Community schools have been an effective school improvement strategy for over a century, implemented in both urban and rural areas across the country -- yet many people have never heard of this dynamic approach to school design. Whole districts have invested in this model over the past several decades, from Oakland to New York City, from Duluth, Minnesota to Tulsa, Oklahoma. California recently approved $2.8 billion in the 2022 fiscal year budget for the implementation of community schools across the state. At the federal level, according to a recent Forbes article, the Biden administration proposes $443 million for the Full-Service Community Schools program in the 2022 fiscal year, a large increase from the current budget.
So what ARE community schools and why the mega investment in this strategy now?
Schools are often the center of our lives, an integral part of a thriving and resilient community. As amplified by the pandemic, our society relies on schools to meet a myriad of basic needs for both students and their families. Schools have become central in reducing food insecurity, providing access to basic mental health, and health care services for example. But schools cannot do this on their own, they need community partners to achieve this reality. Community schools are a school design framework that I believe has the most promise for achieving equity and creating ecosystems where all children, families, and staff thrive.
Community schools explicitly serve as the ‘hub’ of a community ecosystem. Carefully and purposefully integrating community supports to improve student outcomes (academic, health, and social-emotional) with a ‘whole child’ mindset. They form strategic and aligned partnerships with community organizations to serve the needs of children and families that are part of that school community. They are often open extended hours and on weekends, facilitating access to community services and extended learning opportunities. Community schools empower youth and families through authentic power-sharing as well as placing a high value on youth voice and community wisdom. This integrated focus not only improves student outcomes, it also contributes to building stronger families and healthy communities.
In my previous position prior to PACEs Connection, I supported the implementation of community schools here in Los Angeles. It is a movement near and dear to my heart. It aligns closely with the PACEsConnection values of
‘Local Relevance-We believe people and their communities hold the solutions to prevent, address and heal adverse childhood experiences’ and
‘Equitable Partners. All levels of society in all sectors — individuals, organizations, communities, and systems — are equitable partners, essential to identifying and implementing solutions.’
Although the model does not usually explicitly address the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences (PACEs science), community schools are meant to support the ‘whole child’ and their family. They are typically community supported environments that are trauma-informed spaces which foster conditions for the buffering effects of PCE’s (positive childhood experiences), resilience, and healing. This report from the Learning Policy Institute directly connects the community school concept of integrated supports as part of a trauma-informed approach to combat ACEs in a community.
"The reason we point out that a specific framework does not usually include PACEs science," says PACEs Connection Founder and Publisher Jane Stevens, "is that we believe that explicitly including knowledge about the science provides a solid foundation from which to build and will help schools achieve their goals to successfully put into place practices and policies that are trauma-informed and healing-centered."
There are several definitions describing the framework and purpose of community schools, including:
This fact sheet from the national Coalition for Community Schools
This video from the Partnership for the Future of Learning
These four pillars from The Learning Policy Institute.
The definition that aligns most closely with my experience implementing the community school model and supporting the values of “whole school, whole child” is this from the Community Schools Learning Exchange:
“A community school reflects a ‘whole child’ school improvement strategy where districts and their schools work closely with teachers, students and families, and partner with community agencies and local government to align community resources behind improving student outcomes…
“Effective community school strategies must be fundamentally rooted in and relevant to the core teaching and learning practices of classrooms and schools. Students, families, teachers, and community partners are essential to a collective and collaborative approach to supporting student and school success. Community schools strengthen human relationships and reform inadequate education practices and policies to achieve meaningful, equitable, and sustainable change for school communities. To that end, community schools reorganize the structures, resources, relationships and practices of schooling by explicitly leveraging the expertise of students, families, teachers and partners to design and implement:
Engaging and high-quality teaching
Safe and inclusive classroom and school climate
Integrated support services and enrichment opportunities
Active engagement and empowerment of students and families
Sustainable and distributed site-based leadership, and organizational practices that prioritize equity.”
As with any dynamic and community driven approach, no two community schools look alike. This is as it should be. We want our community schools to reflect the unique needs of our students and their families, to be responsive as the needs of the community evolve. Because of this, there is no manual, checklist, or one-size-fits-all approach to transforming a school into a community school.
But fortunately, because this model is not new, we have plenty of research and evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach. There also are many supports to share lessons learned and best practices that can illuminate the way forward.
Successful implementation of an integrated community school model has shown to reduce absenteeism, improve school culture and climate, reduce the opportunity gap, increase graduation and college acceptance rates, improve school readiness for the youngest in our communities, and increase authentic family engagement among other desired outcomes. All these benefits mentioned above have been proven to increase academic outcomes for youth.
The Learning Policy Institute’s Community Schools project, in partnership with the National Education Policy Center, compiled this review of the evidence not only making a strong case for why we should support community schools but also synthesizing findings from 143 research studies on the impact of community schools on student and school outcomes. In 2016 The Center for Popular Democracy, the Coalition for Community Schools, and the Southern Education Foundation published Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools Into Thriving Schools, highlighting evidence of the success of this model across the country. This report includes an excellent overview of eight community schools and does a fantastic job of telling their stories and giving the reader a real sense of why there is so much support behind this approach.
Here are some resources on establishing and funding community schools:
The Coalition for Community Schools and the Partnership for the Future of Learning provides one set of guidelines via the Community Schools Playbook.
There are several reports providing guidance on how to fund the development of a community school, specifically in the time of COVID, including this set of FAQs from the U.S. Department of Education and this fact sheet, Investing in Community Schools: How States and Districts Can Use Federal Recovery Funds Strategically, from the Learning Policy Institute.
PACE (Policy Analysis for California Education) recently published both a policy and practice brief on designing Healing-Centered Community School Strategies. (The use of healing-centered language aligns perfectly with PACEs Connection’s new infographic guiding us towards a Just Society.)
These excellent guides from PACE encourage us to courageously reimagine our schools and their place in the community. They clearly lay out foundational practices and core values, grounded in racial justice and equity. The practice brief concludes with this:
“Community school systems and practices can be much more than reactive attempts to control or mitigate factors outside school or to reduce the symptomatology of an unjust society. Being healing-centered is a necessary extension and expansion of trauma-informed practices, with a prevailing focus on long-term disruption of the practices and daily interactions that can create systematic disengagement for so many students, families, and communities, … Proactive and transformative healing-centered community schools must reimagine the foundational practices of teaching and learning environments to reflect more functionally the human, social, and relational realities of students, educators, families, and communities.”
I couldn’t agree more.