Stunning New Report Shows Power of Wraparound Community Schools

Three organizations, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Coalition for Community Schools, and the Southern Education Foundation have released an in-depth and very significant report: Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools.  It is a primer for those who want to understand what a full-service Community School is and who want to know why such schools are today’s most significant policy development. The new report can also serve as a beginning guide for school districts that seek to transform their schools into Community Schools.

The new report profiles elementary, middle and high schools that are currently implementing a variety of strategies of successful Community Schools. “Their stories describe what these schools and districts were grappling with prior to becoming Community Schools, how they began to use a transformational strategy, what elements were implemented in what specific ways, and the amazing results that accrued.”

The essence of a Community School, according to the new report, is its whole child strategy—that schooling cannot be conceptualized or measured with a mere test score.  Community Schools are described as increasing attendance, decreasing suspensions and expulsions, creating healthy and safe communities, as well as improving academic outcomes.

A Community School is a set of formal partnerships with “the Community School Coordinator… part of the leadership team” and a Community School Committee including “parents, community partners, school staff, youth and other stakeholders.”  Such partnerships can be sustained by patching together a number of readily available funding streams, but the coordination and administration of the funding partnership must be sustainable for a Community School to thrive: “Community Schools require sustainable funding and resources.  This can be realized through a combination of resource provisions leveraged through partnerships; investment at the federal, state, and local government levels; and foundation and government grants.  For example, a site coordinator may leverage health and dental care, early childhood programs, before and after school learning programs, and/or restorative justice programs using free school space like an empty classroom, cafeteria, or gym after school hours.”  The public school is the primary site of such programs, which, “In addition to wrap-around services… bring a particular emphasis on high-quality teaching, deep learning, restorative justice, and authentic family engagement.”  “When schools become Community Schools, they become more than just schools; they become centers of community life.  Together, educators and community partners collaboratively address issues traditionally independently addressed by agencies like health and human services, parks and recreation departments, and housing agencies.”

At Webb Middle School, a struggling school in Austin, Texas, the threat of closure motivated teachers, parents, and the community to push for a Community School model beginning with an intensive needs assessment.  Partnerships now include after school programs provided by the Boys and Girls Club, college mentoring, a mobile clinic that provides free immunizations and physicals. “One interesting and beneficial outcome that Webb experienced by adding the mobile clinic was much greater participation on the school’s athletic teams.  Before the mobile clinic, few students participated in after school sports… because the district required that students receive a physical prior to participation in sports, which most students could not afford… Now participation rates on Webb’s athletic teams have soared, and their teams are winning.”  Families wanted the arts brought back to Webb, and the Community School staff helped bring back a band, an orchestra, and a dance troupe.  The Community School also brought English-as-a-Second-Language classes for parents, classes offered right at school for 2.5 hours three days a week.  Webb has become a desirable school; after five years as a Community School, Webb’s enrollment has grown from 485 to 750 students.

The greatest strength of this report is the set of stories of the transformation of schools across very different locations—Austin, Orlando, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Cincinnati; a county-wide strategy in Multnomah County, Oregon, and a statewide program in Kentucky.  I urge you to read these profiles carefully, for they demonstrate the complexity and the rewards of the transformations that have occurred.  At Evans High School in the very poor Pine Hills neighborhood of Orlando Florida, “students ha(d) gone without health care of any kind… With the help of their health and social service partners, Evans has been able to implement full service physical and mental health services located in their Wellness Cottage, a separate building on campus that is connected to the school… Much of this medical and mental health support is paid for through Medicaid.  The school provides assistance to students and families to fill out applications.”

Nine years ago when Baltimore’s Wolfe Street Academy became a Community School, it “was ranked 77th in the district in academic measures…. In 2014, after eight years as a Community School, Wolfe Street ranked an astonishing 2nd in the city academically, its mobility rate… down to 8.8 percent.”  “Baltimore has put together a quilt of funding sources to accomplish the funding of 52 Community Schools in the city.”  Funding streams are patched together from the City Government, philanthropic donations, and general school district funds controlled by each Community School’s principal.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, 43 of the city’s 55 schools now have Community School site coordinators and—importantly considering Ohio’s paltry investment in urban public schools—“no program has an impact on the public school system budget.  All services are leveraged and fully sustainable within themselves,” although, “Federal government Title One funds do… currently fund a portion of the Community Learning Center site coordinators.”  “Community engagement, neighborhood by neighborhood and site by site, from the very beginning led to Local School Decision-Making Councils… which constitutes the schools’ current governance. Because Cincinnati’s goal was to do this work at a district level, rather than school by school, it became necessary to embed the concept in policy to protect it for future generations… We’re now up to 43 schools…. This has lasted through four superintendents.”

Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools is such a positive report that it makes the formation of Community Schools sound easy.  Clearly the obstacles from community to community are overwhelming, but I urge you to read this report to understand just how such transformation can be accomplished.