Maximizing Opportunities on the Road Ahead

How do we apply the lessons from successful large-scale local community school initiatives to enact the vision of every school a community school? What are the key opportunities that will enable us to make that vision a reality? What will it take to make the community school strategy “the way we do school” throughout our nation, as our Oakland colleagues advocate?

As we look to the future, we must keep in mind the context in which our schools are operating. While the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken our country to its core, it has also created opportunities that favor the community school strategy. We have witnessed a dramatic change in the public’s understanding of the role of education as a key driver of the U.S. economy (Sawchuk, 2020; Sparks, 2020). No longer taken for granted are the childcare, after-school, extended day, health, and nutrition services provided daily by the nation’s schools.

Film class taught at Oyler School in Cincinatti, Ohio
Film class taught at Oyler Community Learning Center in Cincinatti, Ohio
Courtesy of Oyler Community Learning Center

Even the worrisome data on students’ learning loss during COVID-19 disruption present opportunities to expand community schools. Increasingly, public discussions have broadened the notion of “losses” to include more than academics. There is now a recognized need for trauma-informed practice, mental health support, opportunities for students’ socialization with peers, access to mentors and other caring adults, the availability of nutrition and other concrete supports, and access to out-of-school-time enrichment—all of which community schools provide. The COVID-19 pandemic, by laying bare deep and pervasive inequalities, illustrated that the status quo was not working for many Americans and that something significant had to be tried. These developments, together with new federal and state funding and a somewhat more comprehensive policy framework, create a set of possibilities for the community school movement that is different from any that existed before.

This is a time to build upon and go beyond the work of John Dewey, Jane Addams, Elsie Clapp, Leonard Covello, and others who followed in their footsteps. We can now envision community schools as a permanent part of the education and community landscape.

A Time of Opportunities

As we look across the current terrain, our team has collectively identified several key opportunities to strengthen and expand the work of community schools.

Act now to make best use of new financial resources. Perhaps the most obvious opportunity is to maximize the impact of the new funding available through federal and state sources. Educators, families, and community partners can now create community schools built on partnerships that incorporate all the elements we have discussed: coordinated health and social services; expanded learning; active family and community engagement; and community-based learning, undergirded by a strong and deepening collaborative culture and trusting relationships.

We hope that all stakeholders will apply the lessons emerging from our case studies when developing new community schools. Beyond these lessons, several additional points should be kept in mind. First, we have made clear throughout this book that community schools are a place and a strategy, not a program. We urge local leaders—including educators, families, and community partners—to develop a vision for their own community schools and think strategically about how new monies can help them move toward that vision.

Second, from a strategic standpoint, it is important to use community schools funding to align existing programs and services toward a common set of results and allocate new dollars to fill critical gaps. Integrating these programs with the core instructional program is also essential; we know that working in program silos is not effective. To make this happen, teachers must be deeply involved in planning and implementation, and new approaches to engaging students must be considered.

Third, we would remind local leaders that community school funding is about building relationships between educators and community partners. Experienced community school practitioners have observed that schools’ standard practice of purchasing services from community groups often results in treating them like vendors, which represents a transactional approach; in a community school, educators work with their partners to build authentic, long-term relationships that represent true educational transformation.

In addition, successful community school initiatives are often based on first addressing important issues that educators and partners can help improve, such as chronic absence, safe routes to school, and student disengagement. These wins help to build a culture of success, strengthen trust, and create a foundation for future work.

Finally, evaluations must incorporate multiple measures of both short- and long-term success related to students, families, and the broader community.

Provide quality capacity-building support. State and federal investments in community schools are bringing critical funding for local capacity-building efforts. The field has long benefited from the efforts of the National Center for Community Schools, the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, the Coalition for Community Schools, and others, funded largely by private foundations, individual donors, local grants, and fee-for-service contracts, to help support local community school initiatives. Public support will intensify and expand this important work.

As community schools grow, new entities with limited prior involvement in community schools will no doubt offer their expertise. It is vital that these groups take the time to learn the core ideas and approaches of community school strategies from experienced providers, and more importantly not treat community schools as just another program on their menu of technical assistance options.

That capacity-building assistance also must focus more intentionally on creating bridges with teaching and learning. The involvement of UCLA’s School of Education as a partner with the Alameda County Office of Education in California’s statewide technical assistance program indicates that academic researchers, policymakers, and practitioners want to bridge that gap. Teaching and learning should become a major focus of capacity-building efforts for all community schools.

The strategy of organizing school and community resources around student success requires a tailored approach at the individual school level. This should be based on an assessment of the needs and strengths of the school’s students and families that results from an intensive effort to engage, listen, and respond to issues of concern to students, families, and the community. There is no substitute for this outreach and analysis, or for the collaborative planning that brings educators, families, and partners together at the school level to build relationships and agree on priorities for the near and longer term. Well-designed capacity-building efforts have shown the value of providing tools, training, and other supports that help schools and school systems learn how to implement these and other essential community school practices.

Despite the recent dramatic increases in public support for community schools that in some cases include concomitant capacity-building efforts, we see a continued need for private investments as well. An excellent example of this kind of investment is represented by the Ballmer Group’s coordinated effort to fund four national organizations—the Coalition for Community Schools, the National Center for Community Schools, the Learning Policy Institute, and the Brookings Institution—to work together on several aspects of field-building. This ambitious national initiative, called Community Schools Forward, is creating a set of tools and resources designed to help local communities understand and implement evidence-based community school practices.

Reimagine leadership and professional development. Bringing community schools to scale requires major changes in preservice preparation of superintendents, principals, teachers, and other professionals (e.g., nurses, social workers, psychologists), as well as in their professional development while they are on the job. There also should be a renewed focus on interprofessional development across education, health, mental health, community development, and related fields.

In the preservice arena, teachers continue to report that their studies did not include any mention of child and adolescent development, the role of parents and families in students’ educational lives, or the role of community in public schools. Similarly, principal and superintendent preparation programs have tended to focus on management and instructional strategies to the exclusion of other requisite skills, such as collaborative and shared leadership, community engagement, and partnership building (Darling-Hammond et al., 2007).

State-level support for community schools and increased national visibility could provide impetus to schools of education to work in partnership with local school districts to prepare educators in new ways. States that have demonstrated a commitment to community schools can lead the way by modifying their principal and teacher preparation standards, changing licensing requirements, and overseeing preparation programs more rigorously. State community school coalitions must make this issue a focal point for their efforts in the coming years as well.

Districts committed to community schools should partner with higher education institutions around principal and teacher preparation. Research has shown the potential of these partnerships, but until now community school leadership and practice have not been included (Wang et al., 2022). This must change. Partnerships between school districts and higher education institutions would be even stronger if expertise from other professions (e.g., community planning, public administration, public health, business, social work) were brought into the mix to emphasize the importance of cross-boundary leadership. Interdisciplinary learning has become common in many academic institutions; it makes sense to include it in education preparation as well.

Professional development schools and teacher residency programs where academic content and pedagogical instruction are well integrated with extensive hands-on clinical experience offer another opportunity. These programs would be strengthened by incorporating community school leadership skills and practices into their curricula. This has happened to a limited extent but there is opportunity for expansion (Ferrara, 2014).

Ongoing professional development for principals, teachers, and other school personnel also must change. While there are a few innovative learning experiences available for principals and teachers working in community schools, that thrust has not yet been fully incorporated into district-run leadership development and professional development for principals and teachers.

These offerings should utilize the best adult education pedagogy, including case studies based on real practice dilemmas and opportunities for the different disciplines to collaborate and cross-train. Experienced community organizers could help educators and other professionals learn new strategies for engaging families and community partners. Community-based groups with expertise in parent leadership and engagement can change how education leaders and other school-based professionals work with families. Partners with knowledge of difficult community issues can enhance the capacity of teachers to bring the assets and issues facing the community into their classrooms. Other community partners can communicate why and how they can help schools meet their goals. Local community school initiatives have a role to play here as well. They can leverage the credibility they have built at school sites to address systemic issues, such as professional development.

In the 1990s, there were a few innovative efforts that focused on collaborative preservice preparation of educators, nurses, social workers, and psychologists, but despite their early promise, these experiments generated no serious uptake. People from these and other fields are expected to work together to help students and their families facing a myriad of challenges. We hope to see more interprofessional learning in preparation programs so that people expect, and are ready, to work together in schools.

Given the increased strength of the field and substantial new funding, now may be an opportune time for local community schools to function as sites for professional development in general, and interprofessional development in particular. Community schools could be sites for learning collaborative and partnership skills for teachers, social workers, and health and human services professionals. Universities could develop certificates for community school teachers, social workers, nurses, and doctors (among other fields) who are engaged with community schools during their training.

Higher education institutions now engaged with University-Assisted Community Schools have an important role to play in reimagining preservice leadership and professional development. Often their community schools work is not connected to the institutions’ preservice preparation programs. One place to start would be to design on-site learning experiences for future principals and teachers as a prelude to deeper curricular changes. The network of University-Assisted Community Schools would be a good starting place for this discussion.

A related opportunity is the expansion of preservice and in-service training of community school coordinators. Our society badly needs people who are prepared to build bridges, and they need better preparation. New efforts can complement the National Center for Community Schools Coordinators Boot Camp, the Coalition for Community Schools Coordinators Network, and Binghamton University’s online community schools advanced certificate course.

Strengthen relationships with teachers and deepen the connection with teaching and learning. As educators more fully grasp the potential of community schools and as community schools proliferate, there is an opportunity to strengthen relationships between classroom teachers and other partners in the comprehensive work. The vocal and long-term support for community schools by both national teachers’ unions has set the stage for greater engagement among the rank and file. State and local union leaders are also supporting this movement.

Across the case studies, teachers have demonstrated the many ways they embrace and add value to the community school strategy. Teachers at the UCLA Community School clearly have a holistic perspective as they work closely with their students on issues that matter to them and the community as part of the curriculum. Teachers in Albuquerque welcome the opportunity to participate in the Homework Diner innovation, recognizing the important opportunity to connect with immigrant parents and their children in a relaxed and welcoming environment.

While teachers are generally represented on site-based leadership teams, the whole-child/whole-school approach of community schools often has not reached directly into classrooms. That is where leaders and advocates must devote more attention. There are solutions to this challenge: professional development that includes cross-training between educators and community partners through active and multiple means of communication; engagement of school-based union representatives; principal leadership that communicates clear support for and expectations about teacher participation in all aspects of the community schools strategy; and helping teachers use community-based learning as a pedagogy to engage their students. We outline these below.

It is worth noting here that we have never heard anyone in the community school movement say that robust student support services could compensate for a weak core instructional program. In fact, community schools have always recognized and highlighted the critical role played by teachers in ensuring that all students have access to high-quality curricula and instruction.

Expand focus on community-based learning. In Chapter 1, we suggested that community-based learning is a core element of the community school strategy. It connects the school-day curriculum and after-school programs to the community, emphasizing real-world issues and community problem-solving. Using the tools of project-based learning and culturally relevant pedagogy, a community school curriculum engages neighborhood assets and expertise as resources for education and community development.

With teachers increasingly recognizing the power of the community school strategy, there is now an opportunity to implement this dimension of community schools far more broadly. Many teachers are familiar with the widely accepted tools of experiential, project-based learning, but these tools are not often applied to community issues. Using community problems as a vehicle for learning can cut across English, math, science, history, and other subjects. This approach creates space for young people to become involved with their communities, learn the power of acting together, and develop a sense of agency that is crucial to their long-term success.

Fifth grade students from Sabal Palm Elementary School in the IMAX theater at the Challenger Learning Center
Fifth grade students from Sabal Palm Elementary Community Partnership School in the IMAX theater at the Challenger Learning Center, the K-12 outreach facility of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering. Students from several schools in Leon County visited the center for a screening of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and a discussion about the importance of learning STEM subjects.
Courtesy of Challenger Learning Center

Constructing learning experiences with student input helps students grapple with the issues and challenges they see all around them, creating active engagement. The opportunities for authentic student engagement in this pedagogical approach are clear if rigor and relevance are built into curricula and projects. And community-based learning offers a vehicle for uniting the work of teachers and community partners in a meaningful way that can address issues of importance to the community.

Over the past three decades, we have witnessed increased attention to the role of real-world, community-engaged learning in strengthening the core instructional programs at many school sites. Our case study sites offer rich examples. An emphasis on real-world learning is fully integrated into the social justice education approach used at the UCLA Community School—an approach that involves teaching in the languages of the community and fostering democratic activism around local political and social issues, such as immigration rights. The focus of the debate program on issues that matter to students in the MS 50/El Puente partnership in New York City is key to the program’s success. And the activism of students at Highland High School in Albuquerque exemplifies what can happen when educators listen to student voices and orchestrate learning experiences rooted in local problem-solving.

A survey on student engagement for the 2021–2022 school year found that “while 81% of students in grades 6–12 said they want to do well in school, only 41% said they are interested in what they’re learning in school and just 45% said what they were learning in school is important to their futures” (Arundel, 2021). Done well, community-based learning has the potential to address the challenging problem of student engagement that teachers and schools experience.

Work to strengthen community. As Cincinnati’s Community Learning Centers illustrate, community schools can serve as catalysts for and drivers of community change. Cincinnati Public Schools explicitly recognizes this link when it states that “the goal of Community Learning Centers is to support student achievement while revitalizing neighborhoods and maximizing the community’s return on its investment in public schools” (Cincinnati Public Schools, n.d., “Support Student” section). Educators understand these relationships, as do the school’s many community partners, families, and community residents.

For too long the pressure of public policy with its narrow focus on test scores has pulled schools away from their crucial role as changemakers. The Oyler Community Learning Center in Cincinnati did not begin with a focus on employment and housing, but over time, it became clear that improving outcomes for students required attention to these issues as well. Community schools, with their deep partnerships and relationships, have the capacity to play this role. We urge all community school leaders and advocates to pursue this goal.

Continue to strengthen the Coalition for Community Schools. The Coalition for Community Schools (Coalition) has served as the major national vehicle for growing the community school movement since its founding by a partnership of Children’s Aid Society, Netter Center for Community Partnerships, and the Institute for Educational Leadership. Working with its founders and an ever-growing number of partners, the Coalition has helped bring the movement to this moment of opportunity. Movements do not succeed without a home. Nurturing the Coalition as the vehicle for joint action must remain a priority for the field.

Part of that nurturing involves deeper engagement with existing partners. Entities with cross-cutting community interests and capacity are particularly well suited to lead such efforts. For example, United Ways exist in nearly every U.S. community and their priorities are often well aligned with the work of community schools. Over the past two decades, several local United Ways—including Asheville-Buncombe County (NC), Buffalo (NY), Erie (PA), Lehigh Valley (PA), and Salt Lake (UT)—have provided excellent models of collaborative leadership by using their fundraising, grantmaking, research, planning, convening, and partnership expertise to create community school initiatives. With 1,400 chapters across the country and a united national focus on three issues—education, income, and health—that are well aligned with community schools, the United Way system seems well positioned to make community schools one of its preferred reform strategies. Community foundations, cities, and counties have similar capacity; some have already stepped up to support community schools. Others can do more.

Similarly, many other partners in the Coalition for Community Schools have potential to expand their ongoing efforts, including colleges and universities that function as anchor institutions in many communities; national, state, and local teachers unions; and professional associations such as the Council of Chief State School Officers, the School Superintendents Association (AASA), and the associations for elementary and secondary school principals.

Strengthening the Coalition should also entail continuing to engage new partners, particularly other networks and alliances that would bring like-minded players to the table. For example:

  • Ensuring high-quality school facilities. The Cincinnati, Florida, and Los Angeles case studies illustrate how community schools have emerged from school construction initiatives. The United States annually invests about $60 billion in school construction for new and refurbished facilities, too often following outmoded architectural and other planning models rather than envisioning schools as public facilities—as community schools. National school facilities innovators, including the 21st Century School Fund, Concordia Associates, and Reimagine Schools (a program of the National Design Alliance), are leaders in this space. By partnering with school facilities innovators, leaders in the community school movement can help ensure that new schools incorporate the principles and practices espoused throughout this volume.

  • Achieving fiscal equity in education. As noted earlier, nearly all states have been the subject of fiscal equity court challenges in recent years, in no small part because organizations such as the Education Law Center, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, and the Partnership for Equity and Educational Rights have challenged, often successfully, existing financing mechanisms that shortchange low-income schools. The potential in deepening this relationship is suggested by Michael Rebell (2012), leader of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, who asserted:

To overcome the impediments of poverty on children’s ability to achieve in an academic setting, disadvantaged children must be provided with comprehensive services alongside important school-based educational resources, including early childhood, health, after-school and other extended learning opportunities, and family supports.

This is the essence of community schools.

Beyond these efforts are others with similar values, such as the work of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning; the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice; the National Human Services Assembly; and the Child Welfare League of America. Building strong relationships with these and other groups offers these allies a broader base of support for their own work and strengthens the community school movement.

Develop a comprehensive framework for examining student progress and school performance. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) required states to add one non-academic measure of school progress to broaden their definitions of school quality and student success beyond those of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. New measures for quality and student success proposed by states under ESSA include reducing chronic absence or some measure of student and/or teacher attendance, college and career readiness, and school climate indicators (Wilkins, 2021). These new measures that states have chosen are an important step, but public schools need a data framework that is more comprehensive—one that recognizes the multiple forces and factors that impinge on student success.

The Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) offers a good example. It already includes a focus on education. According to HHS, “Social determinants of health are the conditions in the environment—in the places where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age—that affect a wide range of health functions and quality of life indicators and risks” (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, n.d.). Examples of SDOH cited by HHS include: (1) safe housing, transportation, and neighborhoods; (2) racism, discrimination, and violence; (3) education, job opportunities, and income; (4) access to nutritious foods and physical activity opportunities; (5) polluted air and water; (6) language and literacy skills. HHS and the U.S. Department of Education, working with their state counterparts, should examine how to use data on social determinants of health to increase equity in school settings. Examining these measures could contribute to the adoption of more comprehensive and integrated approaches to education, including community schools. These measures can also serve as a starting point for a community school to identify and work to improve the social determinants of health that negatively affect children and their families in a neighborhood.

Aggregate federal, state, and local resources. Growing community schools to their full potential will require an approach to financing that involves the aggregation of government support across multiple agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. Despite several past initiatives to foster interagency collaboration among federal agencies, these efforts never quite addressed the underlying difficulties faced by schools and communities that hold a comprehensive vision of education and well-being.

For public schools to function most effectively as vehicles for the kind of program alignment and integration that community schools represent, the work of governmental and nongovernmental agencies must be effectively coordinated and their funding must provide flexibility. This requires bringing funding to local community school efforts through new forms of interaction among federal, state, and local governments and among agencies at each level of government.

This is a necessary step, but it is not sufficient. New forms of interaction among the public, for-profit, and nonprofit sectors are also needed. Government would be a collaborating partner, helping to incentivize cooperation among all sectors of society to support and strengthen individuals, families, and communities. This approach involves adapting the work and resources of a wide variety of local institutions—universities, hospitals, human services agencies, faith-based organizations, and more—to the particular needs and resources of local communities. Government would serve as a powerful catalyst, largely by providing the funds needed to create and strengthen stable, ongoing, effective partnerships. (Harkavy, 1997)

The federal Full-Service Community Schools program, which emphasizes partnerships and collaboration around public schools, offers one such mechanism, as does state-level funding for community schools. As government seeks to address a range of issues that engage schools (e.g., mental health, obesity, violence), provisions requiring the kind of partnerships and collaborative culture found in community schools should be explicit and incorporated into the evaluation of proposals.

Final Observations: Pushback and Promise

As promising as these opportunities are, our country is witnessing a decided pushback against public education. Many constituents are angry that their public schools closed for long periods during and after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Concurrent with this pushback, the drive to address inequities in our public education system has been met with resistance and outright denial. The history of historically oppressed populations—including people of color, women, immigrants, and LGBTQ people—and discussions of achieving genuine equity for all have been outlawed, while related books, articles, and print materials have been pulled or banned from many public school curricula and libraries. These actions by state legislatures and local school boards run totally counter to our vision of community schools. They raise questions about, and pose challenges to, the potential of the nation’s public schools to be engines of democracy and social transformation.

Equally troubling is the national campaign to undermine and ultimately dismantle public education entirely, the not-so-hidden agenda of many well-funded alternatives, including the so-called “school choice” movement that includes vouchers, charter schools, and education savings accounts referenced in Chapter 1.

Entrance to Manzanita Community School in Oakland, California
Entrance to Manzanita Community School in Oakland, California
Courtesy of Oakland Unified School District

The final major challenge that concerns our team as we look to the future is whether American democracy itself will survive, a nearly unthinkable idea prior to January 6, 2021. The insurrection that day shocked us into recognizing not only the fragility of our electoral systems, but also the extent and depth of the determination of many of our fellow citizens to overturn democratic processes by autocratic, violent means.

In the aftermath of these events, the commitment and ability of community schools to activate local democratic participation seems more essential than ever. Our team has long advocated that the community school strategy has the potential to generate true democratic participation by placing schools at the center of local communities and inviting partners—including individual citizens, nonprofit organizations, organizing groups, teachers unions, and anchor institutions such as colleges and universities, United Ways, and community foundations—to share their ideas, skills, and resources. Now more than ever, with a deeply divided electorate and an often-toxic political environment, community schools may represent a strategy that can bring people together, build community, and even bridge ideological divides.

Community schools educate, engage, activate, and serve all members of the community. They are centers for collaboration across differences and forums for deliberation and decision-making. As such, they help create local democratic communities that are essential for democracy itself.

Community schools represent a true revolution and an idea whose time has come.

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