I once had the extraordinary experience of visiting a full-service, wraparound Community School. The school was in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan and part of a network of public schools operating in partnership with the Children’s Aid Society of New York City, an agency which also houses the National Center for Community Schools.
My group visited this school right at the end of the school day, when children had transitioned to a marvelous after-school program funded by a federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant. There was a community garden at the school, and some groups of children were working in the garden, while others were chopping vegetables from the garden as part of a cooking project. Another large group of children were creating a dance program. Right in the school building were a medical clinic where children could get immunizations, and next door a dental clinic and a mental health clinic—all this funded by Medicaid. Federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start were housed right in the school, along with classrooms—one filled with commercial sewing machines and walls of thread—housing equipment used by parents for job training. The school also boasted a fine summer program that served a majority of the school’s students.
The advantages of all this, located right in the same building as a public elementary school, were so obvious that I find it hard to enumerate them. An easy transition from school to after-school care. Advantages for busy parents who can find medical assistance for their children without taking the day off work. Advantages for parents whose school-age children and pre-school children have services in the same building. Advantages for kids who become comfortable in a school and know the teachers and administrators from the time they are toddlers and just smoothly move on up through the grades. And in New York City in particular—where parents can’t let their children be outside without supervision while parents are at work—a welcoming, enriching alternative to kids locked alone in apartments watching TV after school.
Lots of people seem to find it hard to document the advantages. Last week Christopher Edley, Jr., a civil rights advocate and professor at the University of California College of Law and Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford education professor tried, but I don’t think they quite capture the epiphany that I experienced a decade ago on that New York afternoon, though Edley and Darling-Hammond do a good job of defining a Community School’s four pillars: “The promise of Community Schools is in how they prioritize the education and enrichment of vulnerable students and how they integrate services with systems of governance, professional support, and ongoing community-level dialogue. Comprehensive community schools represent a powerful equity strategy because they are designed to identify and address inequitable practices, disrupt the systems that perpetuate educational and economic disparities, and increase opportunities for all through partnerships among all of the actors who shape children’s opportunities… (T)hese schools share four key features, or pillars: (1) providing students and families with meaningful access to needed services and supports; (2) strengthening and sustaining family and community engagement; (3) offering expanded learning time and opportunities; and (4) supporting collaborative leadership and shared decision making within the school and with community partners… Developing instructional strategies around this kind of whole child approach reflects what we know about the science of learning and the cognitive impacts of trauma and poverty as well as what we know about creating and sustaining equitable social change.”
Such language is, of course, accurate. It is important as well these days, when school districts submit proposals to philanthropies and to federal programs. Grants depend on providing research evidence to show that if we fill a public school with the services busy parents desperately need and if we make school a comfortable place for families, children will do better at school.
A recent article in The American Educator is a little more specific about what a school district would need to do to transform a neighborhood school into a wraparound Community School. Anna Maier, Julia Daniel, Jeannie Oakes and Livia Lam explain: “Increasing economic inequality and residential segregation have triggered a resurgence of interest in Community Schools—a century-old approach to making schools places where children can learn and thrive, even in underresourced and underserved neighborhoods. Community schools represent a place-based strategy in which schools partner with community agencies and allocate resources to integrate a focus on academics, health and social services, and youth and community development, and also foster community engagement. Many operate on all-day and year-round schedules, and serve both children and adults… (C)ommunity schools focus simultaneously on providing high-quality instruction and addressing out-of-school barriers to students’ engagement and learning.”
The President and CEO of Communities in Schools, an organization that helps school districts develop Community Schools, believes these schools help children by strengthening relationships. Dale Erquiaga writes that young people in communities where there is extreme poverty—where families may be homeless or a large number of children may be in the child welfare system—desperately need strong relationships: “The challenge now is ensuring there are programmatic responses available to all kids that foster developmental relationships. Social-emotional skill building is part of this. So is having fully-trained adults who act as buffers of adverse childhood experiences.”
The National Center for Community Schools at NYC’s Children’s Aid Society reports that the number of Community Schools across the United States is growing: “Reliable estimates from the Coalition for Community Schools indicate that there may be more than 5,000 Community Schools in this country. Several cities have adopted community schools as a preferred reform strategy: New York City and Chicago now have more than 150 Community Schools each; Portland (Oregon) has 84… Baltimore has 52; and Lincoln (Nebraska) has 25.”
It is important to end this report by turning attention back to what happens at a Community School. Last February in the Kappan, staff from the Coalition for Community Schools, Reuben Jacobson, Lisa Villarreal, José Muñoz, and Robert Mahaffey describe a typical morning in a Community School: “(S)tudents start their day by meeting with local mentors over breakfast. During third period, a student must be excused for her annual checkup, but instead of leaving school to go to the doctor, she sees a pediatrician at the school-based health clinic and then returns to class. When the traditional school day ends, a dozen volunteers come to the school to lead after-school activities that students have asked for, including robotics, music, and athletics. Later that evening, students and their parents come to the school for a regularly scheduled community dinner provided by the district, where teachers are on hand to help students with homework, and parents receive guidance on registering for health insurance and connecting to needed social services… The… school is a Community School, one of a growing number of schools that provide both the familiar K-12 curriculum and a much broader range of supports to students and families — high-quality academic instruction, and mentoring, health care, college and career counseling, financial advising, and much more. In many cases, the community school serves as a neighborhood hub, bringing together educators, families, business leaders, elected officials, and many other local partners to ensure that students have real opportunities to succeed in school and in life.”