BY ABEL MCDANIELS
Last month, teachers from Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest school system, went on strike for nine days. Among their demands were community schools.
A community school intentionally organizes school and community resources to support student success. These schools stay open well beyond 3pm, the typical end to a school day, and engage students and their families in meaningful extended learning and enrichment programming. They proactively engage parents and build their capacity to support their children’s learning. School staff also help connect families with physical or mental health services and provide some form of case management. Ultimately, this collaboration supports deep ties between parents, community members, and educators.
To some, these activities may seem too removed from a school’s core function of providing instruction. But to the contrary, a community school strategy makes it possible for under-resourced, overwhelmed public schools to function more like schools in affluent communities. In fact, more than 5,000 schools – just 5 percent of schools nationwide – have adopted a community schools strategy. The most successful ones have closed the achievement gap between low income students and their more affluent peers.
Rather than being an innovative exception in a few communities, the community schools strategy should inform how public education is delivered in the United States. Although the work is locally driven, federal and state leaders have a role in putting the community schools strategy in reach for every school, especially those serving disadvantaged communities.
At nearly every level of government, education policies have failed to adequately address the effect of concentrated disadvantage on schools’ capacity to serve students well. Communities of concentrated poverty, usually defined as areas where at least 40 percent of residents are poor, tend to have weak access to formal labor markets and often struggle with high unemployment, violence, and a lack of access to basic necessities. Together, these factors constrain opportunity for social mobility and weaken public institutions. Communities of limited opportunity are also the product of past and present inequitable policy decisions – many of which were rooted in racism – governing all facets of public life, from housing and land use to transportation and the labor market.
The product of intentional, long-standing disinvestments in poor communities and communities of color are environments that pose substantial challenges for educational achievement, attainment, and equity. A family’s exposure to neighborhood poverty over two generations can reduce a child’s cognitive ability by more than half a standard deviation. One study of 10 million middle school students by census tract found that as poverty levels in a school’s neighborhood increased, student achievement decreased. Researchers have also determined that growing up in a high poverty neighborhood reduces a students’ likelihood of graduating high school from 96 percent to 76 percent for Black children, and from 95 percent to 87 percent for nonblack children.
The nation’s decentralized, fragmented system of school finance compounds community disadvantage, as it overwhelmingly relies on revenue from local property wealth. As a result, children in low-wealth communities have scant and inadequate resources dedicated towards their education, yet decades of evidence indicates that it takes significantly more money to educate children in poor communities to high levels.
The most recent wave of education policymaking focused on improving the quality of instruction and implementing standards-based accountability. These reforms were necessary but not sufficient to improve educational opportunity and outcomes for all students because they ignored how concentrated poverty disadvantages students, families, and entire school communities. The community schools strategy is an important complement that offers a way to intentionally counter longstanding disinvestment, build the institutional capacity of public schools, and educate children in marginalized communities to high levels.
A growing body of evidence shows that the community schools strategy strengthens conditions for teaching and learning and improves student outcomes through its four pillars: wraparound services, family engagement, expanded learning opportunities, and community collaboration. These activities have been shown to raise student attendance and achievement; improve behavior and course completion; and decrease grade retention, dropout rates, and chronic absenteeism. The community schools strategy also complies with the Every Student Succeeds Act – the federal law that governs the nation’s primary and secondary education system – that requires that school interventions be based on evidence-based research.
At the local level, leaders are collaborating across sectors to support the community schools system across entire school systems. In 2014, leaders from New York City – the nation’s largest school system – launched an initiative that would create upwards of 100 community schools. Importantly, community schools are not just pet projects for big city superintendents; educators in rural Oregon and urban-rim Oklahoma have been building community schools since the 1990s.
But these models should not just be at the initiative and whim of local leaders. Leaders at the state and federal levels can put the community schools strategy in reach for all schools in need. Federal lawmakers can maintain and increase funding streams that support the strategy, and state policymakers can support accountability systems that reflect a whole child approach. State boards of education or legislatures can also adopt comprehensive community schools policies that clarify and define the strategy for a given jurisdiction, and legislatures can allocate funding to adopt the strategy at the local level either through funding formulas or separate appropriations.
The need and the research are clear: the nation’s school system is not equipped to successfully serve communities most in need of an excellent education. The community schools strategy is a proven way to fix this. In the next wave of education policymaking, state and federal leaders should follow the example of their local counterparts and put a community schools strategy in place for students and families.
Abel McDaniels is a master’s student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was previously a research associate for the K-12 Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.
Edited by Samantha Batel