The Community Schools Solution

Kimmi Thomas was never expected to graduate high school. She was a student at the Oyler School, a K–12 school in Cincinnati, where two-thirds of students dropped out before graduation. The Oyler School serves the neighborhood of Lower Price Hill, where the median household income is $15,000. Her school had been written off as a dropout factory, her community consigned to permanent status as a place where hope goes to die.

But something happened at the Oyler School that changed the story—and Kimmi’s life. In the early 2000s, all Cincinnati Public Schools became community schools. In 2009, Oyler partnered with the Community Learning Center Institute to dramatically expand support services for students and families. A health and dental clinic and early childhood center opened in the school. Local businesses were invited to mentor and partner with students, offering the prospect of jobs for graduates. Housing advocates worked to find stable homes for families experiencing homelessness. School-based mental health providers helped struggling children.

Oyler School Graduation in Cincinnati, Ohio. Courtesy: Oyler School

Oyler School, whose story we tell in Chapter 5, has been transformed from a place of failure to a catalyst for community transformation. Today, this former “dropout factory” has a graduation rate of over 90%.

In Part II of this book, we will share several remarkable stories of how community schools are succeeding in some of the most diverse communities in America. But first, let’s get clear on what a community school is.

What Is a Community School?

A community school is more than a place—it is a set of partnerships. Community schools are built on a foundation of mutually beneficial relationships between schools and communities. Partners from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors bring necessary expertise and assets to the school in areas including health and mental health, youth development, academic supports, and college and career readiness. Schools and their partners use resources in new ways to ensure that students and families achieve and that communities thrive.

The modern community school is the result of a late 20th-century movement of civic and community leaders, public officials, educators, families, youth, and service providers from across the country. Amidst today’s talk of division in America’s more than 15,000 school districts, creative innovators have consistently fostered the capacity of community schools to promote the strength in our diversity. They have done this through collaborative efforts—not by ignoring differences and points of strain, but by acknowledging differences and focusing on the community’s vision for its children and families.

Today, community schools are everywhere. Approximately 8,000 to 10,000 schools have adopted the community school approach as a preferred reform strategy, and the movement is growing with increasing local, state, and national support.

Community schools include, but go far beyond, an engaging academic curriculum. Educators and community partners work together to provide the following core elements:

Student and family support services address out-of-school barriers to learning, such as poverty and racism. This work includes providing health, mental health, and social services, and employing such practices as social-emotional learning, trauma-informed care, and restorative justice. These services reduce demands on school staff, enabling them to concentrate on their core mission: improving student learning.

Parents and guardians receive services at the Parent Resource Center at Evans High School in Orlando, Florida. Courtesy of Evans High School.
Parents and guardians receive services at the Parent Resource Center at Evans High School in Orlando, Florida
Courtesy of Evans High School

For example, consider the experience of a Florida high school student that you will learn about in the Chapter 6 case study. A sexual assault survivor with a single mom who was HIV-positive and living in poverty, Tim Only brought his trauma to school. He took advantage of every service—mental health, food pantry, family resource center, housing opportunities when he was homeless—all available through the resources of community partners at the schools. He graduated as senior class president.

Expanded learning opportunities are available, including after-school, weekend, and summer programs. These offerings provide academic support and enriching, engaging extracurricular activities, which research tells us are significantly limited for children who are living in poverty—particularly children of color. These learning opportunities help develop the core competencies that young people need and help them become active participants in a democratic society.

Take the example of MS 50, a middle school in Brooklyn, New York, where principal Ben Honoroff and Community School Director Fiorella Guevara (working for the school’s lead partner, El Puente) chose debate as the focal point for expanded learning time. A third of students now participate on the debate team, which has won more than a dozen citywide debate championships. The students of MS 50 went from 10% proficient in English and 6% in math in 2015 to 47% proficient in English and 40% in math in 2022.

Active family and community engagement brings in parents and community members whose voices are often ignored. They are viewed as assets in the work of the school and become partners in making decisions about the school and their children’s education. Adult education, workforce development, community-wide arts and cultural events, and health and fitness activities and resources are available through well-planned partnerships with community providers.

We look closely at the community engagement process in Oakland, California, which involved thousands of community residents across 14 task forces in developing their district-wide community schools plan. The reason that Oakland’s community schools initiative has not just grown but thrived—over the course of five superintendents, over a decade, over strikes, over COVID-19, over school closures—is because there was so much grassroots buy-in from the outset.

Families volunteer to revitalize playground at the Oakland Academy of Knowledge in Oakland, California. Courtesy of Oakland Unified School District.
Families volunteer to revitalize playground at the Oakland Academy of Knowledge in Oakland, California
Courtesy of Oakland Unified School District.

Community-based learning connects school-day teaching and learning to the issues and challenges students face in their communities and the world around them. Using the tools of project-based and culturally relevant learning, a community school curriculum engages capable community partners as resources for education and community development (Melaville et al., 2006).

An example is the UCLA Community School in Los Angeles, which is run jointly by the school district and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Teachers create curricula on topics such as immigration, democracy, and the justice system that are responsive and affirming to students—expanding their understanding of the world and helping them become critical thinkers about systems that often have marginalized their communities. The school has a 95% graduation rate.

These four core elements, built on our own initial definition of a community school and a framework created by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center that reflects work in the field, represent the “what” of community schools (Maier et al., 2017). Their effective implementation depends on several “how” factors, including a deep culture of collaboration, a commitment to continuous improvement and shared accountability for results, a strategic orientation, multiple routes to leadership, and a developmental approach to the change process.

Collaborative relationships undergird the partnerships that are the foundation of the work of a community school. Educators, students, families, and community partners plan and act together as part of site-based leadership teams where everyone has a voice. A community school coordinator, who is hired by a community partner or the school—and who works in tandem with the principal—typically manages the joint work of the school and its partners. A culture of learning pervades the community school, where educators, families, and partners build trust with one another. Mistakes are seen as opportunities for improvement and all the assets of the community are incorporated.

Measuring results that matter to everyone involved creates a climate of shared accountability and responsibility. Of course, community schools address academic achievement, but they go beyond, focusing on a wide range of factors that influence achievement: attendance, reduced disciplinary measures, student engagement, growing social networks, health, family circumstances, and conditions in the community. Done well, deep school and community partnerships that engage families and neighborhood residents—and that connect student learning to real community problems—can help community schools function as catalysts for neighborhood and community change.

Organizing the kinds of community schools that we profile in this book demands strategic thinking on the part of educators, families, and community partners. That’s why we describe community schools as a strategy, not a program. Once, we asked a group of school board members from across the country if their districts’ schools had partners that brought programs into their schools; every hand in the room went up. But when we followed up by asking if any of their districts had a plan or strategy for how partners would contribute to results that mattered for the district, no hands were raised. The community school is that strategy.

The emergence of most community schools over the past 30 years began with community partners. Community-based organizations, United Ways, Communities in Schools agencies, higher education institutions, and local governments stepped up to say that they wanted to be partners with the public schools to help students, families, and communities thrive. They made clear that their involvement would be long term and designed to attain outcomes that mattered to the school and the community. Community partners often function as lead agencies, mobilizing and integrating needed opportunities, supports, and services, while sharing in planning and decision-making.

In the past decade, school districts, recognizing the challenges faced by their students and families, have begun to lead community school efforts. Sometimes districts hire community school coordinators. Often, districts work with community partners as lead agencies at individual schools. Research does not yet tell us which approach is better. But we do know that partnerships and active community engagement are central to sustainable community schools.

All the elements of a community school do not emerge in a single stroke, nor is any single element a quick fix. Rather they evolve, through documented stages of development, as educators, families, and community partners realize the potential embedded in their ongoing relationships. As they continue to develop, community schools become powerful engines of equity, vehicles for community change, and inclusive democratic institutions that educate, engage, activate, and serve all members of the community.

[1] We believe that civic education, environmental education, place-based education, service learning, work-based learning, and academically based community service are part of the broader category of community-based learning.

[2] After it was launched in 1991, Healthy Start, a statewide model in California, was among the key pioneers of the lead agency approach. Healthy Start laid the foundation for community schools in California—now the largest statewide initiative in the country and funded at more than $4 billion over seven years.

Community Schools Are Not Charter Schools

People often ask about the difference between community and charter schools—and we understand the reasons for their confusion. For example, Ohio’s charter school law calls its charters “community schools.” But charter schools and community schools differ in fundamental ways. Community schools are regular public schools operating under the auspices of local boards of education. They choose to build deep, mutually beneficial relationships with their communities.

In contrast, while charter schools can adopt practices and policies that mirror community school approaches and some even operate by design as community schools, most charters have few explicit relationships with the communities where they are located. Charters are tuition-free schools of choice that are publicly funded but independently run (Prothero, 2018). Parents apply for their children to attend charter schools and there is usually no designated catchment area. Generally speaking, when charter schools have more applicants than available seats, they use a randomized lottery to determine who is admitted. There are approximately 7,000 charter schools nationally: 64% are independently operated schools; 13% are run by for-profit companies (Sullivan, 2019) that tend to have higher enrollment (among these are the virtual or online charter schools); and 23% are part of nonprofit charter management organizations that operate multiple schools.

Community school supporters tend to be wary of charter schools for several reasons: Charters are privately run and are too often allowed to operate with inadequate public oversight. When students attend charters, that reduces the level of public resources available to district public school systems. Moreover, very wealthy donors, including a handful of billionaires, have handsomely supported charter schools as part of an effort to severely weaken teachers unions and privatize public education (CBS News, 2018; Rosenhall, 2020). For those donors, among others, charters are part of a broader “school choice” movement that includes vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credits for families of students attending private and religious schools. Of course, community-based charters that incorporate strategic partnerships and engage and serve neighborhood children and their families can function as community schools.

We remain strong advocates of the public schools as a bulwark of democracy. We expand on these ideas in Chapter 11.

Do Community Schools Work?

Community schools deliver results. In New York City, where there are now more than 400 community schools, the RAND Corporation found that attendance was higher, more students passed, credit accumulation grew, and high school graduation rates increased in community schools compared to other New York City schools (Johnston et al., 2020). Disciplinary incidents for elementary and middle school students also fell.

Community schools have also resulted in academic success. In York City, math achievement increased for elementary and middle school students in the final year of the study. The impact on English language arts in all three years and on math achievement in the first two years was smaller and not statistically significant. There was also evidence that the New York City community schools supported improvements in school climate and culture for elementary and middle schools. Teachers reported an increase in shared responsibility for student success at elementary and middle schools, and there was a positive effect on students' sense of connectedness to adults and peers for elementary and middle school students (Johnston et al., 2020).

A 2017 meta-analysis of 143 community school evaluations conducted by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center determined:

We conclude that well-implemented community schools lead to improvement in student and school outcomes and contribute to meeting the educational needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools. Strong research reinforces the efficacy of integrated student supports, expanded learning time and opportunities, and family and community engagement as intervention strategies. Promising evidence supports the positive impact of the type of collaborative leadership and practice found in community schools. The research base examining the “full service” community schools model that includes most or all of the four pillars is newer, more limited in size, and consists primarily of evaluation studies of particular sites. But, here, too, the evidence from well-designed studies is promising. Ample evidence is available to inform and guide policymakers, educators, and advocates interested in advancing community schools, and sufficient research exists to meet the ESSA standards for an evidence-based intervention. (Maier et al., 2017)

This study, by virtue of its rigor and comprehensiveness, became landmark research in the community school field as well as more broadly in the world of education policy.

In its 2003 publication, Making the Difference: Research and Practice in Community Schools, the Coalition for Community Schools examined the impact of 20 community school initiatives across America:

Although not all evaluations looked at every outcome, their collective results clearly show that community schools make the difference for students by improving student learning, better family engagement with students and schools, helping schools function more effectively, and by adding vitality to communities. (Blank et al., 2003)

All these analyses confirm and expand the view of research conducted in 2000 by Joy Dryfoos, who reviewed 49 community school evaluations. Her assessment concluded: “In 46 reports, some positive changes were noted, with 36 programs reporting academic gains, 11 programs reporting reductions in suspensions, 11 programs reporting reductions in problem behavior, 12 programs reporting increases in parent involvement, and 6 programs reporting lower violence rates” (Dryfoos, 2000, abstract).

In addition to the research on student, family, and community outcomes, at least three studies have documented the Social Return on Investment (SROI) for community schools. SROI analyses are designed to determine the benefits that accrue to society from selected investments in policy and program initiatives. In 2013, the Finance Project conducted an SROI study of the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) community schools. The research team found that every dollar invested in student supports and other programs at PS 5, an elementary school, yielded a $10.30 return on investment. At an intermediate school, I.S. 218, the return was even greater: $14.80 for every dollar invested in similar supports (Martinez & Hayes, 2013).

These results are corroborated by a 2012 economic-impact study of more than 100 sites in the Communities in Schools network, which showed $11.60 of economic benefit for every invested dollar (Economic Modeling Specialists Inc., 2012). A third SROI study focused on the impact of a community school coordinator at a single school. That analysis, commissioned by the ABC Community School Partnership in Albuquerque, found that coordinators generated $7.11 in net benefits for every dollar invested in their salaries.

In assessing this research, it is important to note that there has not been a significant investment in studying community schools. New York City funded its own study and the Learning Policy Institute/National Education Policy Center review and other local studies were supported by private resources. Capturing local dollars for evaluation has been challenging when children and families need so much help. The scope of the research also has been limited by the fact that the U.S. Department of Education, which finances the bulk of educational research, has largely ignored the role of community, focusing primarily on in-school issues. In addition, the level of federal funding for the Full-Service Community Schools program, discussed below, has only recently reached a point that merits significant investments in evaluation.

Taken as a whole, this research confirms what common sense tells us: When students and their families are the focus, when individuals and organizations work toward common goals, when institutions form partnerships and change the way they function, big things can happen and big problems can be solved. That’s what community schools are doing. Given the severe problems we face as a nation, community schools are needed more than ever to create a revolution in how we work together to educate our students and improve our communities.

Who Pays for Community Schools?

Readers must be wondering who pays for all the opportunities and experiences in a community school. Let’s start with the fact that the emergence of the community school movement toward the end of the 20th century was not dependent on new public dollars; it was built on more effective use of existing resources. Partners brought assets from various public and private funding streams into close working relationships with schools. Often these were funding sources for which schools are not legally eligible on their own. We never anticipated that a single federal or state program would support community schools. Rather we understood that community schools, by definition, demanded multiple funding sources and multiple partners.

Nearly every federal and state program focused on children, families, and communities can be integrated into the work of community schools. These include health and mental health services from Medicaid and the federal Health Resources and Services Administration; food and nutrition assistance from the Department of Agriculture; community development monies from the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and restorative justice, violence prevention, and community safety funding from the Department of Justice. This range of sources demonstrates the power of community schools to mobilize existing assets, reduce fragmentation, and leverage impact. Examples from our own work illustrate the point.

In 1992, Children’s Aid Society closed a free-standing mental health clinic and brought those services into Intermediate School 218/Salomé Ureña de Henríquez Academy, the organization’s flagship community school in Upper Manhattan. As a result, the number of no-show appointments at the clinic plummeted and mental health became woven into the fabric of the school. Medicaid and Child Health Plus were the primary sources for the school-based health and mental health clinic. In time, federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers funds were combined with New York State Advantage and Extended Day/Violence Prevention funds to support after-school and summer programs. Family engagement activities, a bicycle repair program, a school orchestra, and the community school director position received philanthropic support generated and managed by Children’s Aid in partnership with the principal and other school leaders.

The Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) saw the human resources of the university as its most potent asset for its community schools work in West Philadelphia. The Netter Center mobilized Penn faculty to create academically based, community-service classes that connected Penn students and faculty with the resources of the school and the community to help solve problems like reducing and preventing lead exposure, food deserts, obesity, environmental racism, and poor educational performance. The Netter Center’s University-Assisted Community Schools staff have been funded through government grants, private gifts, and university support. Federal support includes the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor; the Corporation for National and Community Service; and the National Science Foundation. The Netter Center also blends state and local government funding, including the Pennsylvania Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor and Industry, as well as the City of Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, Public Health Management Corporation, and Philadelphia Youth Network.


Looking more broadly at the community schools field, an analysis by Blank et al. (2010) of how community schools are financed indicated the breakdown of these institutional sources: district (26%), federal (20%), state (14%), local foundations and private sources (13%), city (12%), and county (3%).

One federal program that offered a significant boost for community schools across the country is the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program (21st Century program). Initially authorized in 1994 through the advocacy of the National Community Education Association, the program’s stated purpose was to provide for “the educational, health, social service, cultural and recreational needs of a rural or inner-city community”—very much in line with community schools (21st Century Community Learning Centers, 2000). But the U.S. Congress initially appropriated less than $1 million for a small demonstration project. In 1998, when President Clinton was seeking to expand after-school programs in the face of a recalcitrant Congress, he used the existing legislative authority of the 21st Century program as the vehicle. The Clinton program focused primarily on the expanded learning opportunities element of community schools, specifically after-school and summer enrichment programs.

The 21st Century program also allowed schools limited flexibility to add elements of community schools, such as family engagement and social services. Local community school advocates leveraged 21st Century to embed after-school and summer programs in community schools; in many instances after-school coordinators also functioned in the broader capacity of community school coordinators.

In conjunction with the Clinton-era growth spurt, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, a longtime community schools advocate, agreed to invest in training and other forms of capacity building that the U.S. Department of Education was not able to support. Mott’s involvement gave community school leaders and practitioners the opportunity to leverage these significant resources. The 21st Century program grew to over $1 billion in 2020, and the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 budget was nearly $1.3 billion.

Congress did not appropriate federal funds explicitly for community schools until FY 2007 when then-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) secured a special $5 million appropriation for Full-Service Community Schools. It was not until 2015 that Congress authorized the Full-Service Community Schools program as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The appropriation grew to $150 million in FY 2023, and major increases have been proposed by the White House and House Committees.

Other significant funding streams have also emerged to help finance community schools. ESSA not only created the Full-Service Community Schools program, it also expanded Title IV, Part A, Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, to authorize funds for community school coordinators and other support services. In addition, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2020 and 2021 provided $190.5 billion in relatively flexible funds to public schools in response to the COVID pandemic; the legislation focused not just on academics but also on social, emotional, physical, and moral/ethical development.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act passed in 2022 including increased funding for key elements of community schools: $1.24 billion for school-based mental health services; $50 million to help schools more easily bill Medicaid for those and related health services; $1 billion more to strengthen school health and safety as part of aforementioned Title IV, Part A of ESSA; and $50 million to increase out-of-school-time programming (Katz et al., 2022).

Equally significant are recent state investments in community schools. California is spending $4.1 billion over seven years to grow community schools (Newbury, 2022). Maryland has embedded community schools in its core school-funding formula focusing on high-poverty schools as part of its Blueprint for Maryland’s Future (Maryland State Department of Education, n.d.). Dedicated support in Utah, New Mexico, New York, and other states represents signal achievements for the movement. State funding is important not only from a financial standpoint but because it shows that community schools are becoming an explicit part of state education reform efforts.

We would underscore, in the context of all these financing possibilities, that our approach to financing community schools never anticipated relying on a single funding source. In fact, our advocacy for community schools always included vigorous support for increased appropriations for key programs that are pivotal to the community school vision—after school, mental health, violence prevention, nutrition, and others. We stayed true to the idea that it is the combination of assets from multiple partners and programs that creates the comprehensive and integrated approach of sustainable community schools.

As important as money from many sources is to the stability and effectiveness of community schools, human capital is even more vital. Community schools need contributions from people who are willing to mentor and tutor students and help them expand their social networks; elders who can share their personal stories and the history of their community; businesses that can offer internships and apprenticeships; higher education institutions willing to engage their students, faculty, and staff in public schools; artists willing to share their time and talents; and volunteers from faith-based and other community-based institutions. By creating strong, collaborative cultures, community schools are uniquely positioned to mobilize these assets and deploy them in a way that helps individual students and simultaneously strengthens the whole school and community. One might think of this approach as a return to traditional values, where everyone belongs, works together, and succeeds.


[3] For further information about Academically Based Community Service, see

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