Every school can and should be a community school

Credit: Photo Credit: Lost Hills Union School District

Lost Hills Union school district distributing resources to families during Covid.

The state has significantly increased the potential for school and community leaders to act together to support student learning and development through the California Community Schools Partnership Program.

The nearly $3 billion grant program empowers districts and their schools to design and implement sustainable and effective community school strategies. That is, supporting school districts and schools to intentionally work with teachers, students and families, and with community agencies and local government to align community resources to improve student outcomes.

The program — particularly the planning grants, which were just released on March 1 — has the potential to be one of the most flexible sources of funding the state has ever provided.

When done right, it provides an opportunity for schools and districts to understand and fill gaps in key areas identified by students, parents, educators and community partners and to bring existing and new programs together into a cohesive and coherent whole .

Unlike most traditional schools, community schools support learner-centred learning and development through locally driven, mutually beneficial partnerships that focus on outcomes that matter. They are schools with engaging and quality education, safe and inclusive classrooms and a positive school climate, integrated support services and enrichment opportunities, active involvement and empowerment of students and families, and sustainable and collaborative leadership in the site.

Community schools do not arise overnight and neither is a quick fix. Instead, they develop synergistically over time as educators, families and their communities work together. All schools can and should be community schools.

From this perspective, we provide educators, partners, and family and community representatives with some starting points for discussion as they plan together and strengthen their community school strategy.

Teams on school sites: Create or support a formal school team of students, parents, educators, and community partners (including higher education and community agencies) to determine how students can be supported and connect with community resources. These teams are essential in the planning process and provide a mechanism for sustainable engagement. Repurposing and expanding existing structures is feasible as long as there is a clear commitment to partnership and cooperation. Sometimes a new group is needed.

Questions to ask: Who should we hire? Do we have a culture of shared leadership and decision-making? What should we do to promote such an approach?

Fill critical gaps: The Community Schools Partnership Program can fill gaps by funding programs or deepening strategies that reflect the immediate concerns of students, parents, teachers and the community. Look for low-hanging fruit that employees and partners are ready to mobilize. Quick wins inspire confidence and efficacy and build muscle memory for more complex challenges.

Questions to ask: What data and information do we have; what else do we need to collect to identify gaps and potential strategies? Which areas are best prepared for early success?

Community school coordinators: A coordinator acts as a site-specific “chief of staff” for the principal, bringing together strategies and partners to ensure everyone is rowing in the same direction. The coordinator’s role is not to “own” all programs, but rather to promote shared ownership of student outcomes and ensure opportunities and support are based on identified needs. Coordinators cultivate a culture of collaboration that leads to lasting relationships among educators, families, partners, and communities.

Questions to ask: Is there anyone on the staff or an existing partner who could fill this role? What role can partners play?

Engaging students in community-based learning: The Covid crisis, the California drought, housing instability, pollution, community-level violence and many other issues students see every day can become a core part of an interdisciplinary curriculum. Funds can facilitate relationships with community groups with expertise in these areas and create learning opportunities that engage and lift students’ voices, are culturally affirmative, and learn to connect with their community.

Questions to ask: What are the most pressing challenges our students/families face, and how are they reflected in our curricula?

Build bridges to the community: Public schools need deeper relationships with the communities they serve. When schools recognize that they “cannot do it alone,” they recognize the social, economic and community forces that influence their ability to achieve results. They honor the resources and expertise available in their communities. A school that is more responsive to community concerns has more community support during difficult times.

Questions to ask: Which partners, systems and people in our community do we want to involve more consciously in supporting our community schoolwork?

Educators have always been able to tackle multiple challenges at once. The Community School Grant gives school districts and charter schools a unique opportunity — and the resources — to partner with families and communities to merge programs and activities into a vibrant community school. By doing so, educators can renew the democratic purpose of public education to which they have long been committed — to educate, engage, energize, and serve not just their students, but their entire community.

Hayin Kimner is the CEO of the CA Community Schools Learning Exchange, an organization that works with local education agencies, community partners, and other youth and family services to strengthen the development and implementation of community school strategy. Martin J. Blank was the founder and director of the Coalition for Community Schools and the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the authors. EdSource welcomes comments representing different points of view. If you would like to comment, please review our guidelines and contact us.

To receive more such reports, click here to sign up for EdSource’s free daily email on the latest developments in education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.