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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 8

How Community Schools Make a Difference

By building relationships with diverse community entities, schools broaden their reach and promote student learning.

How Community Schools Make a Difference- thumbnail
Good schools depend on strong communities, and strong communities require good schools. This is the logic driving renewed interest in a time-honored education approach: community schools.
Some people may ask whether the logic of strong school-community partnerships is compelling enough to meet the accountability demands that schools face today. Can schools take the time to build relationships when failure to meet federal standards on a single test can label them as underperforming? Many educators, local elected officials, and community leaders believe that schools cannot afford not to build such relationships.
Leaders of today's community schools movement understand that education reform is not an “either/or” proposition. A growing body of research and practice shows that the two tasks of focusing on achievement and building partnerships that link school, family, and community are intimately connected.

Benefits of Community Schools

  • Garner additional resources and reduce noninstructional demands on school staff. By providing services and supports that address various needs of students, partnerships enable educators to concentrate on matters of curriculum and instruction.
  • Provide learning opportunities that enhance young people's social, emotional, and physical development as well as academic skills. Students who are socially, emotionally, and physically competent tend to succeed in school.
  • Connect young people and their families to role models and life options. Partnerships offer students a source of social capital—the networks and relationships that create a sense of belonging and communicate the importance of education and belief in the future (Blank, Melaville, & Shah, 2003).

What Is a Community School?

Walk into a community school, and you immediately recognize a difference. Community schools are centers of the community—open all day, every day, during evenings, weekends, and summers. Partnerships are at the core of community schools. Partners can include health and social agencies, family support groups, universities, youth development organizations, government agencies, faith-based institutions, and community groups. These partnerships are organized around two common goals: helping students learn and succeed and strengthening families and communities (Blank et al., 2003).
The partnership between Intermediate School (I.S.) 218 and the Children's Aid Society in the predominantly Dominican Washington Heights section of New York City exemplifies the community school vision. The school is open six days each week from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. The Children's Aid Society offers a variety of programs and services that are integrated with the school's core instructional program.
A neon sign welcomes parents to the Family Resource Center. The Children's Aid Society builds bridges to parents by offering GED, ESL, and computer classes, as well as classes in building such skills as food preparation and quilting. By purchasing products from small businesses that have grown as a result of the training (for example, catering businesses), the school strengthens the economic capacity of the community. During socialization programs, the Children's Aid Society-employed coordinator of parent programs discusses such issues as family violence, AIDS, and family planning. I.S. 218 also regularly hosts schoolwide and communitywide events, including an annual Dominican Heritage festival that draws hundreds of students, parents, and other community residents.
During the school's extended hours, the Children's Aid Society offers homework help and enrichment activities. An award-winning string orchestra engages students' musical abilities. A vibrant dance troupe teaches students about positive body image, self-expression, and the importance of health and exercise. A basketball club draws in sports-loving students but also teaches them about career readiness, job preparation, and goal setting.
The school's Student Wellness Center offers medical and dental services for students and mental health and social services for families. The mental health team played a crucial role in supporting the community following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent crash in Queens, New York, of Flight 587 en route to the Dominican Republic.
The wealth of services offered at I.S. 218 frees teachers to do what they were hired to do: teach the students.

How Research Supports Community Schools

  • Significant and widespread gains in academic achievement and in essential areas of nonacademic development.
  • Increased family stability and greater family involvement with schools.
  • Increased teacher satisfaction and more positive school environments.
  • Better use of school buildings and increased security and pride in neighborhoods.
Other research underscores the commonsense connection among school, home, family, community, and student achievement. Barton (2003) identified 14 factors that correlate with student achievement. Six of the 14 factors relate to the school environment, such as rigor of the school curriculum, teacher preparation, and school safety. The remaining eight factors speak to the importance of family and community to student success and include parent availability and support, student mobility, TV watching, and parent involvement. Barton concludes that “the education system cannot succeed in greatly reducing the gaps by going it alone” (2003, p. 37).
The attitudes of the U.S. public are in sync with this research. A recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of the public's attitudes toward public schools found that 94 percent or more of respondents saw home life, parent involvement in education, student interest in education, and community environment as crucial in bridging the achievement gap among students (Rose & Gallup, 2003). Clearly, community and family matter in the education of our children.

Changing Schools, Changing Systems

In communities large and small, community school initiatives are driving efforts to transform entire school systems.
Chicago. Chicago mayor Richard Daley and Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer Arne Duncan launched the city's Campaign for Community Schools (www.communityschools.org/chicagoupdate.html). The school district, in partnership with the city and with local philanthropists, created 20 community schools in September 2003 and plans to increase that number to 100 within five years. Each community school has a nonprofit lead agency that acts as its managing partner. Private philanthropy provides seed money to finance community school coordinators and technical assistance to organize school-site planning groups. The school district has also allocated supplemental program dollars for the community schools.
Chicago's Marquette Elementary School is one of three schools in the Polk Bros. Foundation's original initiative that laid the foundation for the Campaign for Community Schools. Marquette enrolls 2,100 students, nearly all of whom come from low-income and minority families. Through its community partners, the school offers ESL, a GED program, citizenship preparation, computer classes, and parenting classes. Marquette and the other schools in the initiative have reduced student mobility rates and shown higher-than-average gains in standardized reading scores.
Evansville. A districtwide School Community Council initiated by the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation involves more than 50 school and community agency leaders. The Council drives the Evansville, Indiana, community schools initiative (www.evsc.k12.in.us/schoolzone/schcomm/schcomm.htm). The initiative now operates in 10 schools, and five more community schools are in the planning stages. Key to the success of the initiative are site councils, which include parents, staff members, and community agency representatives.
A newly appointed assistant superintendent of federal projects is responsible for all school-financed health and social services; after-school programs and related activities; and the coordination of federal, state, and other monies. This organizational shift bundles together funding and coordination of school-managed resources and enables the school district to coordinate its efforts with the efforts of its community partners. Site coordinators are school employees hired under the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, a federal initiative promoting the development of after-school programs. Additional funds come from Titles I and V of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Cedar Hall Elementary, the original community school in Evansville, began its transformation with after-school programs. The school used United Way funds to create a Family Resource Center. Soon, community collaborations included GED programs, preschool programs, counseling, social work services, and community beautification programs as well as after-school programming run by such community partners as the YMCA, the YWCA, 4-H, and Girl Scouts of the USA.
The principal brought the work to the community, convening a meeting of community members and potential partners to form what became the district's first site council. A state-funded program evaluation of Cedar Hall found a five-year trend of improved attendance rates, higher grades in reading and math for students regularly participating in extended day programs, and decreased disruptive behaviors by students receiving school social work services (Diehl, 2003).
Portland/Multnomah County. A partnership of eight school districts in the city of Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon, has changed the face of community schools. The Schools Uniting Neighborhoods initiative, or SUN (www.sunschools.org), now operates in 46 of the county's 150 schools, with more to come. SUN goals include improving student achievement, attendance, behavior, and other skills for healthy development and academic success; increasing family, community, and business involvement in the schools; improving collaboration among school districts, government, community-based agencies, families, citizens, and business leaders; and increasing the use of public facilities and services.
As in Chicago, each SUN community school selects a nonprofit lead agency as its managing partner. At Woodmere Elementary School—where 45 percent of students come from language-minority homes, 33 percent of students are English Language Learners, and 79 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—the SUN manager has mobilized partners to provide opportunities for after-school enrichment, recreation, homework assistance, health and social services, and mentoring. ESL classes and recreation groups for parents and preschoolers, a Russian-language family support group, and Latino and Asian family outreach workers engage underserved populations. A Fall Family Festival celebrates the community's diverse heritage.
During the past two years, Woodmere's 3rd grade math scores on the Oregon Statewide Mathematics Assessment have increased from 77 percent of students meeting or exceeding benchmarks to 89 percent; 5th grade math scores have increased from a 58 percent to a 76 percent pass rate. Third grade reading scores have increased from 50 percent of students meeting or exceeding benchmarks to 79 percent, and 5th grade reading scores have improved from a 53 percent to a 70 percent pass rate.

Commonalities of Community Schools

  • A clear and compelling vision of what the community hopes to accomplish.
  • Leaders with the commitment, capacity, and influence to make the vision a reality.
  • Community school coordinators who mobilize and integrate the resources of community and school, enabling the principal and teachers to focus on their core mission: improving student learning.
  • Strong planning and decision-making mechanisms at the school and neighborhood levels.
  • Sufficient resources to initiate a venture and sustain it through challenging times. Typically, a source of core funding provides program stability, technical assistance to help partners collaborate and develop quality programming, and on-site coordination.
  • A focus on results, requiring measurement of progress through a third-party evaluation or by tracking data from year to year.

Facing Challenges

Although the potential benefits of community schools are great, transforming traditional schools into this model is no easy task. Several factors present barriers that schools must overcome to become community schools.
Leadership and mind-set. Too many leaders seek narrow solutions to complex problems. As Barton writes, wetend to put considerations of family, community, and economy off-limits in education-reform policy discussions. However, we do so at our peril. (2001, p. 20)
To overcome this mind-set, we need to provide professional preparation and inservice training experiences that help educators and others in child, youth, and family professions understand the multiple factors influencing student learning and the importance of multiple pathways to success.
The school-community divide. Most educators have little background in the dynamics of communities and the process of community development. Similarly, leaders of community agencies and organizations are unaware of the distinct culture and characteristics of schools. School and community leaders must take time to build relationships, understand their shared interests, and learn about the sticking points that too often divide them (Jehl, Blank, & McCloud, 2001).
Funding silos. The effects of years of categorical funding make the sharing of financial and human resources that is fundamental to a community school more difficult. The growing number of community schools demonstrates that people are overcoming this challenge by focusing on the needs of students and their families, identifying common results that cut across programs, and getting incentives to collaborate from public and private funders. Restructuring funding, however, is not enough—if the community schools movement is to fully succeed, we must also make a greater financial investment in community schools.

The Time Is Now

Can schools afford to invest time in building relationships in this era of high-stakes testing and stringent federal education standards? A growing body of research and practice shows that school-community partnerships are a key ingredient for improving student achievement, especially in communities facing economic and social challenges. Community schools enable educators to mobilize assets and combine them in new ways, creating broad learning communities that strengthen student success.

Barton, P. (2001). Facing the hard facts in education reform. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Barton, P. (2003). Parsing the achievement gap: Baselines for tracking progress. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Blank, M., Melaville, A., & Shah, B. (2003). Making the difference: Research and practice in community schools. Washington, DC: Coalition for Community Schools, Institute for Educational Leadership.

Diehl, D. (2003). Program evaluation: Cedar Hall Elementary full-service model of school reform. Evansville, IN: Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation.

Jehl, J., Blank, M., & McCloud, B. (2001). Education and community building: Connecting two worlds. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership.

Rose, L., & Gallup, A. (2003, September). The 35th annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of the public's attitudes toward the public schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 85, 41–56.

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