In a briefing on Capitol Hill Tuesday in Washington, D.C., educators highlighted a recent report that shows how community schools improve academics and student health while encouraging parents, business, and other community leaders to work together toward common goals.
“When you put your focus on children, community schools bring people and institutions together in a way that says, ‘let’s face this problem or issue together as partners,’” said Jose Munoz, director of the Coalition for Community Schools, an alliance of more than 200 national, state and local organizations, including NEA, dedicated to youth development, community planning and development, family support, health services, and philanthropy.
The study by researchers from the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) in conjunction with the National Education Policy Center found that community schools can serve as an evidence-based strategy for the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
“ESSA allows schools to leverage their own strengths,” said Alonzo Blankenship, a specialist for social and emotional learning from the Austin Independent School District in Texas. “It allows for more autonomy where school and community leaders can collaborate.”
A member of the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA), Blankenship was one of four educators who participated in the briefing.
“ESSA puts the power in state and local hands,” said Munoz. “It also gives states and districts greater responsibility for designing and implementing systems of school improvement.”
According to the study, policymakers should consider incorporating a community schools’ strategy into ESSA state plans.
By most definitions, a “community school” represents three separate ideas.
ESSA allows schools to leverage their own strengths. It allows for more autonomy where school and community leaders can collaborate.” – Alonzo Blankenship, Austin Independent School District.
First, it is a place, usually a public school location. Second: a partnership concept between a school and community resources. More recently, the idea of community schools is associated with a strategy in which community agencies and local government provide an integrated focus on a school’s academic performance, student health and social services.
Using public school locations as hubs, community schools bring together many partners to offer a range of support and opportunities to students, families, and others.
“Community schools vary in the programs they offer and the way they operate, depending on their local context,” said Anna Maier, LPI research and policy associate.
Maier said most community schools feature four pillars of support:
• Integrated student supports
• Expanded learning time and opportunities
• Family and community engagement
• Collaborative leadership and practices
“These pillars help to create a new, more collaborative way of doing business,” said Maier, who discussed the report during the briefing. “This is not a one-size-fits-all strategy.”
At NEA, six pillars for transformative, sustainable community schools are identified and used to not only start more community schools, but to strengthen existing ones. The additional pillars were added as educators, parents, and community leaders learned lessons about what works and what doesn’t in supporting community schools.
Because ESSA requires that federally funded interventions be evidence-based, Maier said the report assesses both research on community schools as a comprehensive strategy and research on each of the four pillars of the strategy.
“We summarized the findings and evaluated the studies against ESSA’s criteria for evidence-based interventions,” she said. “We concluded that the evidence supports well-implemented community schools being included as part of targeted and comprehensive interventions in high-poverty schools, for example.”
“The community school model is evidence-based and should be funded,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who spoke at the event.
“We need to make sure there is sufficient funding to continue the current program,” he said. Panelists discussed ways in which Congress can support community schools through funding and other legislation.
The report found that community schools operating for more than five years had fewer chronically absent students. In Baltimore, Md., students in sixth through eighth grade were 48 percent less likely to be chronically absent.
“It’s not just about academics,” said Shanelle England, community school director from Forest Park High School in Baltimore. “We look at the child as a whole, as someone who might be homeless or abused at home.”
Joining England on the panel from Forest Park was twelfth-grade student Camilla Gavin, who said she and her peers appreciate having a voice at the school.
“Ask your students what they need,” she said. “We know.”
England stressed the importance of having student views on academic instruction, extracurricular activities, and other components that affect school culture.
“We need to listen to the voices of young people,” she said.
Students “don’t live in a vacuum,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers and vice president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “Community schools gives us the opportunity to align those things … academic, health, and social services.”
Capo works with a city-wide community schools model.
“We have to consider the holistic approach at the community level,” he said. “So that we are not duplicating services at the school level.”
The researchers found that it is important to involve the community, parents, and young people as part of any needs assessment, design, planning, and implementation process. ESSA requires it, and, in the case of community schools, such collaborative relationships are part of what will make the strategy successful, according to the report.