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More than reading and writing

Community schools seek to meet more student needs

Children at Tracy Elementary School, part of the Baldwin Park Unified School District, run across a field as they take part in after-school exercise activities. Associated Press/Photo by Reed Saxon, file

More than reading and writing

After describing community schools’ work at a Los Angeles conference in June, conference organizers fielded a question from members of a Kentucky organization. The community school idea sounded like their work in Kentucky, so should they be calling their schools community schools? “You don’t have to change the name,” Coalition for Community Schools director Jose Munoz said the organizers told the group. “But yes.”

Community schools are growing in popularity, with extra attention in areas like California, Philadelphia, and New York City, but exact numbers don’t yet exist—in part because a universal definition of “community school” is also nonexistent. While community school proponents stress a school’s support for a student’s full needs, education experts point out that the schools may be taking on more than they can handle.

Community schools often incorporate a wide range of social services into their work. Free ESL classes for non-English speaking parents. Assistance with rent money. Maybe a dental hygienist on site twice a week. Harlem Children’s Zone, a community school charter network, has fitness centers and community centers for its families and also provides help with tasks like tax preparation or neighborhood clean-up and gardening.

Community school supporters say the approach is more a strategy than a model or program.

Munoz said the community school idea is often attributed to John Dewey in the early 1900s. Dewey, a liberal education reformer, pushed for schools as community centers in a time when industrialization threatened to disrupt community connections.

Coalition for Community Schools set a pre-COVID goal of 25,000 community schools by 2025. Munoz said some estimate the current number to be around 7,500, but like the schools from Kentucky, many schools already operate as community schools without realizing it. The coalition is working toward calculating a more accurate number.

While there is not yet a widely accepted definition of a community school, the coalition looks for two key characteristics. First, Munoz said: “Are you building upon the voices of children and family members and coordinating the opportunities for them, for students to be well-off, parents to be stronger, and your community to be more vibrant?” Secondly, does the school employ a community coordinator to organize community resources for students and families?

This focus on local student and family needs results in a hyperlocal approach to school decision making, with school officials asking parents, students, and teachers about what their goals are before determining what obstacles need to be overcome.

Sometimes that troubleshooting will involve extra programs.

Ian Rowe, senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, oversaw a public charter school network in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City from 2010 to 2020. He said that about 2,000 primarily low-income students attended the schools, with almost 5,000 students on the waiting list. The schools were not called community schools, Rowe said, but followed some of the same strategies.

When school leaders realized that many students were missing school due to asthma-related health issues, they worked with an asthma-focused organization to find ways to assist students, even helping with legal support for families whose landlords refused to address mold problems. Rowe said they decided to approach the asthma concerns because of how many students’ school days were affected, but he has concerns about trends toward expecting schools to address more and more nonacademic student needs. “We’re a school first—that is a big enough assignment as it is,” he said. “To the degree that we do community service–related activities, that’s through partnerships and with experts, but not trying to bring that in-house.”

Hayin Kimner, managing director of the Community Schools Learning Exchange, said that the pandemic has fueled greater interest in community schools, largely because of how traditional school relationships were interrupted: “What we do know is that those schools that had invested in stronger relationships between teachers and parents, for example, it was much easier to sort of assess how families were doing.”

Those relationships, Kimner said, are key. While services play a role in community schools’ work, relationships and trust are more important. “Those services are just services,” she said. A school needs relationships and trust, Kimner added, “to make sure that those things are not just doing things to people, but rather this idea that we’re doing things together.”

A 2020 Rand study looked at New York City’s community schools from 2014 to the end of the 2017-18 school year. Researchers found some improvement in students’ attendance, math scores, and graduation rates, though most gains were marked by caveats. Only one of three years showed improved math scores (and none showed significantly higher reading scores), disciplinary incident rates only improved in elementary and middle schools, and only two out of three years showed improved graduation rates.

Growing interest in community schools makes sense, said Brandon Wright, editorial director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, as many are realizing how nonacademic factors can affect student learning, particularly among underserved or disadvantaged populations. Utilizing a community school approach can be effective because community members are more familiar with local needs than state or federal policymakers would be.

At the same time, Wright said, the renewed interest is surprising: “American schools tend to already do so much,” he said, adding that when schools shut down due to COVID-19, students missed out on more than academics. Going forward, Wright said community school proponents should be looking at how to address needs at times when these services are harder to provide. He also warned that schools could be less effective at meeting some problems than organizations that focus on those issues.

Munoz said that the community school approach has support from blue states like California as well as red states like Florida. In 2009, the first appropriations for full-service community schools were set at $5 million, while last month’s budget draft from the U.S. House of Representatives set the number at $468 million. While the Biden administration has embraced community schools in its goals, Munoz said the movement needs to guard against becoming political: “This has to remain about children and young people.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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