Building Stronger Schools in Newark

A careful needs analysis led to a transformative theory of change for community schools. Early results show higher student achievement, according to a multi-year Metis study.

Early study findings show that the South Ward Community Schools Initiative has a positive impact on high school credit accumulation.

Nearly eight of every ten students attending the Newark Public Schools qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. Many of the city’s public schools are struggling with high rates of chronic absenteeism and academic underperformance. 

The South Ward Community Schools Initiative (SWSCI) is a collaborative partnership between the school district and the Newark Mayor’s Office that began in 2015.  The goal of the initiative is to transform schools into nurturing, supportive hubs where students and families can access the resources they need to engage and thrive in education, career, and community. Five schools in the South Ward were selected through a rigorous application process, including one high school and four elementary/middle schools.

The South Ward Community Schools Initiative selected Metis Associates, in partnership with the Center for Research and Evaluation on Education and Human Services at Montclair State University, to conduct the evaluation. The purpose of the two-year study was twofold. It sought to document the successes, challenges, and lessons learned, and to assess the impact of the initiative on the outcomes for students, families, schools, and the community.

Engaging Key Stakeholders in Developing a Logic Model

During the initial phase of the evaluation, the evaluation team worked with the SWSCI management team to develop a logic model that articulated the initiative’s theory of change. The initial logic model identified anticipated improvements in traditional school outcomes (e.g., attendance, academic achievement). However, the management team expressed concern that it did not fully reflect the types of impacts that mattered to the community.

To address this concern, Metis engaged in a collaborative process with the Newark Trust for Education, the initiative’s intermediary organization and evaluation funder. Together, we organized and facilitated three community meetings that explored the following guiding questions:

  • What does success look like for students?
  • What does success look like for families/parents?
  • What does success look like for schools?
  • What does success look like for the community?
  • What does strong support of these schools from city agencies look like?

Following a robust planning and recruitment process, the study team held meetings with parents of current and former students of South Ward community schools, other South Ward residents, school staff, and representatives from community-based organizations and city agencies. The community meetings resulted in essential revisions and additions to the logic model, which provided the platform for the evaluation.

Conducting a Comprehensive and Rigorous Evaluation of Implementation and Impact

During the second phase, the evaluation team collected and analyzed qualitative and quantitative data from multiple sources. Results revealed several successes at the initiative level, including:

  • Assistance from a National Advisory Board (created to support the development and sustainability of the Newark Community Schools Initiative)
  • Support from the Newark Children’s Cabinet (tasked to promote alignment of services among local city agencies, advocacy groups, the school district, and community-based organizations)
  • Oversight and support from Newark Trust for Education
  • Technical assistance provided by the Children’s Aid National Center for Community Schools

At the school level, the initiative has resulted in the development of more inclusive decision-making, higher quality professional development, and the development of new partnerships.

Furthermore, impact analyses using a rigorous quasi-experimental design showed promising findings. These included positive, significant impacts on:

  • Credit accumulation for high school students
  • Average daily attendance and increased math performance among elementary students at one of the five schools
  • Math performance of elementary and middle school students at another school