Community schools remove barriers to learning

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A community school is both a place and a strategy for organizing resources around children, families and neighbors. When basic needs—food, housing, medical care, employment—are met, children come to school ready to learn, families have greater stability, and neighborhoods thrive. A community school is like a smartphone, responding to multiple, ever-changing commands in real time. While programs are a part of community schools, it is their operating systems that lead to the intended impact.

Kirsten Barclay

Most community schools provide access to social, health and mental health services; extended learning time; early childhood programs; workforce development; and robust family and community engagement. Integral to their success are rigorous, relevant instruction and the relationships between the school and the families and communities they serve. 

Community schools require partnerships. Schools are not experts in medical care, mental health treatment protocols, housing access, and legal services, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. The partnership is strongest when there is agreement on the intended outcomes, shared responsibility and accountability, and children are at the center of every decision.  

Across the country, a community schools movement is underway. In some places, counties have led the initiatives: Driven by funding shortages, they use community schools as a more efficient way to bring resources to their citizens. Many teachers’ unions are pushing for community schools: According to the American Federation of Teachers, “establish(ing) community schools is solution-driven unionism at its finest.” AFT and other unions encourage community schools both in contract negotiations and in their partnerships with districts. Initiatives are also led by United Ways, city-county-district compacts, nonprofits, philanthropy, and many others. 

In Rochester, where over half of our children live in poverty and transportation is limited to those who can afford it, community schools just make sense. Children can see their doctors and receive vaccinations and sports clearances; parents can enroll in job training and find information about affordable housing; and neighbors can come together at the school for community celebrations and civic events because they are always welcome. And it is not technocrats or elected officials who define what these schools will provide. The communities themselves identify their assets and set their priorities, and the community schools’ operating systems provide access to ever-changing services in order to meet their needs. 

There are several schools in the Rochester City School District, and at least one in Greece where amazing community schools work is underway. Each model is different because their communities’ needs are unique. Community schools do not replace other school improvement strategies; rather, they complement them by removing barriers to learning. 

School No. 17 is the center of the JOSANA neighborhood and has long been working toward a full-service community school model. With an active neighborhood organization and settlement house, a visionary school leader, and a supportive mayor, School No. 17 has become a proof point for what community schools can accomplish in Rochester. 

The hard work of becoming a community school is showing results. From 2014-15 to 2017-18, the state Education Department’s academic growth score for School No. 17 rose from the 40th percentile to the 85th percentile. Average daily attendance is over 90 percent for the first time; suspensions are down from almost 3,000 days per year to 217 so far this year; and the school is coming out of receivership, a designation reserved for the lowest-performing school in the state.

Most importantly, a school that was chaotic and violent four years ago is now cheerful and teeming with proudly-displayed learning projects, children are buzzing—busily engaged in their learning because they feel safe and connected, parents gather and linger to build relationships and refer each other to different resources, and partners have stepped up to new challenges in ways they can be proud of. 

In a city where system-level reform can feel elusive and distant, the work of converting a traditional school to a community school can begin tomorrow. At schools where these transformations are already underway, teachers, leaders and partners are beginning to remove barriers to learning and proving that they are worthy of our attention, praise, and support.

Kirsten Barclay is the author of CGR’s report, “School #17 Strategic Plan – Developing an Implementation Plan for a Community School.” She serves as a co-chair of the Community Schools Leadership Team at ROC the Future, and is a senior program officer at the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation. 

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