given flexibility to design their projects according to their needs. The more responsibility sites were given for the design of their projects, the more committed they were to see them through.
- Community participation. Each project coordinator conducted a needs assessment to learn what their local communities considered most important. While certain needs were broadly shared, priorities differed. Gathering community input allowed the coordinators to prioritize their work and set the agenda for collaboration.
The School of the Future was a prototype of the collaborative approach to mental health that is now central to our grantmaking strategy. New initiatives such as Well-being in Rural Communities provide an opportunity to reinvigorate an old idea: that leveraging relationships while combining the best aspects of flexibility in design with consistent benchmarks can lead to transformative results for communities.