Tag Archives: Community Schools

Moving at the speed of trust: Abe Fernandez on the development of community schools and collective impact in New York City (Part 2)

In part 2 of this interview, Abe Fernandez discusses some of the key steps in creating community schools, describes their efforts to address key issues like chronic absence, and goes on to talk about work on collective impact more broadly. In the first part, Fernandez shared the story of his own educational experiences, explains the evolution of the community schools’ approach of the National Center for Community Schools, and discusses critical issues, like chronic absence. Fernandez is Vice President for Collective Impact and Director at Children’s Aid. Children’s Aid is one of the oldest and largest nonprofits serving young people in New York City. Established in New York City over 165 years ago, Children’s Aid addresses all kinds of issues related to children and youth, including early childhood, schooling, and foster care. This interview follows up on an earlier post on the evolution of work on collective impact in New York City.

IEN: What does it look like when you first go into a school or community? What are the first steps?

AF: It’s really important to have a quick win right away. In our first community school, we parked a medical van in front of the school twice a week as a way to tell the community something different is going on here.  It showed that we were already providing a direct service to families that they weren’t getting the week before.

We’ve also found that leveraging after school programming can be another quick win. For one thing, no one questions anymore whether or not we need out-of-school time programming.  Helping with after school programming creates a wonderful opportunity to start building relationships with the principal, with the other adults in the building, and with families and with kids. It may be that what a particular school community needs is really hardcore mental health support, for example, but I’m not sure that you want to start trying to build relationships talking about hardcore mental health. We also find that lots of engagement makes a big difference too. In our first community school we paid for a neon sign to be put above the parent room announcing parents were welcome there, and we made sure that the coffee was hot.  Just creating an opportunity for parents to get together and talk, with no agenda, allowed to them talk about their concerns as well as what they were proud of in their school. That really makes a difference. You want to build enough trust so that people can get to know each other a little bit better, and then they can start thinking about what the next wave of work needs to look like. There is a saying in the world of collective impact that this work moves at the speed of trust. That’s incredibly true even if you have all the resources and all the right partners. If you haven’t built trust, it’s going to be really hard to move forward.

There is a saying in the world of collective impact that this work moves at the speed of trust. That’s incredibly true even if you have all the resources and all the right partners. If you haven’t built trust, it’s going to be really hard to move forward.

IEN: How can you help connect the school and afterschool?

AF: We often say we’re not trying to recreate the school day in the afternoon. They each have their purposes, and we want to them to have different looks, and we want to honor each other’s work.  But I think there should be some consistent themes and threads and values and cultural elements that are ever present and that can help form a bridge between different elements. For example, in one school, during the day they were using PBIS  – Positive Behavior Interventions and Support. But then at three o’clock everyone stops doing it. And one of our partners said, “Why are you stopping? It’s the same kids, same building. Let’s keep that going.” That to me was another win.

IEN: When you’ve had the opportunity to design a community school and a community school building from the “ground up”, what does it look like?

AF: Let me answer that by telling a story. When one of my sons was five or six, he was at school and wasn’t feeling well, so I had to go pick him up. When I walked into the building, there was a sign that said no parents beyond this point. So one answer is:  don’t do that in terms of design. Instead, imagine if you walked in and there was a neon sign that was very welcoming and made it clear to parents that you do belong here.  This space is for you.  The design needs to make it clear that the community is invited in.  But at the same time, I don’t think every service a student needs has to be inside of a school. Yes, there’s some convenience in that, but putting everything inside a school’s four walls can lessen the engagement with the outside. There has to be a balance. That means it’s not solely about the design of the school itself; you also need to think about how all the key functions are fulfilled in a community in general. How do we break down the silos between agencies and distribute services throughout the community in ways that are less siloed?

 It’s not solely about the design of the school itself; you also need to think about how all the key functions are fulfilled in a community in general. How do we break down the silos between agencies and distribute services throughout the community in ways that are less siloed?

IEN: Along with your work on community schools, you’ve also been very involved in bringing community organizations and schools together in initiatives to increase collective impact. Can you tell us about the work in the Bronx on collective impact and chronic absenteeism?

AF: As I mentioned, we saw pretty high rates of chronic absence in our community, and, at first, our approach was to bring as many of those stakeholders as possible together in one room just to understand what chronic absence is. Average daily attendance is something that most people understand. It’s really useful if you want to figure out how much lunch to buy or how many chairs, you need. But it doesn’t tell you how often each individual student is absent. For example, in New York City, around 2008, there was a report that came out from the Center for New York City Affairs that found that K-5 attendance overall was about 92% which sounds pretty good. That same year 90,000 students missed a month or more school.  You could have a school that has a 90% average daily attendance while 30% of the students are chronically absent. So we helped the schools, the principals, the parent coordinators, and community partners to understand those numbers. Although they thought they were doing fine, they got their data and they could not believe what they were seeing. When we could, we encouraged schools to go beyond the numbers and look at the names of that students that were absent. That just completely changed the conversation, and the schools started making plans for how they could help certain students.

In this work, information, and having data at people’s fingertips, is really important, but too often, data has been used as a hammer, particularly in schools and the nonprofit sector. We try to help people use data as a flashlight. How can we use data at the front end, not just at the back end? How does it inform our planning? How does it support improvement, not just tell us how many kids are reaching a particular benchmark?

Too often, data has been used as a hammer, particularly in schools and the nonprofit sector. We try to help people use data as a flashlight. How can use data at the front end, not just at the back end? How does it inform our planning? How does it support improvement?

Beyond providing access to information, we try to bring together multiple stakeholders to look at data together. We found that the schools that had a more representative group of people, including the school nurse, a community partner, parents, teachers, and the principal, looking at data on chronic absence had a much much more engaged conversation. These conversations led many of those schools to go back and rethink their Attendance Teams so that the principal wasn’t the only one responsible for addressing the problem. They began to break down the problem, starting with the universal things that support every student: How do we create a culture of attendance in our building? What signs are on the wall. What are we talking about during assembly?  How do we let families know that attendance is important?

Then what are we doing to support those students who are chronically absent – the 40 kids who’ve missed 10% of the school year? For that, many schools ended up using what’s called success mentoring where you identify adults in the building who work with each student every day; someone to check in with them and to say I’m so glad you’re here, just building a relationship with them. And if the student is out, their mentor is the one calling home, not a secretary or a robo-call saying your child was absent. They call to see if everything’s okay, asking that question “Can we help you?” that changes that relationship between the school and that family.

Then there’s the most intensive support for the students who have missed the most, maybe 10 days in a row, or they were absent for more than 50 days the previous year. For those students, mentoring is probably not going to be the answer. It might help, but it probably will not resolve what is probably a much, much larger issue. In these cases, it’s really important that connect these students to a social worker and other kinds of supports as soon as possible so more complicated issues can get addressed.  

By breaking the problems down and developing multiple strategies, we saw some huge changes in some of our school. One school, PS 42, reduced their chronic absence percentage by double digits in just two years.  All this showed that chronic absence is one of those few numbers in schools where you can actually make improvements almost instantly, and then everyone realizes, “Oh my God, we can actually make a difference here.” It just takes getting a little bit more organized, getting more targeted around data, and bringing more eyeballs to the work.

Of course, the progress is uneven, and not all schools have seen those kinds of results. So that raises the question of what’s preventing those schools that aren’t making it? What’s the difference between the school that reduced chronic absences and the one that didn’t? School leadership really matters, that’s number one. Two, sometimes school leaders really get it, but they don’t have the capacity to make it work. They just don’t have the help or they can’t figure out how to get the data just organized for that meeting.

But now there’s been some really exciting work in New York City. New Visions for Public Schools has developed a tool and a dashboard that makes it easier for schools to look at their data. I went to a school about a couple of years ago and I sat in on their attendance team meeting to look at their data with them, and they pulled out what looked like an old phone book, which basically had a report for every single kid. Who’s going to look through 500 pieces of paper to figure out what’s going on here?  With the new data system, instead of having a stack of papers, you can create heat maps that use colors like red, yellow, green to look at subpopulations of kids, and to help identify who’s chronically absent. So hopefully tools like this will help those leaders who get it but haven’t had enough support. I think this is where the principals of the community schools have an advantage. They have a built-in partner and a dedicated person whose job it is to wake up every morning to do this kind of work and that makes a huge difference. We found that in our 61 schools 20 of them are community schools and it’s those 20 that saw the most improvements in chronic absence.

IEN: Given all the resources and support that community partners can bring, why has there been some resistance? Why wouldn’t all principals want to lead community schools?

AF: First let me clarify that I think there are there are plenty of schools that have tons of partners in them.  What we’ve seen is that the principal might be saying yes to the resources, but they’re saying no to the shared leadership that comes with community schools. I would argue that the only thing that’s worse than not having enough resources is having too many that are uncoordinated. It’s what we call random acts of programming. I’m sure anyone who’s walked into schools has seen this. You walk into the school, and there’s tons of activity, but it is complete chaos. So when we go into a building, we look to see if they’ve invested in the coordination of all these partners: Who is doing what, for whom and for what purpose? Is it any good? Is anyone better off?

One of the hardest parts of this work is helping people to think of it as a strategy, not a program. And the problem with programs is that they are predefined, with a beginning, middle and end, and you know what the inputs are and what the outputs are going to be.  But a strategy needs to be different by design. It has to be adaptive. For us, the core components of that strategy begin with making sure that kids are at the center of every conversation. Typically, when that doesn’t happen, we make really bad decisions. But it’s also important to recognize that kids are parts of family systems. So there’s no way to educate kids without also understanding who their families are. They are not just the recipients of support, they are also the providers of support, and we need to partner with them in that capacity. Then we need to recognize that families are part of communities, so what’s the relationship between the school and the community?

One of the hardest parts of this work is helping people to think of it as a strategy, not a program…But a strategy needs to be different by design. It has to be adaptive.

But we’ve also recognized that the instructional program is a core part of the work. Back in the 90’s, in our work at Children’s Aid, we never talked about instruction. We’d say, “that’s the school’s job.” We saw our job as providing what we called “wraparound services.” I hate that term because it makes it sound like those are secondary, nice, but not necessary, and now I think that’s not right. So now we say, “look, even though we’re not the ones delivering the core instructional program, it is part of the approach; it’s part of the strategy. Even if you have a wonderful parent’s program and great parent engagement and an awesome school-based health center, if the teaching stinks, it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to make the difference that you want to make. We need to have high quality instruction. Full stop.

But we also see expanded learning opportunities as an important part of the strategy; before school, after school, weekends, summer, all of that creates the opportunities for kids to learn. As part of expanding the kinds of learning activities you do with kids, you’re also expanding who is doing the teaching. It’s not only certified teachers.  You can have college students, alumni of the school, families, you name it. Artists can be a part of the teaching as well. And then as a foundation for all that, there are these comprehensive support services that remove barriers to learning – making sure there’s some counseling and removing those barriers so kids are actually ready to learn when they’re in school. 

There are many schools that may do a lot of these same things, but what makes a school a community school is the way all these services and supports are connected and coordinated. There’s a system in place so that if there’s a teacher who recognizes that a student is struggling, there’s a mechanism for that teacher to let the right people know what’s going on; there’s a feedback loop back so the teacher can get information about how to support that student and how to engage the family in that conversation. There’s also a way to learn from that teacher’s experience and to develop a broader response if that’s necessary. If you find out the fourth grade math scores are dropping, you can look at how the after school program can build on what’s happening in the fourth grade classrooms and create opportunities for students to practice those skills and apply them in ways that may be a little bit more engaging. There’s a conversation that’s going on between that program and the school day. And the social worker, someone, who understands children’s development, can be tapped to help other people in the building create a safe environment for all kids. It’s the connection points that are really critical.

If I’m talking to a group of principals who are not totally feeling this yet, I might ask “Do you want to do all that work by yourself?”, and they often say, “no way.” I ask them to imagine that they had some sort of a dedicated capacity, someone who will work on the same side of the desk with the principal to find the partners and supports to meet those needs. Then they start to come around a little bit. But all of this hinges on a principal who is willing to share data, share time, share control, and share authority. They have to want to do these things.  I think it’s a real paradox of the US system that we have designed a system that makes the principal absolutely crucial and makes the position completely unsustainable. It’s very hard to do that job. Obviously, some people manage it, but it’s not clear that we could have a system succeed on a broader level if this is what’s required of principal; yet it’s not clear how to change that system without relying on that principal.

I think it’s a real paradox of the US system that we have designed a system that makes the principal absolutely crucial and makes the position completely unsustainable

IEN: Have you seen anything in your work that can help us think about how to bring people together with different views, particularly with different educational views?

AF: I think there are people who have pretty strong opinions who have not been in a school for a very time and that’s partly why I think the more we can find opportunities to invite people in to actually see what’s happening in schools –  to see how challenging it is educate children – we can start a conversation. If we can get more people to really interact with those who are doing work in schools and help everyone better understand what the challenges are, I think we can at least create an environment where we can try some things out.  We’re hoping that work can change the culture a bit because we’ve been conditioned to want to prove what works. We want to find that silver bullet curriculum, the silver bullet framework, the teaching tool that works no matter what the weather condition is. But instead, and this goes back to using the data more as a flashlight than a hammer, we need to focus on improving things and developing a much more adaptive way of thinking.

It turns out that what works in one school actually may not work in this other school, so the people in each environment have to figure it out. It’s not a recipe – the process is the program, and it’s a process that depends on the engagement with the local community because figuring it out is a team sport. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to position schools as belonging to the community.

Beyond any one school: Abe Fernandez on the development of community schools and collective impact in New York City (Part 1)

This week, IEN shares the first part of an interview with Abe Fernandez about what he’s learned through his work on community schools, community organizing and collective impact in New York City. Fernandez is Vice President for Collective Impact and Director, National Center for Community Schools, Children’s Aid. Children’s Aid is one of the oldest and largest nonprofits serving young people in New York City. Established in New York City over 165 years ago, Children’s Aid addresses all kinds of issues related to children and youth, including early childhood, schooling, and foster care. This interview follows up on an earlier post on the evolution of work on collective impact in New York City. Part 1 of the conversation begins with Fernandez sharing the story of his own educational experiences and continues with a description and reflections on Children’s Aid’s community schools approach and their work on issues like chronic absence. Next week, in Part 2, Fernandez discusses some of the key steps in creating community schools and goes on to talk about work on collective impact more broadly

IEN: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved in Children’s Aid and started working on community schools and collective impact?

Abe Fernandez:  My story is that I grew up in the Bronx, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.  They came to this country hoping that education would be their ticket to prosperity, which I think is still a pretty typical story for many immigrants. I have a lot of belief in the system that we have all built together, although it is flawed. But there’s a real perception that it can lead to some real opportunities, and I have to say I was really lucky. I was lucky born to a family with parents who were really working hard – despite all the barriers around language and culture that they and other immigrants faced – to navigate through a pretty challenging system. I had the good fortune of going to an elementary school that had teachers who saw something in me and my twin brother, and they helped create pathways that allowed us to find opportunities in that school. And then I got really lucky in fifth grade, and I was introduced to a program called Prep for Prep. That’s a program which, as I look back on it now, is problematic in some ways (as detailed in a New Yorker article by a program alum). Essentially, the program creams really high performing kids out of the public school system and deposits them into private schools and the independent school system.

Despite the challenges around that approach, it created some real opportunity for me, and I ended up going to a very elite independent school in New York City, Riverdale Country Day School, and then on to Brown University. At Brown, I got involved in a program that’s still going on today, the Breakthrough Collaborative. It’s a program that has a dual mission of getting younger kids into competitive high schools and encouraging really smart high school and college students to get involved in teaching.  They’ve had a pretty good track record, with large percentages of their college students choosing to do at least a year of teaching after doing that program.

The program started at my high school when I was there, and after I went to Brown I participated in the program, and I went back every summer to teach at Riverdale. When I graduated from Brown, there was actually an opening at Riverdale to run the program there, and they brought me in to run it. As a result, I had this incredible opportunity to jump into the nonprofit world at the same time that I was learning how to become a teacher. I realized as I was working at Riverdale that I was in an extraordinary environment to learn how to teach because we had tons of resources.  I taught middle school math, and I had maybe 13 kids in the classroom, all incredibly motivated kids, with parents who were incredibly engaged, and it was just a great. What a great way to learn the craft of teaching!  But I remember thinking at the time, there’s something wrong about this. How could it be that only a small selection of New York City children get this kind of experience? So after a number of years of running that program and teaching in that environment, I wanted to be closer to the communities and the kids where I grew up.  That led me to join Union Settlement in East Harlem. There, I ran a number of programs that were based inside public housing, and we worked with kids as young as two all the way through 24 year olds.  That was a real shift for me. I got to really understand some of the issues that I knew from my own background, butI got to know them more professionally and to see the systems that were responsible for some of the challenges that young people and families face.  After working there for a few years, I realized that I missed being engaged in education. We were doing great work, but it focused more on hunger and other kinds of issues. I didn’t have the access to what was happening in school where these kids spent most of their time. I found myself wanting to bridge those two parts of my experience, and that’s why I took a job at Children’s Aid, where I’ve been for the last 16 years, working primarily on Community Schools and now collective impact.

IEN: Can you tell us about your work on community schools?

AF: Community schools bring together all kinds of resources that we think kids and families need. They address everything including early childhood education, school-based health, adult education, you name it. The idea is to bring all these partners and programs together in a really coherent way to meet the comprehensive needs of kids and families. Children’s Aid was involved in helping to develop and support community schools long before I got there in the early 1990s. Right away, we had a lot of people from other places who wanted to learn about the approach. They wanted to come kick the tires, talk to principals, talk to us.  But we found that they would go back to their home communities and say “Okay, we’re totally inspired, but we’re totally confused. Now what do we do?” We wanted to meet that need and build the capacity to help teams of people to go back to their communities, get to know their local context, and figure out some next steps. That’s what we’ve doing for the last 25 years through our National Center. Over the past 20 years, we’ve worked on almost every major community schools initiative across the US.  

            So in New York City, we now have 22 community school partnerships, but we never thought it would go systemic the way it has in Oakland and Chicago. We were also really pleasantly surprised in 2014 when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to make community schools a big part of his agenda here in New York City. Now, New York City has one of the largest Community School initiatives anywhere, and the infrastructure for community schools that has been built here is pretty exciting.

IEN: How has your work on community schools developed and what have you learned in the process?

AF: Children’s Aid started their work on community schools in the 1990’s in Washington Heights, in Northern Manhattan, with about five or six schools.  Those schools were part of a wave of new schools that were established in New York City, and these schools were actually brand new schools, with facilities designed and built with the idea that they would be community schools. We had the opportunity to think about where to put a school based health center, the community school director’s office, or a parents’ room.

When we expanded the work into the Bronx in the early 2000’s, we didn’t have that luxury. We had to turn existing schools into community schools.  We found ourselves working with schools that were completely overcrowded, and we couldn’t just displace a classroom to put in a health center or something.  Instead of creating new school buildings, we ended up creating a kind of “campus” of community schools. We worked with four or five schools in one area and in the middle of them we built a health center.  Later we put social workers and then an early childhood center into the building.

Although this campus grew out of convenience and practicality, creating this partnership of four or five different schools gave us an opportunity to work in the community in a different way. In the process, we started working on a whole set of issues that we as Children’s Aid didn’t have enough expertise or capacity to really do anything about. Instead of concentrating on how to get all the services in the community into schools, we started to imagine what could happen if we got all the partners in the community to work together on issues that went beyond any one school.  We thought about issues like making sure all kids are healthy, all kids are ready for school, and all kids are graduating high school ready for college and career; and, if we’re developing a vision of supporting children from “cradle through college and career,” we can’t be the ones doing all the work ourselves. Instead, we took on this new role as a kind of “backbone” organization. We’re convening all the partners that work in a community to develop a common results framework with some shared goals and with some indicators that will tell us all how things are moving forward at the neighborhood level.  Part of that backbone role also includes basic things like just making sure that the PowerPoint is up, the coffee is hot, and the notes are being taken the meetings, but, overall, the work is being done by the community. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past five or six years in the South Bronx, playing this facilitating role.

Instead of concentrating on how to get all the services in the community into schools, we started to imagine what could happen if we got all the partners in the community to work together on issues that went beyond any one school

We’re not going to walk away from community schools or stop providing services, but this has what’s expanded into what’s now being called our collective impact approach.  We’re getting many, many partners to work together, looking at the same data together; we’re all coming up with a shared vision for what, what could look different, and then collectively working toward that new vision. As we continue to develop this work, we’re also hoping that the City will pay attention and begin to devote its resources to collective impact, just as they did for community schools.

IEN: What were some of the challenges that you encountered as your work with community schools developed, and how did you address those challenges?

AF: The biggest challenge is that the mindset needs to change. Right now, people tend to think categorically about schools: we believe that school is where students receive curriculum and instruction. Even though this notion that schools can be more than that makes sense, it’s really hard for people to think beyond the current paradigm. I think that mindset manifests itself in different ways. Take attendance for example, which is something many community schools have focused on. In New York City, for all grades K through 12, about 25% of students are chronically absent, which means that they’ve missed about a month or more of school; and in the schools in the South Bronx where we’ve been working, we found that it’s closer to 40 or 50%.  Why are these students absent? One is health. In fact, the South Bronx has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma anywhere in the world (a documentary, Asthma Alley, chronicles the issues in the South Bronx). If you have lots of asthma in your community, kids are going to be sick, and they’re not going to go to school. But that’s not the only issue. In some cases, kids have to stay home to care for their siblings; some high school students might have jobs or other responsibilities; some kids are homeless.  What program solves all these problems? It doesn’t exist. There have to be a number of different partners working together, which is why looking into chronic absence can help people to change their mindset and to explore community schools.  People start to see all these factors at play for why kids are missing school, and they begin to realize schools cannot address this problem by themselves. They have to bring in more partners and more resources and find a way to coordinate everything.

Looking into chronic absence can help people to change their mindset and to explore community schools.  People start to see all these factors at play for why kids are missing school, and they begin to realize schools cannot address this problem by themselves. They have to bring in more partners and more resources and find a way to coordinate everything.

But schools are not built to think that way, and they often take a much narrower approach.  Here in New York City, there is a mandate that every school must have an attendance team. If you listen to some of the conversations in those teams, it sounds like “Okay, who was absent this week? How many kids have hit the threshold for being chronically absent? Did we send the letter? Did we make the phone call?” They check the items off a list. It’s a compliance driven approach. That’s different from a problem-solving approach. In a problem-solving approach, we look at the data, and that can get you thinking about who’s sitting around the table because we need more voices to interpret the data. Once we understand what the issues are, then we have to think about who’s going to help us create a plan and implement the intervention? That requires other people to be involved. All of that requires that shift in mindset. It’s an approach that helps to get at the stories behind the numbers, to help schools understand what’s happening for students and their families, so they aren’t just “rubbernecking” and saying “Isn’t that terrible.” It puts schools in a position to do something about the issues their students are facing.  It is a lot to ask schools beyond what’s already a very challenging set of responsibilities, but if you add more partners to the mix, we can begin to share those responsibilities. That shift in in attitude is critical, but frankly, not every school leader is interested in doing it that way. There are some leaders though, who see the challenges and want to open up their doors and bring other voices in; look at that information and collectively problem solve; and share in some of the responsibility for work on these issues together.

Another critical challenge is that there is nothing you can do without principal leadership. It’s the linchpin, but if there are problems with a principal, it can be really hard to replace them. We’ve seen how, in the same building, you can have two different leaders with completely different outcomes. The challenge for us as a capacity building organization is that we still have not figured out how to implant a vision inside of a principal just by showing them PowerPoints or giving them books. A lot comes down to conversation and building trust. The most effective tool we have is other principals who get it, so creating networks of learning among the principals has helped quite a bit. The good news is that in the very beginning, people just wanted to build one community school, and now we’re seeing people who want to build systems of community schools. One of the really nice features of that is that you can start building these networks.

A lot of times the communities that are drawn to doing this work, tend to have populations that have higher rates of poverty, higher rates of tons of issues, and the schools in those communities tend to have less experienced teachers and less experienced principals. We’re asking them to work on a very high level, and many of them just haven’t had the chance to develop their own skills as school leaders, let alone as community school leaders. It’s a hard sell for some. On the flip side, we’ve come across principals who said this has been my vision from the minute I walked into my first classroom. I didn’t know it had a name, but I’m so glad that I can now join this community of people who work in this way. We have to find ways to build this way of working and these opportunities earlier into the careers of teachers and principals.

IEN: Given these challenges, how do you get started? How do you figure out who to work with?

AF:  When it comes to New York City, we have identified particular neighborhoods where the data tells us we need to do something right away. And those places have changed over the years. When Children’s Aid started this work, the work was on the northern parts of the Upper East Side, which today looks very different. It doesn’t really need community schools the way it once did. As a result, we moved the work into the Bronx, and we’ve been there for about 20 years. The work starts with thinking about what’s the community we want to work in? And then it’s finding those people who have a real desire to work differently; that bring a sense of curiosity and have a feeling that things really should be different; who know that they can be doing things with partners, but they might not know how to do that quite yet. It does help quite a bit to have some top down support. There are some communities around the country where there’s a really inspired superintendent, who’s been willing to think about how to create the environment for their principals to want to do this work. Other times we find it is a really strong community partner that has had a relationship with a school and has already built some trust, but maybe they’ve realized they’ve been doing programs in the school for decades and have not seen the outcomes that they wanted to see. They come knocking on our door wondering how to better integrate their work with the other work going on in schools.

IEN: You said you’ve transitioned a bit from focusing on working with one school at a time and are now thinking more about a “hub and spokes” model.  How does that work?

AF:  We’re still doing both really. We often say community schools is not a program. It’s a strategy. It’s made up of many different programs and depending on what the needs are in that community, they’re all going to look different. We also don’t say it’s a model because the actual mechanics of how you’re going to move forward really needs to be worked through locally.  Figuring out what your needs are and how are you going to meet them is actually part of the work.  You can’t just implement a list of steps someone gave you. There are some benchmarks and some tools we want to use, but you want to engage local stakeholders in that process.

In some communities, you might start with a school. For example, they might have a YMCA attached to the building with a pool and many things you might want. But it’s totally disconnected. In that case, we’re going to find ways to connect those two and bring other folks into that space. In another community, we might find a school with a clinic or hospital across the street, and then we’ll find ways to bring those people together. It really depends community by community.

More recently, we’ve also been thinking about economies of scale. For example, in New York City you have 10 schools all working in one neighborhood, and they might all figure out that many of their students have asthma. Instead of having 10 different conversations with 10 different principals you can try to create one conversation between these schools and two or three partners to meet those needs. That ends up being a much, much more efficient way to work. It’s more likely to attract a partner because you’re talking about a scale that actually makes sense for them and chances are it’s much more sustainable.

Community Schools as a Hyper-Local Strategy

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.