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Community Schools

"... support services going well beyond the classroom"

by Pedro Noguera and John Lyons
New York, New York

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera.

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A community school -- sometimes referred to as a full-service school --is a school that strives to address the needs of the “whole child” (e.g. intellectual, psychological, physical and emotional development) by situating itself within a network of partnerships to offer a complete range of wraparound support services. The Coalition for Community Schools, a national alliance of organizations and schools engaging in this work, defines a community school as “both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources.” Each community school partnership is a network of school faculty and staff, parents, and organizations within the community, working together to assess and respond to the various needs of the school’s students through social services, physical and mental health services, extended-day educational services and adult education programs.

Historically, the notion that schools should be able to respond to a broad range of student needs has existed for over a century with its early roots tied to the reforms championed by Jane Addams and John Dewey. However, the strategic approach most often understood today as the community school approach began in the early 1990s with several initiatives across the United States to develop community schools within high poverty neighborhoods. The impetus behind this more recent resurgence is an attempt to ameliorate the effects of poverty through a wide range of support services going well beyond the classroom. The rationale of this approach is that the social problems generally associated with poverty such as poor health, unstable housing, and inadequate preparation for school stand as a barrier to students’ academic success, and limit the ability of schools to play a role in breaking the cycle of poverty. Current theories of community schools posit that schools and their community partners can mitigate the relationship between poverty and student achievement indirectly by addressing the deleterious effects of poverty in those students’ lives. Community schools aim to achieve these goals by building mutually beneficial and supportive relationships across schools, community organizations and families to bring together community partners that can provide access to needed supports.

The Community School Approach

There is not one model for what could be described as a community school. This diversity is intentional and can be attributed to the needs of the community that each school serves and the nature of the founding partnership that supports the school. Though there are many different approaches to the formation of community schools, all strive to place the school and its students at the center of a network of support. Some community schools are born out of school or local community initiatives to improve the school(s). Others are created when a community-based organization decides to marry its services with a school to offer a variety of on-site support services. Other community schools are developed through university-community partnership networks in which a large established university takes on the responsibility of improving schooling and community. A community school can be created as a new school but is more often created from a pre-existing traditional school (occasionally as part of a turnaround strategy) in an effort to address unmet student needs and improve academic outcomes.

Regardless of their structure, community schools tend to share three aims: (1) to provide rigorous, quality instruction; (2) to offer a comprehensive array of supportive services to children and their families; and, (3) to build lasting relationships across schools, families and communities. Most community schools also have a dedicated staff member in place to oversee the day-to-day operations of the school. Usually this person is a licensed social worker who works very closely with the school’s principal to ensure that the social services, physical and mental health services and extended learning activities are well integrated into the school’s core instructional and administrative structure.

Despite the generally agreed upon need for schools of teacher education to provide formal support for pre-service teachers around the social, cultural and linguistic needs of their students, most schools of education offer inadequate preparation for teachers to understand and respond to the needs of their students from a strengths-based approach. Many community schools offer their staff professional development on how to engage families and communities and draw upon their strengths.

In addition to supporting and educating teachers, successful community schools continually work to engage and educate families in the school’s day-to-day work and decision-making processes. Parents are invited to visit regularly and if they have the time, volunteer in schools. The schools also respond to the needs of the parents offering classes such as adult education for high school equivalency diplomas, English for Speakers of Other Languages, and financial literacy.

Of course, community school partnerships fall across a broad spectrum of development from loose systems of informal support that aim to encourage improved student learning to highly formalized and codified community schools with a wide range of community supports designed to undergird student learning by providing support to students and their families. An established, well-funded community school might offer all possible supports and services at a high level of fidelity while a school just adopting the a community school approach might only be able to offer a few services and have to rely more heavily on volunteers.

How Community Schools Work to Attenuate The Impacts of Poverty

In addition to financial costs that work against poor families striving to support their children along their educational path, educational economists often discuss what they term opportunity costs. Better-educated, wealthier parents are able to offer their children myriad more opportunities to succeed in life than less-educated, poor parents. Some of these opportunities are easily monetized, such as: access to better healthcare, a stable housing situation, and educational and extracurricular activities outside of school. Other opportunities are more difficult to value with a dollar amount, these include: access to more academic language and discourse at home, examples of family members and friends who have achieved high levels of education, and complex social networks that offer expertise in a wide range of fields. Simply because of the life they were born into, poor kids are often less prepared for success in school and their later careers. Research finds that youth from low-income backgrounds suffer these opportunity costs and generally achieve at lower levels than their more advantaged peers.

Community school partnerships aim to reconcile the relationship between socioeconomic status and academic achievement by providing a full complement of supportive services that extend well beyond the regular school day schedule. To accommodate these services, most community schools are open from early in the morning until late in the evening and open on weekends as well.

Research tells us that people from lower income backgrounds are more likely to experience health challenges, including chronic diseases such as diabetes and asthma, poor nutrition, and lack of access to quality healthcare. To address these difficulties, some schools are able to situate medical and mental health offices within their school buildings. Other community schools build relationships with medical centers and arrange health, dental and vision screenings at the school for children and their families when possible. Additionally, many community schools offer nutrition classes for parents and children to introduce healthy and affordable meal options that they can prepare at home.

The Importance of Early Intervention

Several different disciplines of research on child and brain development point to the importance of supporting children’s development from early childhood. Poor children are the most likely to not receive these needed supports. Research tells us that by the time an average child living in poverty starts school, he or she is already at a disadvantage as compared to his or her more affluent peers. Furthermore, these students are frequently at a high risk of eventually dropping out of school. For these reasons, many community school advocates argue that programs focused on elementary and preschool education can have the greatest interventional effect in helping to bridge the achievement gap and better engage students from low-income communities.

Research on traditional schooling shows that the achievement gap continues to grow after children enter school. Community schools argue that one major cause of this is chronic absenteeism. Community schools have many procedures in place to improve student attendance. By tracking student attendance regularly and on an individual basis and engaging parents and partners in the solutions, community school partnerships can be successful in improving and then maintaining regular attendance at school.

Another contributor to the achievement gap that community schools are well positioned to address is summer learning loss. A great deal of research has shown that over their summer vacation all children lose academic knowledge with losses significantly larger for students from poor communities. By embracing models that keep their school open year-round with a host of programs to engage students over the summer, community schools work to ameliorate summer learning loss.

Financing the Community School Approach

Not surprisingly, maintaining a wide host of programs to support a community school can require a substantial monetary investment. Funding to support community schools comes in a great many forms. Most often community schools are public or charter schools. Since they are aiming to serve students in low-income communities, charging for services is not an option. Fortunately, several federal, state and local funding streams support community school approaches. Additionally, many private foundations fund community school partnership work. The partnership approach offers a structure that offers stability against fluctuations in funding. More recent years have seen more cities investing in community school models. Any large-scale community school initiative requires a public commitment if they are to remain sustainable. A major goal for all community school partnerships, as their programs grow and mature, is to find sustainable funding approaches.

Published in In Motion Magazine March 25, 2016.

This a re-reprint of a previously published article, published with Pedro Noguera's permission.

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