Schools provide community coverage

Community school districts team with outside organizations to confront hunger, healthcare and other barriers to learning

At four elementary schools in Idaho’s Boise School District, families in need can go to specially designated community rooms to pick up food, clothing and other necessities.

The assistance offered goes even further: The community coordinator who staffs each room can help families register for food stamps, unemployment, low-cost housing and other social services, says Lisa Roberts, one of the district’s area directors.

“Attendance is the main focus of our community schools—achievement will come down the road” Roberts says. “We’ve got to get the students here first and we’ve got to get them in the mindset to learn.”

Boise’s community schools, and others like them across the country, bring outreach and social services into neighborhood schools. Designed by local K12 leaders and organizations such as the United Way, community schools keep students on track by helping to overcome learning barriers such as hunger, healthcare and family instability.

“What really keeps leaders up at night is when we know there’s a problem but don’t know what to do about it because it’s outside of our skill set” says Superintendent Charles Johns of West Chicago Elementary School District 33, which has community school partnerships with about 60 organizations.

“All aspects of a family’s life impact achievement, and now we’ve got a way to help.”

Attendance and ambition

In creating community schools, administrators often start with one or two schools and then spread the concept to other buildings as educators realize the benefits and more community organizations become involved.

Most districts hire a community schools coordinator, who may have staff stationed at individual buildings, to oversee programs and recruit new partners, says Jane Quinn, director of the National Center for Community Schools, part of the anti-poverty organization Children’s Aid Society.

More from DA: A partner in finding partners

“A community school is more than a program” Quinn says. “It’s a strategy for organizing school and community resources around student success.”

The Boise district hired a strategic partnership coordinator to oversee all initiatives, while each school’s coordinator works at the neighborhood level to find more partners and to work with families. District and building administrators who serve on various community boards have also enlisted organizations to provide services.

Substantial support

A sampling of services offered by community school districts:

For students

  • Healthcare
  • Mental health counseling
  • Homework help
  • Mentoring
  • Improved relations with police

For parents:

  • English, computer and leadership classes
  • Legal guidance
  • Tax preparation
  • Community organizing
  • Volunteer opportunities

For families:

  • Housing assistance
  • Food pantries
  • Clothing

In the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation in Indiana, rising crime, mental health issues and attendance emerged as key focuses for community school programs. The district, Indiana’s third largest, has deep experience with community schools, having gone systemwide with its program after launching the services at a single Title I school in the 1990s.

“Now, everywhere you look in our district, community partners are pushing in and supporting the identified needs of our kids and families” says Cathy Gray, the district’s associate superintendent of family, school and community partnerships.

Its programs include:

  • Crime: District teams with Evansville police, who raise money for mentoring programs including an annual trip to Disney World.
  • Mental health: With suicide a growing concern in the community, counseling services prescreen students for trauma.
  • Site councils: Each of the district’s 30-plus community schools has a council—comprising district administrators and representatives of approximately 70 community organizations—that meets monthly to add or adjust programs.

At the district’s alternative high school, the site council and the principal launched a nursing certification program after realizing students were skipping class because they hadn’t been engaged by their courses.

Several of the students who have completed the program now work at nursing homes that may eventually pay for these students to attain more advanced degrees.

“The certifications give them the immediate gratification that motivates them to get their diploma” Gray says.

‘More work, but it’s worth it’

Funding for community schools comes in a variety of forms. In Evansville Vanderburgh, the key to winning and sustaining the grants that fund the programs is constant evaluation. The district and its partners have found that students who regularly attend after-school programs have better grades.

“As a result of those evaluations, we’ve been able to secure federal grants to grow and support this work” she says.

In Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico, partners—such as the city and county governments, the University of New Mexico, nonprofit organizations and private companies—pay the salaries of the coordinators at each of the district’s 23 community schools.

Other community services are funded by grants or private support, says Kris Meurer, executive director of the district’s Family and Community Support Office.

Along with funding, enthusiastic building leadership is a necessity. Albuquerque chose buildings to become community schools based on higher free- and reduced-price lunch rates. Another key factor: The readiness of administrators to welcome community coordinators into their buildings, says Meurer.

“Principals have to be willing to share some leadership with the coordinator, be open to new ideas and allow some outside resources in” she says.

In Albuquerque, those new resources included mentorship programs for students. Providing this service meant principals had to agree to keep schools open and staffed for extended hours in the evenings. Principals also have had to share and review data with coordinators to identify other student needs that could be met by community partnerships.

“Principals have be willing to change their philosophy and see their school as the hub of the community” Meurer says.

After-school “Homework Diners” lay at the heart of Albuquerque’s support systems. Parents and students can come to school to eat and work on homework together and get academic help from teachers who volunteer to stay late.

A wide variety of other service providers have attended the sessions—legal advisors, for instance, have counseled parents on housing rights.

The programs are having a positive impact. Attendance, particularly among students who have visited the district’s health clinics, has improved, while youngsters who participate in the Homework Diners have shown academic gains, Meurer says.

“It opens up a whole new ball game” she says. “It’s more work, but it’s worth it.”

Giving families a voice

Smaller districts, particularly low-income systems, also have taken up the community schools cause.

Programs at the predominantly Hispanic West Chicago district rest on five pillars: academic achievement, health, stable families, community engagement and emergency preparedness, says Johns, the superintendent.

The district operates food pantries and offers mental health services and nutrition classes. Among its more unique programs are leadership, language and computer classes for parents, many of whom feel like they will get better jobs if they improve their skills.

Parents also learn how to get involved in local issues and how to organize community activities, says Johns.

“We’re countering the impact of people feeling marginalized—we’re teaching them how to have a voice,” he says.

The services, which are overseen by the district’s director of community partnerships, also provide a sense of comfort for educators. Principals can now go to their school’s community coordinator to get professional help for students in distress, Johns says.

Similarly, in Escambia County Schools on the Florida panhandle, teacher retention rates have hit an all-time high at C.A. Weis Elementary. The district launched its first community program there in 2015, Superintendent Malcolm Thomas says.

The efforts—which include a school-based clinic and have gone as far as helping parents prepare tax returns—are also opening the eyes of various stakeholders to the problems that public school districts grapple with, Thomas says.

“Education happens everywhere in the community, so don’t just sit on the sidelines and point your fingers at schools and shake your heads,” Thomas says. “Get in the game—get on the field with us and you’re going to see we have challenges external to our schools that are pretty debilitating.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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