Community Schools: Lessons Learned/Lessons Shared

Perspective
By: 
James Stoffer and Zach Vander Veen

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final installment of this series. For previous installments, see one, two, three and four

 

Community Schools are a time whose idea has come, a solution that was waiting for the perfect storm – and the perfect storm is here.

In part one of this article series, we made the case for community schools. In a nutshell, Community Schooling is a concept that has been around for more than 30 years. The concept has steadily been coalescing, gaining ground, and now represents some 5000 schools in the United States, out of more than 130,000 public and private schools, or just under four percent.

In part two of the article series, we discussed many states, like California among them, that are proposing a community schools solution to not only alleviate challenges presented by the pandemic, but to “be an effective approach to mitigate the academic and social impacts of current events, improve school responsiveness to student and family needs, and to organize school and community resources to address barriers to learning.”

In part three, we looked at the necessary technology to power a modern community school. In essence, community schools will need to do something that has been lacking in education institutions – they will need to utilize technology at its highest, most efficient and effective level. Think of an Amazon or an Uber taking this on as a pet project. In the same way that Amazon is not a retail company but a logistics company that sells retail products, schools will need to become logistics organizations that deliver education, health and wellbeing, and other necessary services to children and their families. It’s a different mindset, but one that is eminently feasible in today’s technologically connected world.

In part four, we investigated the criteria for community schools. What are the necessary components that will allow the community schools concept to move forward utilizing the four established community school pillars?

In this final installment, we’ll look at the lessons learned from the community schools movement. What can all schools learn from community schools? The answers may surprise you.

According to Sara Sneed, President of the NEA Foundation, “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.”

5000 community schools sounds like a lot, but at present, it only represents about five percent of the public schools in the United States.

States like California are making significant commitments to the concept, so expect that number to rise. They are launching a $3 billion, multiyear transition to community schools. Community schools are defined in California statute as public schools with strong and intentional community partnerships ensuring pupil learning and whole child and family development. Other states are following suit, but even if the number of schools doubles, that still leaves 90 percent of schools who do not yet meet the definition. And that may be very good news.

Schools don’t have to meet the definition of a full-fledged community school to realize the benefits of community schools. 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.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of community schools is their connectivity, something that every school can emulate. In the California proposal, they write, “Recent events, such as the COVID-19 emergency, have forced districts and schools to rethink the direct connection between schools and families, and to examine the link between school and community services, including ways in which these links can be strengthened. Community school strategies can be an effective approach to mitigate the academic and social impacts of current events, improve school responsiveness to student and family needs, and to organize school and community resources to address barriers to learning.” All schools, whether a community school or not, can emphasize the connectivity between schools, families and community services.

By definition, the power of community schools resides in the local community. It is the identification, structuring and connection of the many assets within the community, and goes far beyond academics to include the needs of children, family, school staffulty (faculty and staff), business and faith communities. Everyone that makes up the community has a place in the workings of a community school. Think of it as a community center. A point from which everything flows outward. As a philosophy, this makes sense for a majority of the schools in America and can be implemented by degrees.

The thing that makes this possible is technology. And perhaps for the first time in our history, the technology readily exists to connect all the stakeholders. If Amazon were connecting these parties for your school, how would they do it? They would propose a seamless system that connects the resources of the school, teachers, administration, students, families, community agencies, the business community and faith communities.

There is an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. An updated, and more accurate version of that saying would be, it takes a connected village to raise the whole child. One thing that the pandemic has shown us is that children easily fall into an ill-at-ease emotional state without the routines they have enjoyed in the past. And academics fall into a hazy nowhere land when the social and emotional needs of children are no longer met.

For your school or district to run seamlessly, there are some questions you’ll want to ask:

 

What type of partner or program is performing best?

By figuring out which partner or program is getting the most sign-ups, the highest student engagement, or reaching other metrics of success for your school, you can make more informed decisions about what types of programs to invest more resources in. By viewing engagement, demand, and retention, you have the tools to address and assist lower-performing programs.

 

Which partners do we need more of?

Getting a top-level view of your programs is helpful to ensure that they’re aligned with your annual priorities. For instance, if you have a goal to improve social emotional learning and mental health for your students, you’ll need a way to check that you’re providing plenty of opportunities to do so through the connections offered with your community partnerships.

 

What can partners do to increase the success of students in their program?

Student engagement is tied to higher academic achievement, better workforce preparedness, and improved student success. By getting a comprehensive view of students that are participating in your programs, you can find factors that are driving engagement or uncover issues that might be barriers to engagement.

 

What can we do to increase family program engagement rates?

Family engagement is shown to have a positive impact on student achievement. It’s more important than ever to get families involved so students have the support systems they need to succeed.

 

Which programs lead to higher student success?

One of the major goals of community partnerships is to benefit students and help them develop the skills they need to be more successful both in and out of school. Being able to link community program involvement with higher student success rates allows you to better allocate resources and make a bigger impact in your students’ lives.

In a Policy Brief by Hayin Kimner, Policy Analysis for California Education, Kimner writes, “An effective community school recognizes that student success does not rely solely on the expertise of instructional professionals but is also the result of shared accountability among students, educators, families, and community partners. The purpose of community schools is first and foremost to support students’ academic success by offering ambitious instruction, a student-centered learning climate, and a comprehensive whole-child and “science of learning and development” design approach. Community schools have often been heralded for their work in expanding the school day and offering academic support and enrichment before and after school as part of “letting teachers teach.” Whether your school is a community school, or your district is working to improve learning outcomes, this is solid advice and another tenet of community schools that can work for everyone.

In a California Teachers Association blog by Julian Peeples, the author states, “The community schools model is aimed at disrupting poverty and addressing long-standing inequities, highlighting areas of need, and leveraging community resources so students are healthy, prepared for college and ready to succeed. A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources with an integrated focus on academics, health and social services, leadership, and community engagement. Since each community school is centered around local needs and priorities, no two look exactly alike. But they all share a commitment to partnership and rethinking how best to provide the resources students and families need.”

The states that are making the strongest commitments to community schooling, California, Indiana and others, are making remarkable strides at not only closing the learning gap but securing the needs of their youth and educator populations that have been battered, beleaguered and beseeched by a pandemic and its aftermath. But it is important to realize that it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. For schools and districts that are not on the community school track, there is much to be learned from existing community schools and those that are in-process to becoming community schools.

Take advantage of the opportunity that our recent circumstances have delivered, the concept of connectivity, the now available technology and the well-defined pillars that make community schools possible. We are all in this together, and those in community schools are more than happy to share their wisdom with you.

For additional information, make sure to read the first four installments of this series. And do what you can do. Your students will thank you. Your teachers will thank you. Your parents will thank you. And most of all, you will have happier, healthier and more productive learners everywhere you turn – which is why we are all here in the first place.

 

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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