Across the country, more districts and cities are declaring their intention to adopt and/or deepen their support for community schools as a way to bring additional resources into schools to support the health, mental health and social emotional goals of students. In Newark, NJ, for instance, the mayor has promised to open additional community schools across the city, and in Oakland, CA, community schools are at the center of district improvement strategies. The recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), provides additional catalysts for adopting and growing community schools, including:
- The specification of wraparound services as allowable expenditures under Title I; and
- New accountability measures that focus more broadly on the well-being of students.
What is new and, in our view, particularly promising about many of these efforts is the wider-ranging and deeper approach that school districts are taking in organizing and implementing their community schools strategies. In the past, district supports for community schools were often quite limited; in many places the role of the district involved granting leeway to individual schools that were choosing to adopt a community school model either by using their own resources or with support from an outside partner or funder. More recently, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of districts that are investing in staff and other resources to grow and support community schools. Some notable examples include Tulsa, OK, where the district is working to ensure that in every school the services and supports students receive are connected to the core work of the district; Baltimore, MD, where the district, in partnership with the Family League (a well-respected non-profit partner) is rapidly scaling up community schools across the city; New York, NY, where the district is now using community schools as part of its turnaround strategy; and Richmond, CA, where community schools are helping the district to expand offerings that meet the needs and interests of more students.
It is also clear that if these districts and others are to succeed in scaling community schools they will need support to expand capacities at the district and school levels. For instance, we are seeing that, when it comes to implementing community schools, many districts are hungry for guidance and support on:
How to organize their resources (people, time and money) to take full advantage of community school operations; how to tie community school strategies to educational goals; and how to create financing strategies that blend public and private funds from multiple sources. This includes support for reviewing and revising district policies and practices to reduce barriers and promote, strengthen and sustain community school models.
Supporting principals and teachers to embrace and take full advantage of a broader set of resources. This includes new professional development opportunities for principals and teachers (and superintendents) to enhance the effectiveness of community schools. Districts are also looking for opportunities to work with and learn from other districts and to support cross-school networks to collaborate and share their experiences with community schools.
Aligning in-school and out-of-school supports. A key feature of many community schools is afterschool programming. Districts are looking for ideas and opportunities to better connect in-school and out-of-school learning, including programming provided by community partners. They are also looking for ideas and strategies for financing the expansion of successful afterschool programming.
Working effectively with community partners. One of the largest challenges districts report is developing and implementing effective processes for identifying community partners and a framework for negotiating new partnerships. Here, too, districts are hungry to hear from their peers about how they are addressing the issue.
Bringing coherence to multiple reform efforts. In some districts, a key reason for adopting a community school approach is to create connections and coherence between multiple initiatives that often reside in the non-instructional side of the house – like afterschool, counseling and mentoring – with instructional goals. In this way, the school can become a hub for multiple services and service providers, making it easier for families to access services and making these services easier to track. Specifically, districts are interested in understanding how various approaches are implemented in different types and sizes of schools and districts.
Documenting progress and demonstrating the results of their investments. In an age of ever-increasing scrutiny, districts are looking for tested ways to measure progress and results. In some cases, districts are looking for measures of progress that align with state data collection activities. Others are looking to align progress measures with district priorities. Here too, districts are eager to learn from one another.
With more and more districts declaring their interest in implementing community schools, the urgency for new resources and supports is apparent. Over the past several decades, many foundations have made significant investments in community schools. These initial investments laid the groundwork for the expansion that is now underway. New investments that focus on helping districts deeply connect services and supports with the instructional core and provide opportunities for districts and schools to work together and learn from each other have the potential to take this work to the next level and make a difference in the lives of many more students.
Districts and schools across the country are working to promote deeper learning among students, which in many places requires a fundamental rethinking of school design. Making this shift can seem overwhelming, but several resources, including an example set by San Jose Unified School District, offer a solid place to start.
What is “deeper learning”?
Deeper learning, a term coined by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, means teaching students to use their knowledge and skills in a way that prepares them for real life by mastering core academic content. Students learn to think critically, collaborate, communicate effectively, direct their own learning, and believe in themselves. The six deeper learning competencies are: Master Core Academic Content; Think Critically and Solve Complex Problems; Work Collaboratively; Communicate Effectively; Learn How to Learn; and Develop an Academic Mindset.
Taken together, these competencies result in students’ ability to use and apply what they have learned. They also align with the skills and competencies around which other efforts—21st century skills, the Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, College and Career Readiness and others—are based.
How are schools designing programs to promote deeper learning?
Last year, the Hewlett Foundation and the Silicon Valley Foundation supported Cross & Joftus, in partnership with the Enterprise Development Group and The Institute for the Future, to help school leaders and teachers in San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) re-envision and redesign their schools to prepare students for the 21st century. Schools designed programs that would change the very core of teaching. Their approaches use technology to personalize learning; activate learning through a model of inquiry or student-centered teaching strategies; and institute group work in which students help each other learn.
When I reviewed the various plans, I was struck by how consistent the proposed strategies and practices were with the strategies most common across the SJUSD school redesign proposals I examined and profiled in my book, Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools are Transforming Education in the 21st Century (2014). These practices include empowering students as learners; contextualizing knowledge so it is coherent; connecting learning to real-world experiences; extending learning beyond the school; inspiring students by customizing learning experiences; and purposefully incorporating technology to enhance, rather than automate, learning.
How can every school develop and implement a redesign plan that enables teachers to focus on and develop the six deeper learning competencies?
From a national perspective, one of the greatest challenges is bringing deeper learning policies and practices to underserved communities. While all students can benefit from deeper learning opportunities, students in underserved communities are less likely to have these opportunities. One program that is working to expand access to deeper learning is the Deeper Learning Equity Fellows, a cohort-based leadership program working to provide equitable access to deeper learning.
At the school level, one resource designed to help school leaders and teachers create an environment in which teachers can design learning experiences around deeper learning competencies is The Planning Guide. The Guide is grounded in the theory that the first step toward this goal is to develop a school-wide culture that promotes students’ learning and collective responsibility for the school.
Collective responsibility doesn’t happen by accident; a culture of collective responsibility must be purposefully established for students and teachers alike. For students, this can mean developing community through advisories, peer-to-peer mentorships, group work, and community-wide events. For teachers, collective responsibility is established through opportunities to function as professionals with a high level of autonomy, to share in the leadership of the school, to direct and design their own professional development, and to work together collaboratively.
Districts’ role in Redesigning Schools for the 21st Century
While creating a culture that lays the foundation for school redesign seems to fall on school leaders and teachers, districts also have a role to play. SJUSD has modeled this well. The district set a vision for 21st century schools grounded in the six deeper learning competencies and incentivized schools to reorient towards those competencies. Through philanthropic and district funds, the district ran a funding competition for schools to establish a proof of concept to transform teaching in 2015 and created a clear path for broader implementation in the 2016-17 school year. The district provided each funded team with an experienced advisor to push the school’s thinking, provided access to networks and expertise, and provided project management and change management coaching.
SJUSD is a shining example of how a district can tap into the passion of school leaders and teachers and provide support without the use of top-down mandates. The district showed that school transformation is truly an iterative process that can be catalyzed and accelerated when there is district-wide support for a culture of innovation and when school leaders are committed to establishing a strong school culture focused on learning and collective responsibility.