In January, the Southern Education Foundation reported that a majority of the nation’s public school students come from low-income families – 51% is the national average with many states experiencing higher rates. The implications of educating a majority-poverty population are complex and are increasingly felt by teachers, principals, and district and community leaders across the country. We know that low-income children have less access to early childhood and enrichment opportunities than their middle- and upper-class peers. And for a growing pool of too many, food security, emotional and physical health, housing, and other essentials are lacking.
Districts with student poverty rates soaring above the national average are turning to a community school model to try and address these challenges. Last summer, New York City superintendent Bill de Blasio announced a grant program to launch community schools in the city’s high-need areas, falling in line behind other urban districts including Oakland, Baltimore, and Cincinnati.
Community schools are not new – the Coalition for Community Schools has been promoting and studying them for decades. The goal of a community school is to leverage district and partner resources to integrate academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement, resulting in thriving students, families, and communities.
This approach may seem tangential to many of today’s reform priorities – we know that great teaching and school leadership account for a sizable share of the student success puzzle. And much of our work is understandably focused there. But as schools serve more and more students from low-income families, non-academic factors can’t be ignored – and teachers, schools, and districts need help addressing them. Integrating student and family supports in schools is becoming less of a nice-to-do and more of a prerequisite to learning.
For the past five months, Cross & Joftus has worked with Tulsa Public Schools to examine their decades-old approach to community schools and suggest ways to strengthen it. We’ve found there, as we expect we might find in other places, that the community schools strategy has been implemented as a distinct initiative, parallel to but on the periphery of the district’s core instructional improvement work aimed at creating successful teachers, leaders, and students.
The district and its community and philanthropic partners want to change that, making sure that the services and supports students receive are tightly connected to individual student needs and the core work of schools and the district. What that looks like exactly is to be determined – with support from C&J, a group of community stakeholders are developing a strategic plan for accomplishing that goal. But for NYC and others interested in a full-service school model, Tulsa will be a place to watch.
Learn more about C&J’s School, District, and State System Improvement practice.