How the community school model can help your district forge a better future

The winning "all hands on deck" formula aligns outside support for mental health and other non-academic needs with inside support for strong academic outcomes.

California is placing a $3 billion bet on the potential power of the community schools model to solve the urgent student needs that have been amplified by the pandemic. This model, which a growing number of districts have been adopting, embeds health, dental, therapeutic and other family support services in school buildings where they are most accessible to students.

Community schools may also empower education leaders to meet this post-COVID moment as they try to remove the longstanding social and emotional hurdles that have held students back. The model should also help administrators build on the “all hands on deck” momentum of the pandemic when nonprofits and businesses acted quickly to shore up the services provided by K-12, says Robin Lake, a researcher and director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education think tank at Arizona State University.

“This is a marriage that aligns outside supports for mental health and other non-academic needs with inside support for strong academic outcomes,” Lake says. Many afterschool programs, for example, have begun offering more extensive tutoring and mentoring. “All of that just appeared overnight, and it’s now a latent asset that’s sitting out there waiting,” she adds.

Some $649 million in grants have already been distributed to under-resourced districts by the California Community Schools Partnership Program. The grants will fund technical assistance to bolster K-12 leaders’ ongoing efforts to partner with community agencies and local governments to provide wraparound academic, health and social services. California’s community schools initiative prioritizes extended learning time and the inclusion of teachers, families and other stakeholders in decision-making.

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The framework also supports districts in adopting racially just restorative practices and culturally relevant instruction. “Schools in communities with high rates of poverty, homelessness and food insecurity lack the funds to address student mental health issues, improve wellness, and support learning recovery,” California State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond said. “Well-resourced community schools have the potential to transform students’ lives and improve the well-being of families, thus uplifting entire communities.”

The model is reaching its potential in communities where it has been adopted, according to a study by the Learning Policy Institute, of which Darling-Hammond is the president and CEO. Longer school days, enriching after-school activities and family engagement programs have improved attendance, behavior, academic achievement and positive school climates.

Lake, at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, has been studying Proyecto Vimenti, a community charter school in Puerto Rico where 98% of students live below the poverty level. Under the school’s “two-generation” model, families who are admitted to the school participate in an interview process where school personnel collect information such as sociodemographic data and family composition.

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Case managers develop socio-emotional learning plans for each student and embed those skills into the curriculum. All students are screened for vision, hearing, hunger, and asthma. In the first year, the school found that almost 50% of students needed glasses. The school also categorizes all adults in the families they serve as vulnerable, moderate or stable. After involvement with the school, fewer adults landed in the vulnerable category, Lake’s research found.

Creating a community school is a long-term project that requires educators to forge strong relationships with their community partners and track outcomes to determine the most successful elements of the initiative. Lake cautions that creating community schools is likely a less complicated endeavor in urban and suburban areas with lots of resources compared to more isolated rural communities.

“We’ve too long ignored mental health, social services, health care and family financial stability as dynamics around education,” Lake says.”With the amount of funds that are now in front of so many school districts, it’s really worth an assessment about what makes sense.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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