The Case for Community Schools: Why Now?

Ideas
In the time of COVID and protracted learning loss, community schools may be the best way to transform education to meet the needs of the mid-21st century and beyond.
By: 
James Stoffer and Zach Vander Veen

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a five-part series

Perhaps you live in one of the states that has decided to finally make community schools a reality. Or perhaps your district or state is beginning those discussions now. Or perhaps you remember reading about community schools years ago and wonder what ever happened to the idea.

30 years ago, when the idea of community schools first hit the education community, it was one of those things that sounded like a great idea, if not one that was a bit beyond our reach. And again 14 years ago, when education secretary Arne Duncan began trumpeting the cause, it sounded like a great idea, even if there was no real sense of urgency to get it done.

 

And then, the world changed

In early 2020, news began streaming in from China. And then, the world changed. As it did, the education community began searching for a more productive way to educate our children.

According to Sara Sneed, President of the NEA Foundation, “It is not surprising that informed educators, parents, advocates, academics, researchers, policymakers, and others are coalescing around one promising and proven strategy: community schools.

“Community schools represent an approach to public education where educators, schools, parents and student leaders engage in authentic partnership with one another and with agencies and organizations at the local, state, and national levels to offer students, schools, and whole communities unprecedented support, encouraging everyone’s optimal educational experience and both students’ and schools’ improved outcomes. There are more than 5,000 Community Schools in the U.S. today, and their effectiveness has been well-documented. In particular, they have become anchors for their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Community schools are the future.”

 

Long term strategy for success

The National Center for Community Schools says, “Community schools are a long-term strategy for student success. They are a partnership of community members and leaders working together to ensure children are surrounded with support. Community schools are a partnership of community members and leaders working together with student success as the goal. Every child should feel safe, nurtured, challenged, and inspired at school and have a sense of possibility. When students are supported, they believe in themselves and the promise of education. Thriving students transform their own lives but also communities and society.”

In a recent statement by Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on the response to COVID-19, he said, “Moving forward, we will 1) promote health and safety in schools, 2) support students’ social and emotional needs, and 3) accelerate students’ academic learning. Regarding our students’ social and emotional development, they have suffered enough. Students’ wellness must be factored into the reopening. School districts are determining their students’ needs and hiring social workers and school psychologists and implementing new mental health supports. Finally, we are assisting school districts in their work to address lost instructional time. Not only as an educator, but as a father, I can tell you that learning in front of a computer is no substitute for in-person learning. Districts are using ARP (American Rescue Plan) funds to invest in tutoring, extended learning time, and more.”

In a separate interview, Cardona said, “The department is putting a priority on closing persistent gaps in opportunity and achievement that are based on race, income, zip code, language, disability, and other differences. We’re either closing educational opportunity gaps or making them worse with the decisions we’re going to make in the coming months and years.”

 

Powerful partners for Equity

According to the National Center for Community Schools, “Strong community schools counter systemic racism, increase opportunity, and move society toward equity and justice. Too many children are expected to overcome structures designed to diminish them. Schools should model anti-racism, not perpetuate systems that divide us and limit opportunity. We want students to feel not just welcomed, but valued for their race, religion, identification, origin, family, and community.”

In the Community Schools Playbook, a project of the Partnership for the Future of Learning, the organization contends “Community schools are public schools that partner with families and community organizations to provide well-rounded educational opportunities and supports for students’ school success. Like every good school, community schools must be built on a foundation of powerful teaching that includes challenging academic content and supports students’ mastery of 21st century skills and competencies.

“Many community schools stay open year-round, from dawn to dusk, and on weekends. The most comprehensive community schools are academic and social centers where educators, families, and neighbors come together to support innovative learning and to address the impact of out-of-school factors, such as poverty, racism, and violence, which can undermine the effectiveness of in-school opportunities. For example, a health clinic can deliver medical and psychological treatment, dental care, as well as glasses to near-sighted children, and inhalers for asthma sufferers. Extending the school day and remaining open during the summer enables the school to offer additional learning opportunities and supports, as well as co-curricular activities like sports and music—all of which are important enrichment experiences that can prevent summer learning loss; that is, the widening of learning gaps that happens when school is not in session.”

This is particularly vital as we address the extraordinary learning loss experienced by some children during the past 23 months of Coronavirus closings, remote and hybrid learning. The weaknesses exposed in our teaching and learning systems cannot be corrected in an easy fix. Many were presented as educators hurriedly switched to remote learning without the necessary period of training, and others were longstanding needs that were exposed, due the ravages of the COVID-19 epidemic and protracted period of recovery.

In reality, it wasn’t just children who were affected, but whole families. Hardest hit were low and moderate income families whose jobs did not translate well into work from home experiences. Needs arose not only for the whole child, but for the whole family. The protracted time frame added fuel to the fire.

“By tapping into a community’s assets and culture—from nonprofits to museums to businesses—community schools bring powerful learning opportunities to schools that are under-resourced, and which may have narrowed the curriculum in response to fiscal constraints and testing pressures,” states the Community Schools Playbook. “In doing so, they help reduce the achievement gap—the inequalities in students’ performance on test scores, grades, and other observable school outcomes that result in part from a lack of access. Although community schools alone cannot compensate for years of disinvestment in low-income communities and communities of color, they hold considerable promise for mitigating the impact of this disinvestment and creating high-quality, equitable schools.”

 

Conclusion

Sometimes, old sayings are old sayings for a reason; in addition to being cliché, they retain a substantial amount of wisdom. In the case of community schools, they are an idea whose time has come. And even though there are already a reported 5000 community schools in the United States, that still represents a scant one school in fifty, taking into account public, independent and religious schools, leaving room for additional communities to take advantage of the many benefits that a well-connected system has to offer.

According to Suzanne B. Goldberg, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Strategic Operations and Outreach, U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, “Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, so many students have found new ways to continue learning in this challenging time and countless teachers, staff, faculty, administrators, and institutional leaders, along with students’ families, have gone above and beyond to support our students at all educational levels. Yet, this promise of a safe, high-quality education was already out of reach for many students long before the COVID-19 pandemic and could slip further away if we do not act collectively and with attention to equal opportunity for all students. COVID-19, with all its tragic impacts on individuals, families, and communities, appears to be deepening divides in educational opportunity across our nation’s classrooms and campuses. And we can see already that many of these impacts are falling disproportionately on students who went into the pandemic with the greatest educational needs and fewest opportunities—many of them from historically marginalized and underserved groups. These disparities can be a cause for great concern, especially when they interfere with a student’s opportunity to learn, grow, and contribute to our nation’s future.”

Coming in part two of this series: In our next installment, we’ll look at Community Schools through the lens of a Connected Village. Seamlessly connecting the combined strength of a community and its assets is a powerful way to ignite the learning process for students, educators, parents and community leaders. A rising tide floats all boats, and in the community schools model, the entire community is strengthened through a broad synergistic effect.

 

About the authors

James Stoffer is the Chief Executive Officer at Abre.io where he focuses on leading company growth, operations, and talent strategies. He has spent his entire career in the education industry, most recently at DreamBox Learning, successfully leading sales, customer experience, and business operations. Prior to DreamBox he also held leadership positions at Hobsons and MasteryConnect. His passion is helping scale social impact companies focused on improving the lives and futures of students and educators throughout the world. He has an MBA from Xavier University and BS in Marketing from Clemson University. 

Zach Vander Veen has worn many hats in education, including history teacher, technology coach, administrator, and director of technology. He loves learning, teaching, traveling and seeking adventures with his family. Currently, Zach is the co-founder and VP of Development and Customer Success at Abre.io, an education management platform.

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