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.