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.
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.