Community Schools

by Jill Wynns | January 13, 2021 | 0 Comments
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A Strategy to Support Student and Community Needs

Governor Gavin Newsom proposed $300 million dollars for community schools in his 2020-21 budget, and followed up with a proposal for $246.9 million in 2021-22. He has called it an opportunity for schools to respond to students’ mental health challenges. What are community schools? Why is this important? What does the research say?

Guest Comment
Jill Wynns

Community schools are not new. But not everyone understands what they do.

In 2012 when I was president of the California School Boards Association, I added a focus on community schools. One of our goals was to clarify for the education community what community schools are and are not.

Community schools are organized to respond to the non-academic needs of students, including health services, mental health, after school and social challenges. A community school is not a single program, but a strategy for organizing support to address student and community needs. While many community schools include on-site programs like an after-school program, a health clinic or a tutoring center, others are essentially referral centers for public and non-profit groups that help families.

A Bit of history about community schools

The idea that schools must face the the non-academic factors in students' lives is not new. Community schools can be traced to the settlement house movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which began in the US with the famous Hull House in Chicago founded by Jane Adams.

During the twentieth century when local communities were authorized to raise their own taxes to fund their local schools, California public schools that could afford them had nurses, social workers, assistant principals, counselors, art teachers, physical educators and other professionals supporting classroom teachers. After Prop.13 passed and tax revenue eroded even in the best-off school districts, these positions began to disappear. Communities looked to other agencies to support students and their families’ needs.

In the 1980’s education leaders began to talk in earnest about serving the whole child, training teachers and administrators to recognize students’ non-academic needs. The terms wraparound services and case management began to be used.

The legislature enacted the California Healthy State Services For Children Act in 1991. School districts competed for grants to provide support services for students. Winning districts could decide for themselves what they would do with the funding. Many Healthy Start districts expanded after-school programs to include support programs, counseling, tutoring and family services. These grants followed the classic structure of pilot program funding — three years of public funding, hopefully coupled with private and district funds.

The hope was that successful programs would attract outside funding and school districts would commit funds to continue them.

Expansion of school-based services

The program didn't survive. As schools struggled to keep their counselors, nurses and after-school programs, as well as to keep up with increased regular costs including teacher compensation, there wasn't enough money to go around. The Healthy Start program met its demise in the market bust of the early 2000s.

Over time champions emerged for many worthy programs. Funding directed to pre-school and early care increased, but not by nearly enough to fully meet community needs. The same could be said for after-school programs, student health, nutrition and a host of other needs.

As demands on schools increased, school districts were caught in the middle. School board members would often lament, “Schools can’t solve all of society’s problems.” Teachers, desperate to help their increasingly hungry, traumatized and, sometimes, homeless students often contributed on their own to help students, providing snacks or clothes, and school supplies.

Of course, these issues are not unique to California. Across the country, some districts responded to these needs by creating school-based health centers and services. In New York City Beacon Centers opened as expanded after-school centers that served the whole community with a variety of school-based services.

Many community school initiatives have been built on the remains of earlier efforts. Under the Obama Administration, for example, Promise Neighborhoods provided some federal support for community schools, but this program was defunded under the Trump administration. In California, although support for state-led funding had waned, some districts nevertheless took the lead to develop community schools on their own, often including elements that remained from their Healthy Start, Promise Neighborhoods or other programs.

As a principal in San Diego Unified, Cindy Marten identified unmet health needs as a major issue for the poor, mostly immigrant community. She responded by raising private funding to open a health center in her elementary school. The program helped her families, brought them to the school, and was a major factor in increasing student achievement. The program was expanded to nearby schools. Today, as Superintendent of the San Diego schools and a major voice in public education in California, Marten is an outspoken champion of community schools.

Does it work?

No single strategy answers the question of what we should do to improve our public schools, though significant increases in school funding is certainly worth a try. However, making schools the center of the community continues to be a wonderful idea, especially when combined with focused academic strategies. The powerful possibilities have led Governor Newsom to include $246.9 million to support them in his proposed budget for 2021-22. A network of community schools has been developed with the leadership of the Partnership for Children.

In community schools, students can have access to more of the help and support they need to succeed, both academically and socially. This could result in significant increases in opportunities for all of our children, addressing the equity challenges that face every community in California. Kids can be healthier, get glasses if they need them, not have to go to school with untreated dental issues, and be well nourished. They can have a safe place to sleep, warm clean clothes to wear and access to books. They can have enriching cultural experiences and everything that we can think of to make their lives easier.

These goals are lofty. Is the community schools approach a good strategy to achieve them? The short answer is Yes. The Learning Policy Institute’s report Evidence-Based Interventions: A Guide for Schools identifies four approaches that have been found to “raise student performance, particularly for historically underserved students.” One of them is community schools and wraparound services. Others include "high quality professional development, class-size reduction and high school redesign.”

A 2020 study by Rand, What Is the Impact of the New York City Community Schools Initiative? showed positive effects on academic achievement and attendance. There were also improvements in school climate and culture in the elementary and middle schools.

Community school advocates have learned that having a staff person, often called a Community School Coordinator, is a key to the sustainability and success of a community school. According to the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), successful community schools rest on four pillars, described in the PDFs linked below:

On a trip to New York several years ago I visited the Fanny Lou Hamer School, a respected community school in the Bronx. I asked the principal what difference the community school made to the work of the teachers.

This is what she said: The teacher in the classroom will always be the one who identifies that a child has a problem. Teachers are the ones who see them every day. But now, there is someone whose responsibility it is to get something done about it who is not the teacher. It makes it possible both for the teacher to effectively teach and for the student to learn.

Jill Wynns is a former Commissioner of the San Francisco Board of Education and former President of the California School Boards Association.

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