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Fifty years after the Coleman Report highlighted vast achievement gaps between students from low-income and more affluent communities, those gaps remain nearly as large as when Coleman and his team first published their findings. Even our best attempts at improving student outcomes through increased academic rigor have not yielded results at scale, particularly for students with unmet social, emotional, and physical needs. With child poverty rates trending up (a majority of the nation’s public school students now come from low-income families) and achievement gaps persisting, it’s clearly time to broaden our focus and adopt a more comprehensive approach to addressing the essential needs of our students.

The new Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA), with its focus on a well-rounded education, provides an opportunity to significantly alter the way we think about and deliver a wide range of the supports and services—afterschool programs, health and mental health services, mentoring, etc.—that research shows are critical to educational success and to closing opportunity gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers. ESSA’s focus on a more comprehensive approach is further buttressed by the inclusion of a non-academic indicator as part of state accountability systems.

What if states and districts took this opportunity to make every Title I school a community school?

Community school strategies, and their focus on bring a diverse set of supports and services into schools to improve educational outcomes, are well aligned with the new law’s vision for a well-rounded education. Making all Title I schools community schools would ensure that we are translating this vision into action for our students most in need of supports. And there is a growing base of research and practice related to community schools to build upon; lessons from states, districts and cities where community schools are gaining traction and showing results can guide this strategy.

While making good on the intent of the law, this approach would also help to satisfy several of its requirements, including conducting a needs assessment, something that community schools regularly do; strengthening partnerships with other public and private organizations to bring in more resources and expand opportunities, another feature of community schools; and engaging families, a community schools’ cornerstone.

So how might this work? 

Language related to “a well-rounded education” is woven throughout the new legislation and appears in all of the major Title programs. ESSA also provides many options for using federal funding to support community schools. New flexibility in Title I from the recapture of SIG resources; the new Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant; and Title IV (Safe and Healthy Students Programs) can all contribute to a community school strategy and some of its associated services. State Education Agencies can also help to smooth the way with other state agencies—health, mental health, juvenile justice—to bring more programs, services and opportunities to schools, promoting a richer set of educational experiences and better outcomes for more students.

This is not to suggest that making every Title I school a community school would be an easy undertaking or a quick fix. According the National Center for Education Statistics, in school year 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available), there were just under 49,000 Title I schools. This represents about half of the almost 99,000 public school across the country. While it is unclear exactly how many community schools currently exist (NCES does not collect this data), a 2014 Child Trends study reported that there were less than 3,000 schools with programs that provide integrated student supports. This leaves more than 45,000 Title I schools where implementing a community schools model or approach would be new.

Additionally, if the education community has learned anything from recent reform experiences, it is that major changes—whether implementing a turnaround model or a new teacher evaluation system—require buy-in from those who will be involved in or affected by the change. The same holds true for becoming a community school; school leaders and staff, students, families and the community must embrace the shift. In addition to the need to garner stakeholder support, we have also learned that real reform takes planning, resources, time, patience, supports, and the adoption of a continuous improvement process that allows the reform to grow and improve as it adjusts to the needs and demands of particular communities.

With all of this in mind, I suggest a strategy that starts by engaging those districts and schools that are interested in making their Title I schools community schools and building from there. More specifically, states and districts could create new processes to identify districts and schools that will receive support to adopt a community schools’ strategy and hold them accountable for doing so by collecting a specified set of data and assessing progress. The districts could then build implementation plans that take full advantage of the new law and will sustain the strategy long into the future. This also creates opportunities to engage community partners—another requirement of the new law. States could further promote this process by developing frameworks that districts could adopt for establishing community schools and providing technical support, drawing from resources and lessons from community school pioneers like those in Tulsa, New York City and Oakland to name a few. Support organizations like the Coalition for Community Schools and the National Center for Community Schools and program models like Communities in Schools and Say Yes to Education can also inform this process.

From where I stand, when it comes to providing students with the range of supports and services that we know are necessary for success, the stars have just aligned. With ESSA we have the ability to make every Title I school a community school and make some real progress on closing opportunity and achievement gaps across the country. At C&J, we welcome the opportunity to support any state or district that is willing to take the leap.

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Author(s): Sharon Deich