In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Reuben Jacobson and Helen Janc Malone shine a spotlight on the success of the community schools strategy. They argue that hyper-local strategies like community schools can lead to school improvement. Jacobson and Malone both work at the Institute for Educational Leadership, which houses the Coalition for Community Schools. As they suggest, these and other hyper-local community schools initiatives are particularly important considering the U.S. policy shift toward state and local solutions.
The passage of the U.S. federal education law Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has signaled that the education policy pendulum is swinging away from federal and toward the state and local decision-making. (For a brief history of the federal-state relationship, see The Ever Debatable Federal Role; for perspectives on ESSA and local strategies, see Coalition for Community Schools op-eds in Education Week and the Washington Post). One of the key emerging policy considerations is how can we improve outcomes for all students and close the opportunity gap in our communities? With an increased emphasis on local solutions and innovation, it is important to explore the promising local strategies that have already taken hold across the country that offer illustrative examples of the power of school-community partnerships.
There are many examples across the U.S. of local strategies that are making the difference in student learning and developmental outcomes. One such strategy gaining national momentum is community schools.
What is a community school?
A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families, and healthier communities. Community schools offer a personalized curriculum that emphasizes real-world learning and community problem-solving.
The growth of community schools at the systems level over the past 20 years represents a hyper-local educational change and reform strategy that mobilizes community assets to improve outcomes for students, families, and neighborhoods. In these places, diverse stakeholders work to solve problems with local assets.
At the school site community schools are transformative models of education and youth development where results-focused partners unite with educators and families to help children thrive. In a community school, the student is at the center of learning and partners support them with health and other supports, family and community engagement, and expanded learning opportunities. A community school coordinator works with the principal, other school staff, and partners to assess the needs and assets of the community and to develop a comprehensive set of programs, partnerships, and activities to support students and their families. Community partners and educators are closer to students than any federal or state policy can be and are able to respond to each individual’s learning and other needs.
At the systems level, an intermediary organization (e.g., school district, local non-profit, United Way) supports multiple community school sites and helps identify and mobilize partners and leaders across systems to strengthen and deepen the community schools work within and across institutions. A collaborative leadership group comprised of leaders across sectors helps set the direction for the initiative, creating local policies that are responsive to local contexts.
Systems-wide community school initiatives
The Coalition for Community Schools works with nearly 90 places that have developed systems-wide community school initiatives. These places cross political boundaries. Local leaders have created thriving community school initiatives from Oakland, CA to Tulsa, OK, from New York City to Grand Rapids, MI, from Nashville, TN to Milwaukee, WI. A few examples help illustrate the contributions of these initiatives. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has created approximately 130 community schools and has been able to leverage partners with systems-wide impact like Google and Warby Parker. In Multnomah County (which includes Portland, OR), five districts, the City of Portland, the County and other systems-level institutions are working together to more efficiently braid and utilize resources by placing them in community schools that reach students and families that need them the most. And in Milwaukee, WI leaders from the school district, teachers union, and the United Way are working together to grow community schools in some of the city’s most high-needs neighborhoods.
Baltimore has created a system-wide community schools initiative that is coordinated by Family League of Baltimore. In partnership with the school district, the city, local universities, and many other community based organizations, Family League builds capacity, directs funding, and evaluates approximately 55 community schools. A council of leaders helps guide the work and a recently approved school board policy will help grow and sustain the work. Baltimore’s community schools are seeing results – participating students are less likely to be chronically absent, an important indicator of academic success. For more research on community schools visit www.communityschools.org/results.
These and other hyper-local community schools initiatives have sustained their efforts over time, even as local, state, and federal leaders change. Local leaders are best positioned to collaborate across institutions and agencies; they can best make decisions about funding, understand how to braid resources to meet local needs, and have created organizational arrangements – ways of working together effectively. Local community school initiatives have created structures, have nurtured trusting relationships, and have collaborated on mutually beneficial programs and practices and are thus best able to respond to local needs.
As the U.S. education policy pivots toward local solutions, strategies like community schools offer promising examples of how local innovation could lead to supportive learning environments and improved whole child outcomes for students.