Jeff Bryant recently profiled Mary Parr-Sanchez, the current president of the National Education Association’s New Mexico affiliate, speaking about what education will be like after the pandemic: “‘I think we’re all going to be different after this… When I first learned of the community schools model, it hit me like a lightning bolt,’ she told me. ‘I loved it because it focused on the academic and nonacademic needs of children, and the focus was on learning and a culturally relevant curriculum, not just test scores.’ Now, she is convinced the community schools model is the most promising way forward for schools as they reopen to the new realities of recovering from the fallout of COVID-19.”
Here is how the New York City Children’s Aid Society’s National Center for Community Schools defines a full-service, wraparound community school: “The foundations for community schools can be conceptualized as a Developmental Triangle that places children at the center, surrounded by families and communities. Because students’ educational success, health and well-being are the focus of every community school, the legs of the triangle consist of three interconnected support systems: A strong core instructional program… expanded learning opportunities… and a full range of health, mental health and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning.”
Community schools are designed locally to meet the needs of the particular school community, but they share essential characteristics. The Children’s Aid Society explains that community schools are not mere ad hoc school community partnerships, but are instead the product of careful planning and staffing. A Community School Director—an administrator—partners with the principal to coordinate the social, medical and enrichment services housed in the community school with the academic program. Each community school has a designated lead partner agency, which “maintains a full-time presence in the school and engages in regular joint planning with the Community School Director, the staff, and the community.”
In Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s expansion of community schools in New York City, the lead partner has been the Children’s Aid Society, which enumerates the programs community schools typically bring right into the school building: medical, dental, mental health and social services, innovative after-school, holiday and summer enrichment programs, early childhood programs like Head Start and Early Head Start, parent and family engagement and parent education programs, and other programs for community development.
The American Federation of Teachers has endorsed community schools, provides online resources for the establishment of community schools and has supported their development in West Virginia and Cincinnati, for example. The National Education Association has likewise supported the development of these full-service, wraparound schools. The community schools model has until now been adopted primarily in urban areas. But Bryant’s profile featuring New Mexico’s NEA president, Mary Parr-Sanchez, demonstrates how the adoption of this education model has supported children and the community in a small, impoverished New Mexico village, 10 miles outside of Los Cruces.
Parr-Sanchez believes the pandemic has exposed all the reasons community schools are an appropriate response to families’ needs: “The current crisis is exposing the inequality not only in schools but in our society and making people more aware of the conditions of children.”
Bryant adds: “Indeed, the indisputable lesson the pandemic has taught the nation is that local schools are, like it or not, the nation’s safety net for children and families, and that vast inequities in public education and society at large are blocking children’s access to learning—whether it’s being able to get internet service or having a home where children can do schoolwork. We also learned that teacher-student relationships are at the center of the education process, and when those break down, learning breaks down too.”
Bryant shows why the supports embedded in a community school are so urgently needed in a rural area of New Mexico: “In 2017, the state was tied with Louisiana for the second-highest poverty rate in the nation, 19.7 percent, according to World Population Review. Personal finance site, WalletHub, ranked New Mexico as the worst state in America to raise a family… In its most recent annual state-to-state comparison of overall child well-being, the Annie E. Casey Foundation rated New Mexico at the very bottom. The highly respected analysis was especially brutal in ranking New Mexico 50 in education due to the state’s poor fourth-grade reading test scores (with only 25 percent of students rating ‘proficient’) and high percentage of high school students who do not graduate within four years (29 percent). The state also ranked bottom or near bottom on a number of other factors including health care, economic conditions, and household and community circumstances. New Mexico, along with Mississippi, has the most children living in high poverty areas—24 percent.” Bryant also cites a recent school finance report from the Albert Shanker Institute ranking New Mexico 13th in the nation on “a measure of the state’s school spending as a percentage of the state’s gross domestic product.”
Parr-Sanchez and her union helped support the development of a community school in Los Cruces beginning in 2013, and the number of New Mexico community schools has grown considerably since then, including the transformation of Dona Ana Elementary School into a community school this past February: “Dona Ana, a rural village about 10 miles outside of Las Cruces, already faced formidable educational challenges…. Family food insecurity is widespread, the community lacks affordable housing, and the local economy is stagnant.” The school principal, Cherie Love, reports: “Reliable transportation and money for gas is also a challenge for our families.”
Bryant adds: “Prior to the opening of its community schools program, Dona Ana was already providing free breakfast, lunch, and a healthy snack to 100 percent of its students and a free dinner and snack to about 120 students enrolled in its extended learning (afterschool) programs.” When the pandemic struck a month later, Bryant reports that, “because Dona Ana had adopted the community schools model, it had in place the personnel to meet the multiple needs of a traumatized community.”
Principal Love explains: “Our community schools coordinator worked our help desk to provide information to parents and channel their questions to the appropriate departments and people… We provided mental health support to students and their families through our school counselor and our school special education psychologist.” The school had begun working to help parents expand their children’s access to the internet, and many of the families who attended the classes “have reported that they are now using (their) iPad to support their child’s learning.”
Bryant adds that with the community school program operational after months of previous planning before the pandemic struck, “Dona Ana had in place the partners it needed to bolster support for students and families. Among those partners is New Mexico State University, which provided school supply packets to more than 200 elementary students. Another partner, local nonprofit Ngage New Mexico, provided parents a webinar in Spanish and English on ‘Creating Effective Home Learning Environments.”
Teacher and state NEA President, Parr-Sanchez hopes the educational crisis caused by the pandemic will awaken people’s awareness about the benefits of community schools in small communities as well as large cities: “After this, I think schools will be viewed as essential and that we can just own that truth without having to fight for it. So then the issue is how do we do it right, and we look to community schools as a model. And we fund them.”
What about research on the effectiveness of the community schools model? Last winter, the Rand Corporation released a study confirming that like all whole school improvement models, community schools make an increasing difference over time. The RAND study evaluated NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s expansion of community schools across an increasing number of New York City’s public schools: “In particular we found that the NYC-CS has a positive impact on student attendance in all types of schools (elementary, middle, and high schools) and across all three years that outcomes were measured (from 2015-18). We also found positive and significant impacts on elementary and middle students’ on-time grade progression in all two years for which we have data and on high school students’ graduation rates in two of the three years. Our analyses suggests that the NYC-CS led to a reduction in disciplinary incidents for elementary and middle school students but not for high school students. Finally, we found that NYC-CS had a positive impact on math achievement in the third and final year….”
In its May 5, 2020 newsletter, the National Education Policy Center reports on a study by the University of Texas at Austin’s Jennifer Jellison Holme, who poses a number of questions school personnel and policy makers ought to consider as they implement and improve community schools. Several of the questions are basic to any kind of programmatic educational improvement: “Should classroom learning play a larger role? How can community schools build more on community strengths? How can community schools effectively coordinate with and among their many partners? What is the right balance between grassroots efforts and top-down reforms? What resources are necessary to sustain the reforms and where will they come from? Could more rural areas benefit from community schools?”
Jellison Holme poses one additional question that gets at a much deeper concern: “How can the community schools movement more emphatically address broader structural inequities?” NEPC’s newsletter quotes Jellison Holme exploring the complexity embedded in that question: “Community schools policies are arguably one of the few efforts within education policy that directly acknowledge, and seek to address, the structural inequities that affect schools, in an era where other policy initiatives gloss over local contextual factors, or treat them as irrelevant… Community schools themselves can be one prong in a policy strategy to address these problems, but they likely will not succeed in isolation from efforts to address these broader issues… In sum, although we applaud the community school approach as a promising solution to massive disinvestment in urban communities, it may not translate into longer term improvements in outcomes for low-income students and their families without coupling it to building capacity and agency within communities, or addressing larger structures of segregation and finance inequity.”