The Contemporary Community Schools Movement: An Evolving Story

“We have to build a movement,” stated activist researcher Joy Dryfoos, who with her colleagues, Ira Harkavy and Pete Moses, was ruminating over the fact that only three people attended their community schools workshop at a 1997 Memphis conference focused on new models for reimagining schools. Dryfoos, through her writing on full-service schools, along with Harkavy at the University of Pennsylvania and Moses at the Children’s Aid Society, were innovators working to renew a vision of our public schools as centers of community where everyone belongs, works together, and succeeds.

A few months later, they convened a meeting in New York City to explore the historic relationship between school and community. They expected only 30 participants, but 120 people attended. This outpouring of support was energizing, and in early 1997, the Emerging Coalition for Community Schools was formed with the Institute for Educational Leadership as the staffing arm of the enterprise. The word emerging was chosen because leaders wanted potential partner organizations to have a voice in framing the work of the coalition.

Today there is a movement with growing numbers of community schools across America. You can find them in urban, suburban, and rural places—from New York City to Cincinnati, Berea (KY) to Las Cruces (NM), and Florida to Oregon. School and community leaders from many different institutions are collaborating to bring the community school vision and strategy to life and help every young person learn and thrive. The Coalition for Community Schools has become a vibrant policy and advocacy organization with 200 partners cutting across sectors and governmental levels.

This chapter captures a brief history of community schools work, the emergence of the movement today, and lessons from the past 25 years of movement building.

The Roots of the Community Schools Movement

More than a century ago, educator and philosopher John Dewey imagined schools as social centers and sites for building a democratic society. Dewey was an admirer and ally of renowned activist and social worker Jane Addams. It was from Addams and other settlement house leaders that Dewey developed the idea of the school as a social center that would serve and engage the entire community. In the early 1900s, Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington and Sears Roebuck executive Julius Rosenwald worked with Black communities across the deeply segregated South to build schools where one-third of construction costs were raised by the community and the school became the center of education and community life.

This idea of schools as social centers contributed to the movement for community schooling and community education that the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation supported for many years starting in the 1930s. An early docudrama developed by the Foundation shows a young boy playing alone on school grounds during the summer. A man approaches and the boy runs into the street and is almost hit by a car. The narrator asks, “Why are our schools closed in the summer?” Indeed, why are they closed and why are they not used for much-needed public purposes?

Two other influential models of community schools developed in the 1930s. Dewey disciple Elsie Clapp’s work in rural Kentucky and West Virginia focused on the community as a resource for student learning and the school as a center for solving community problems. Leonard Covello at Benjamin Franklin High School in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York City focused on the school as a community center and a catalyst for community development and democratic neighborhood change.

In the 1960s, Bill Milliken began Communities in Schools (CIS) with the intention of bringing the resources of the community into the school. Whether students need eyeglasses, tutoring, nutritious food, or just a safe place to be, CIS works to find partners with the resources and deliver them to young people inside schools. CIS meets both simple needs, such as getting kids vaccinated, to more complex needs, such as helping young people find alternatives to gangs. CIS now has sites in 164 communities and 2,900 schools across the country.

All of these efforts were part of the foundation on which today’s community schools movement is based. The founders of the modern-day community schools movement began to talk with one another in the mid-1990s. As they left that sparsely attended workshop at a national conference of the now-defunct New American Schools Development Corporation, they knew they had to create something different than other reforms if their vision of community schools was to become a permanent part of the education and community landscape.

They would have to build a movement.

[5] “Settlement houses” were places—and part of a movement—where educated middle-class women shared their skills and knowledge with women from low-income communities to help alleviate poverty. They provided assistance with childcare, established kindergartens, taught English to immigrants, and aided with job placement and other social services. The most famous of these was Hull House, founded by Jane Addams, who in 1931 became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Modern Community Schools Movement

The founding leaders of the 21st-century community school movement—Joy Dryfoos; Phil Coltoff and Pete Moses of the New York-based Children’s Aid Society (CAS); and Ira Harkavy, director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania—had a clear sense of what they wanted to see happen. But they knew from experience that creating a shared vision with other institutions and organizations was an essential building block of a movement.

Dryfoos’ research and writing focused on full-service schools—schools where “quality education and comprehensive social services offered under one roof have the potential to become neighborhood hubs, where children and their families want to be” (Dryfoos & Maguire, 2002).

The CAS community school strategy is built on social work principles: meeting human needs, respecting local culture and knowledge, and responding to documented strengths and deficits. CAS conceptualized community schools as a developmental triangle with children at the center, surrounded by families and communities. The triangle’s legs consist of three interconnected support systems: a strong core instructional program designed to help all students meet high academic standards; expanded opportunities designed to enrich the learning environment for students and their families; and a full range of health, mental health, and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning.

The Netter Center develops university-assisted community schools (UACS) where higher education institutions work with public schools and other partners to educate; engage; empower; and serve students, families, and community members. UACS focuses on schools as core institutions for community engagement and democratic development—linking school day and after-school curricula to solve locally identified, real-world community problems. UACS programming occurs year-round to improve science, technology, engineering, and math education (STEM); health and nutrition; social-emotional learning; arts and culture; college access; career readiness; and neighborhood development.

The founders knew that other groups—like Beacon Schools, Community Education, California’s Healthy Start, CIS, Schools of the 21st Century—were pursuing similar work, and they wanted to bring everyone together under a “big tent.” With the assistance of the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL), which became the organizational home of the Coalition for Community Schools, the founders began a series of conversations that lasted more than a year. Planning grants from the Mott, Wallace, and Kauffman foundations supported this early work. They started with education groups, on the advice of then-IEL president Michael Usdan, who cautioned that previous efforts by external organizations to align schools and communities had floundered in the absence of support from major educational institutions. They then moved to talk with other stakeholders in the health and human services, youth development, community development, community organizing, higher education, and related sectors—all of whom did some work in or with public schools.

Elizabeth, a member of the Sabal Palm Elementary School student news team (Jacksonville, FL), shows off the facility’s anchor desk,  used for online broadcasts
Elizabeth, a member of the Sabal Palm Elementary School student news team (Jacksonville, FL), shows off the facility’s anchor desk,  used for online broadcasts
Photo by Tom Flanigan at WFSU Public Media

The founders conducted focus groups with local education and community leaders and practitioners across the country. In 1997, all this data-gathering culminated in a national planning meeting to determine a path forward for what was then called the Emerging Coalition for Community Schools. They ultimately agreed on this definition of community schools:

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. Schools become centers of the community and are open to everyone—all day, every day, evenings, and weekends. (Coalition for Community Schools, n.d.)

Extensive research supported the case that community schools fulfill a broad set of conditions for learning and are consistent with the conditions that families want for their children:

  • Early childhood development is fostered through high-quality, comprehensive programs that nurture learning and development.

  • The school has a core instructional program with qualified teachers, a challenging curriculum, and high standards and expectations for students.

  • Students are motivated and engaged in learning—both in school and in community settings, during and after school.

  • The basic physical, mental, and emotional health needs of young people and their families are recognized and addressed.

  • There is mutual respect and effective collaboration among parents, families, and school staff.

  • Community engagement, together with school efforts, promotes a school climate that is safe, supportive, and respectful and connects students to a broader learning community. (Blank et al., 2003)

The founders were clear: The community school is not a prescriptive program. It represents a vision for public schools and a way of thinking that school and community leaders can adopt and adapt to their own unique circumstances.

The community school stands in counterpoint to much of the education policy dogma that emphasizes test-based accountability and narrowly focused “gold-standard” prescriptive programs that turn out to be nearly impossible to bring to scale. Instead, leaders of the movement wanted to create a vehicle that would join schools with their communities to provide the kinds of learning experiences, opportunities, and supports that most parents want for their children and that we know work.

A Quarter Century of Movement Building

Today, the Coalition for Community Schools is a robust alliance of over 200 organizational partners at the local, state, and national levels. Many partners are now actively promoting community schools as a core part of their own work, while founding partners continue to build the capacity for high-quality implementation at the local level. Vibrant networks of key players in community schools (e.g., United Ways, higher education institutions, superintendents, and community school coordinators) share their knowledge and experience. National partners’ policy staff actively advocate for community schools on Capitol Hill. To reach this point, the Coalition has used a range of movement-building strategies described below.

Organizing and engaging partners: Partners are at the heart of the community schools movement. The Coalition for Community Schools (Coalition) was a key vehicle for growing and nurturing those partnerships. Over time, entities from across the spectrum of education, youth development, human services, health and mental health, and other fields joined the movement. They devoted time to the Coalition’s federal policy agenda, opened their conferences and newsletters to community schools thinking and, in some cases, made community schools a core part of their own agendas.

A Steering Committee of individuals representing a wide range of partner organizations has guided the Coalition’s work, developing strategic plans, advising on policy, and serving as advocates for community schools within their organizations and as spokespersons for community schools. Though the Steering Committee did not have the legal authority of a board of directors since the Coalition operated as an arm of IEL, it played a pivotal role in giving the Coalition legitimacy and credibility.

Initially, the Steering Committee included representatives of key education organizations; colleagues from health and human services, youth development, advocacy, and other fields related to community schools; as well as founding partners. Early on, we decided to include local community school initiatives as partners. We recognized that the voices of the local groups doing the work in schools and communities were essential if we were to learn from those partnerships. Their experience kept the work of the Coalition and other partners grounded in the reality of implementing community schools.

Over time, a number of partners have made community schools a key element of their own school improvement agendas. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), for one, was an early supporter of community schools. The relationship reached an entirely different level, however, when incoming AFT President Randi Weingarten said in her 2008 inaugural address:

Can you imagine a federal law that promoted community schools—schools that serve the neediest children by bringing together under one roof all the services and activities they and their families need? Imagine schools that are open all day and offer after-school and evening recreational activities. And suppose the schools included child care and dental, medical, and counseling clinics…or other services the community needs. For example, they might offer neighborhood residents English language instruction, GED programs, or legal assistance. (Dillon, 2008)

Weingarten’s commitment led to full-time staff working to support community schools development and coverage in AFT’s American Educator magazine (American Federation of Teachers, 2009). Over time, local affiliates in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other communities successfully negotiated for community schools as key elements in their local contracts.

Another longtime partner, the National Education Association (NEA), has increased its active support for community schools in recent years. From the NEA perspective, “Community schools provide not only tremendous opportunities for learning and success for students, but they also offer hope, opportunity and transformation to entire communities” (National Education Association, n.d.). NEA national staff are building a network of local and state leaders working to organize local community school efforts. The NEA passed a policy statement on community schools in 2018 and launched the NEA Community School Institute, which is working with dozens of local school districts around the country and states to advance community schools.

Looking back, another key set of partners were community organizing groups, epitomized by Journey for Justice (J4J), a network of community organizers devoted to public school reform. J4J was created “in response to the growing problem of school privatization (starving of neighborhood schools, school closings, charter and contract school expansion, turnarounds) impacting cities” (Journey for Justice, n.d.). For J4J, community schools represented what parents and students in their network wanted.

J4J and other organizing groups -- the Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel Foundation, and NYU Metro Center -- are now partners with labor unions (AFT, NEA, SEIU) and advocacy groups (Advancement Project, Alliance for Quality Education, Schott Foundation for Public Education) in the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools (AROS).  AROS promotes a national organizing agenda that includes backing community schools from a racial and social justice perspective.

The Learning Policy Institute is dedicated to high-quality research to improve education policy and practice. It has assisted the movement with a synthesis of community schools research in 2017 as well as a series of state reports, fact sheets, and stories that have helped the movement reach a broader audience of education policymakers and researchers.

The Partnership for the Future of Learning (Partnership) is a network of 20 funders and 300+ organizations from across the country that “protects, strengthens, and advances education equity and meaningful learning.” (Partnership for Future of Learning, 2019). Community schools are a priority for the Partnership. It has prepared a community schools video and the Community Schools Playbook, a practical guide to community school strategies. It also supports a storytelling communications network.

Without the contributions of these and other partners the community schools movement would not have achieved the success it has, nor grown as widely.

Nurturing leadership and learning networks: According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “Leadership networking is about developing and using your networks in a way that builds relationships and strengthens alliances in service of your organization’s work and goals” (Leading Effectively Staff, 2022). The Coalition for Community Schools made supporting multiple leadership and learning networks a core element of movement building.

By 2005, there were a growing number of local community school initiatives. A Chicago convening eventually led to the creation of the Community Schools Leadership Network. The network, chaired and facilitated by local practitioners, consists of individuals who are leading local initiatives to grow multiple community schools in their districts. Coming from school districts, United Ways, local government, community-based organizations, and higher education institutions, these leaders learn from one another and are powerful advocates for community schools at the state and local levels. The Coalition, the National Center for Community Schools, and the Netter Center support the network.

In partnership with the School Superintendents Association, the Coalition organized a Superintendents Leadership Council to share knowledge among these key leaders, and also created a partnership with the United Way of America to nurture a network of local United Ways driving community schools forward. Over time, demand emerged for a community school coordinators network. The unique bridge-building work of coordinators requires particular know-how, and the network provides them with a professional learning community.

As local community school initiatives ramped up, it became clear that state networks were necessary both to share knowledge and to influence state policy and funding. At the Coalition’s 2014 National Forum in Cincinnati, the process of building state coalitions began. With no funding to kickstart these groups, the Coalition relied on local community school leaders to get the state networks going. As of this writing, there are now formal coalitions or emerging groups in 27 states. In New York, New Mexico, and Maryland, community schools and after-school networks are now aligned and working toward shared goals. In other states, various agencies spearheaded the development of state networks, including United Ways, teacher unions, higher education institutions, and local community school initiatives.

Other networks that emerged after 2014 include: a Next Generation Coalition of young people to inform the field and keep it contemporary; a Research-Practice Network focused on studying how community schools work and improving their quality; and a University-Assisted Community Schools Network, which is described elsewhere in the chapter.

Convening partners: Bringing people together is what community schools do at the local level, so naturally that became a core part of the work of the national movement. Beginning with a national planning meeting in 1998 to lay out the work of the Coalition, National Community Schools Forums (National Forums) have been held on a biennial basis since that time. The first event in Kansas City, supported by our local partners at the Local Investment Commission, attracted 400 participants. Demonstrating the growth of the movement, the 2018 Forum in Baltimore attracted 2,000 participants, and the 2022 Forum in Los Angeles drew some 3,500 attendees. Reflecting the emphasis on a “big tent,” the first Forum included workshops on Children’s Aid Community Schools, University-Assisted Community Schools, Schools of the 21st Century, Beacon Schools, Communities in Schools, and comprehensive systems of student supports.

As the National Forums evolved, leaders selected host cities that were centers of significant community schools initiatives. Helping participants understand the story of how each initiative evolved was an essential element of the National Forums. So too were site visits to community schools where participants could experience the work of educators, families, and community partners on the ground.

Regular meetings of partners from national organizations are another element of Coalition convening work. Held twice yearly, these events keep the work of community schools in front of our allies and give partners the opportunity to disseminate their work through the Coalition.

Building capacity: Founding partners The Children’s Aid Society and the Netter Center were pivotal to the movement’s growth through their ongoing capacity-building work. The National Center for Community Schools (NCCS) at Children’s Aid has provided capacity-building assistance to most of the country’s major community school initiatives over the past 28 years. Study visits to its pioneering schools in New York City, its annual national Community School Fundamentals and Practicum conferences, and most significantly, its on-the-ground technical assistance have been pivotal to the development of the movement. NCCS has contributed substantially to the professional literature on community schools through its book, Community Schools in Action: Lessons from a Decade of Practice (Dryfoos et al., 2005), as well as by preparing and distributing several free “how-to” implementation guides: Building a Community School (National Center for Community Schools [NCCS], 1994); Building Community Schools: A Guide for Action (NCCS, 2011); and Leading with Purpose and Passion: A Guide for Community School Directors (NCCS, 2017).

Community Parade float celebrating Ernie Pyle  Middle School in  Albuquerque, New Mexico
Community Parade float celebrating Ernie Pyle  Middle School in  Albuquerque, New Mexico
Courtesy of ABC Community Schools Partnership

Since the late 1980s, the Netter Center has advocated for UACS. Through conferences, publications, and site visits, the Netter Center has helped nurture the work of higher education institutions with community schools. Its many publications that have contributed to both the community schools movement and university-assisted community schools include: the Universities and Community Schools journal (published since 1989); Dewey's Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform, Civil Society, Public Schools, and Democratic Citizenship (Benson et al., 2007); “The Promise of University-Assisted Community Schools to Transform American Schooling: A Report from the Field, 1985–2012,” Peabody Journal (Harkavy et al., 2013); and Knowledge for Social Change: Bacon, Dewey, and the Revolutionary Transformation of Research Universities in the Twenty-First Century (Benson et al., 2017). In partnership with the Coalition, the Netter Center has developed a UACS network of more than 70 higher education institutions involved with community schools across the country.

The Coalition focused its capacity-building work on developing research papers, guides, and other tools over the years. Its first publication, Community Schools: Partnerships for Excellence, helped readers see what a community school looks like. Making the Difference: Research and Practice in Community Schools (Blank et al., 2003) provided the research base for community schools and analyzed data from 30 initiatives that demonstrated the effectiveness of community schools.

The Coalition emphasized the importance of district-wide initiatives on the theory that having multiple community schools in a district was critical to growing the movement. Multiple schools generated more leadership support, greater community recognition, and increased demand from other schools for the opportunities and supports that community schools could provide. To facilitate that work, the Coalition published Scaling Up School and Community Partnerships: The Community Schools Strategy in 2013.

By 2017—nearly 20 years after the current movement began—the field needed a set of voluntary standards that would help guide local practice. With a team of colleagues from local community school initiatives and national partners, the Coalition worked to build consensus on specific standards for both individual community schools and systems of community schools (Coalition for Community Schools, 2018). The standards have served as an important tool for community schools—whether they are just getting started, are seeking to improve quality, or are moving toward a district-wide effort.

We want to pay special tribute to the crucial work of Joy Dryfoos (1925–2012), the godmother of the present generation of community schools. Her books, including Full-Service Schools: A Revolution in Health and Social Services for Children, Youth, and Families (Dryfoos, 1994) and Inside Full-Service Community Schools (Dryfoos & Maguire, 2002), to name just two, were instrumental in giving the Coalition its intellectual foundation. Her paper, Evaluation of Community Schools: Findings to Date, issued by the Coalition in 2000, provided a vitally important contemporary data research base for the movement.

Advocating: Partners have been pivotal to our advocacy strategy. Many other partners participate in the Coalition’s Federal Policy Working Group and have been willing to bring their muscle to advocate for including community schools in ESSA, and for expanding federal investment in community schools. Partners from national education, health, youth development, human services, advocacy, and other organizations, as well as state and local groups, have been stepping up for community schools.

Funding: Our advocacy strategy focuses not only on increasing financial resources available to community schools but also on bolstering supportive policies that consider the strengths and needs of students, families, and communities. A related strategy addresses the role of private philanthropy as another key partner in advancing the growth and sustainability of community schools.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation offered early and sustained support for the Coalition, the NCCS, and the Netter Center, as well as for other key players in the field. The DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, which supported the national expansion of four community school models—the Beacon Schools, Children’s Aid Community Schools, University-Assisted Community Schools, and United Way Bridges to Success—made a crucial contribution to the development of the current community schools movement.

Several other national foundations supported movement-building work along the way, including Atlantic Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Ford Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Stuart Foundation. Today, major funders include the Ballmer Group and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

In addition, a wide variety of local funders, including community foundations and United Ways, provide support for community schools implementation. In addition, several local philanthropies support the Coalition’s biennial Community Schools National Forums.

The authors of this volume have played ongoing roles in working toward sustained funding for community schools. As head of the Coalition for Community Schools, Marty Blank made sure that one of the Coalition’s networks brought private funders together on a regular basis to strategize and share best practices. These funders, in turn, advocated for community schools within their circles of influence, such as Grantmakers for Education. Jane Quinn and Lisa Villarreal both worked for several years as grantmakers—Jane at the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund (1993–1999) and Lisa at the San Francisco Foundation (2005–2016)—where they developed grants programs that expanded community schools nationally and in the Bay Area. During this entire period, Ira Harkavy has worked on expanding funding for university-assisted community schools through a variety of sources, both public and private.

It is probably worth noting that all of these efforts took place during an era of test-based accountability, with its narrow vision of the role of schools and measures of effectiveness. As leaders of the community school movement, we have struggled in the past to advance a very different vision and strategy in an unsupportive policy environment (Harkavy & Blank, 2002). That focus has borne fruit today as more and more funders are coming to see the power of the community school strategy.

Graduation at an Oakland, CA Community School
Graduation at an Oakland, CA Community School
Courtesy of Oakland Unified School District

Harnessing the Power, Passion, and Spirit of People and Relationships

We share Albert Einstein’s view that “not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” And while it may be tough to quantify the impact of community school leaders and the relationships they build, they matter.

We know from our work in local communities, from Coalition networks and national forums, and from conversations with individuals that the people involved in community schools bring a special passion and spirit to their work. Does that passion and spirit emanate from working collaboratively with people coming from different types of organizations and different disciplines? Does it emerge from being in an inclusive setting that brings together people from different races and ethnicities where equity is a priority? Or does it emerge from the power of the relationships that community schools build among people and between schools and other organizations? Perhaps it comes from seeing students and their families access the opportunities and supports so important to their development.

Regardless of the why, we know that the people involved with community schools bring a special joy and commitment to their work. It is their deep passion and their revolutionary spirit that have enabled the community schools movement to move forward. Indeed, they are the movement.

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