The Other Community Schools Movement

Do you know what a community school is?

Oh sure. A community school opens its doors to the community, enabling members of the surrounding community to use the media center, the swimming pool and other school facilities year round.

True, but there is another community school movement, led by a national association called the Coalition for Community Schools (CCS), which operates through the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Educational Leadership.

This community school movement certainly favors conventional community school notions, but it goes far beyond convention. This movement envisions schools as hubs for a long list of community services designed not only to improve the education offered by the school but also the well-being of the surrounding community.

Take the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation (EVSC) in Evansville, Ind., for example. The district serves more than 22,000 K-12 students in 38 schools.

In the early 1990s, Cathlin Gray, principal of Cedar Hall Elementary School, decided that the academic needs of her students included their social, emotional and health needs. In other words, students that skipped school to hang out with friends, as well as emotionally dysfunctional students and students suffering from physical illnesses could not learn what they needed to learn in class.

She reasoned that failing to address issues that interfered with academics laid the groundwork for student failures.

She made her school a hub for other community counseling and health services — 70 in all. Working with the United Way of Southwestern, Ind., Gray acquired a grant from the Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Company Worldwide Headquarters.

Now a Ph.D., Gray made her program so successful that she earned a promotion to the post of associate superintendent for an EVSC-wide community schools initiative called the Office of Family, School and Community Partnerships.

The Partnerships, now headquartered in a separate building, draw on federal, state, local and private grant funds to operate Head Start and other early learning programs, after-school and summer programs, parent education programs and programs that bring parents into the schools to help with academics. Local religious foundations and hospitals provide health services for families.

These programs coordinate their work around the community hub formed by the school district. The goal is to improve education. Do teachers need help from parents in one of the elementary schools? One of the community services can help with that. Do students across the district need pregnancy counseling? Another organization exists to handle that. Do other students lack supervision and direction after school? Check with the organizations running after-school academic, arts and sports programs.

Counselors and teachers can put students and parents in touch with these organizations.

“For many years, the education reform world has been driven by issues such as testing and teacher accountability,” says Martin Blank, director of the CCS. “But we’ve largely ignored the conditions in which children live and the opportunities children must encounter to succeed. The community school movement aims to address these problems and to provide opportunities.”

A recent report by the CCS suggests that the idea of using schools as a hub for providing various educational and community services offers great economic efficiencies. Specifically the report, entitled Financing Community Schools: Leveraging Resources To Support Student Success, says that every dollar invested by a district in a community school activity returns three dollars from private and non-profit entities within the community.

That’s a conservative estimate. Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education Arne Duncan recalls working with community school initiatives as CEO of Chicago Public Schools and says, “For every dollar spent (on community schools), we were getting back five, six, seven dollars from the business community, from non-profits, from the social service agencies, from the state and the federal government.”

Started in 2001, the Chicago Public Schools initiative had expanded to 154 schools by early last year. During the 2009-2010 school year, Chicago Public Schools invested about $18 million in the effort. The Polk Bros. Foundation, JP Morgan Chase Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust also provided funds

Studies of these initiatives report improved academic performance as well as new commitments to student and family health, increasing engagement of parents in the schools and reduced rates of disciplinary incidents.

“The main point is that the community matters in the education of our children,” says Blank. “Teachers are the most important factor inside of a school, but a whole lot of out-of-school factors also combine to influence achievement. Schools and communities can collaborate to improve school performance. Schools can change the climate and the culture and the conditions for learning inside of a school by tapping the resources and capabilities of community partners.”

Blank estimates that between 4,000 and 5,000 K-12 schools in 300 or so school districts across the country participate in this community schools movement, a number that he hopes will continue to grow.

“A hundred years ago, schools held community dances on Saturday evenings,” Blank says. “They hosted church services on Sunday mornings. During elections, communities would go to the school to cast votes. The school was a community resource. It still is, and our goal is to return schools to that central place in their communities. Clearly, the world has changed over the years, but that doesn’t mean that schools shouldn’t be central to their communities.”