The promise of community schools

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Lieselle Taylor’s metaphor for the philosophy behind community schools might seem macabre at first, but fitting when discussing children’s futures.

“You may have that one young cousin or niece or nephew, who, maybe their mom dies or their dad dies. What do you do?” she says. One of the most natural responses would be something like: “coming together as a family.”

“You come together and you make sure they are provided for. As a whole family, come Christmas time, you make sure there are presents, you take them out to their favorite places. You wrap your arms around them,” says Taylor, director of community schools for the Rochester City School District. You’re acting as a community even if you don’t call yourself a community. The same way it is in your personal life, it is with educational systems.”

Taylor is referring to the community school model, a concept that has grown in popularity since the COVID-19 pandemic. The city school district has more than 20 locations listed as community schools. Now, as part of RCSD’s 2024-2029 Strategic Plan, all schools will implement the community school model with fidelity by 2028.

At its core, the model acts as a hub for services, connecting students and their families with organizations that can help with challenges like food and clothing insecurity, and provide health services, enrichment programs and career opportunities. This comes from the belief that students cannot learn while concerned with basic needs such as shelter or safety.

Joseph Fantigrossi, regional community schools coordinator at Monroe 2–Orleans BOCES 2, observes that while the concept might seem simple, the implementation is actually quite complex. However, he believes it is well worth the effort.

On four pillars

These schools are built on four pillars: integrated student support, expanded learning time and opportunities, family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership. Many operate on an all-day and all-year schedule in aiding both children and adults.

The model is not largely focused on academic outcomes. However, supporters say that meeting these basic needs will naturally improve student performance, in part by reducing chronic absenteeism, and can pay dividends years after implementation.

Source: Learning Policy Institute

This concept of community schools has grown in popularity since 2020. Both the COVID pandemic and killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Daniel Prude in Rochester exposed disparities and areas of need along lines of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

“I think the combination of those two things (wouldn’t) allow most people to keep their heads in the sand anymore. …They were forced to acknowledge realities that, from a community schools perspective, we had been aware of for a long time,” Fantigrossi says.

In Monroe County, 11 of 18 schools in the Greece Central School District are using these strategies. East Irondequoit and Gates-Chili are both one year into implementing the model at middle schools, and Hilton Central School District will begin its journey with community schools in the 2024-2025 school year.

For a young population in the midst of their own traumas and with needs unlike any prior generation, the promise of community schools could lead to long-term improvements.

Expanding the model

Community schools follow closely educational principles of holistic education laid out over a century ago by John Dewey. This current era of community schools began in the 1990s with strong partnership models between schools and community resources in Philadelphia and Indianapolis.

Following his successful mayoral run in 2014, Bill de Blasio brought a community schools model, which was a recent success story in the inner city of Cincinnati, to New York City. He began that process with a $150 million plan targeting 94 of the city’s worst-performing schools. The city’s education department currently lists 258 schools in the community school category.

Two years later, then Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced $100 million in state funding to similarly convert struggling schools into community schools.

These efforts coincided with the beginning of New York’s new receivership system, under which a school—if it is found to be struggling for at least three consecutive years—will be taken over by a third party such as a nonprofit or educational partnership organization or transitioned into a charter or community school.

In Rochester, East Lower and Upper schools, James Monroe High School, and School No. 9 were among the first identified as “persistently struggling” in the 2016-2017 school year. Other schools that soon joined them included School No. 8, No. 28, No. 33 and Edison Career & Technology High School, all of which adopted a community school model.

This connection with the receivership system likely entrenched a prevailing belief that community school strategies are only for struggling schools. Experts strongly disagree with this notion.

“It is an educational transformation strategy that everybody should be doing and, in fact, many of our best schools already are,” says Jay Roscup, a member of the NYS Community Schools Thruway Coalition and Wayne County Community Schools director.

“Take any ‘good school.’ Look at the number of clubs that are offered for enrichment and expanded learning; I bet it’s up there. If you look to see if there are mental health supports for students, I bet they’re there,” he continues. “They may not be needing a food pantry, because their kids are all set, but I bet they’re still talking about nutrition in food.”

Adds Fantigrossi: “In New York especially, community schools were accepted as a framework for failing schools. And so it did get a reputation as something only for ‘those schools.’”

Both Roscup and Fantigrossi were involved in one of the first regional community school efforts, at Lyons Central School District in 2011, and believe their success in Wayne County was part of the expansion of the model from a purely urban setting.

The year-old Thruway Coalition advocates for, and helps organize, more community schools with over 30 non-New York City participating districts, 29 partnership agencies, and two participating universities. Similarly, since 2020, Fantigrossi has helped launch countywide collaboratives in Seneca, Onondaga, and Ontario counties.

RCSD Deputy Superintendent Ruth Turner predicts more community schools for Rochester in the coming years based on new grant applications. 

“It’s no longer us going to them and trying to sell it, it’s schools coming to us saying, ‘We want to try this.’ And it’s at a level where it’s faster than we can support them,” Turner says. “So, this new support is very important to us.”

Eliminating barriers to learning

Broadly, community schools connect students with necessary services to eliminate barriers to learning.

“One thing that we’ve learned is, it’s really, really hard to learn math and reading when you’re hungry. It’s really really hard to come to school and bring your best self forward when, perhaps, you are homeless. We don’t put those needs away just because we enter into a school,” says Turner.

“To come up out of those circumstances and achieve at a high level, that takes incredible amounts of self determination and willpower,” she adds.

Without properly addressing basic hierarchies of need—food, clothing, shelter, safety, health—individuals will not be able to access higher modes of thought. Turner points out that, regardless of the cause, schools have to deal with gaps in need first before expecting academic success.

Community schools do not tackle these issues alone. For example, food insecurity in a number of schools is addressed with an in-building food pantry managed by Foodlink. Dental care is provided by “SMILEmobiles,” mobile clinics from the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health.

SMILEmobiles offer dental care to students.

For some families, access to services can be the greatest challenge. This model lowers that barrier by having schools act as community hubs. Instead of a parent needing to take a child out of school to a doctor’s office, community school students are able to go directly to a clinic or conduct a telehealth call in the same building.

“Why would you send them to a whole other location when they’re right here already? If they’re here, they’re in need, bring the services to them,” says Turner.

She recalls a simple example of one site coordinator noticing a recurrence of shaggy hair among boys at an elementary school. In that case, they partnered with a local barber who came into the school to give haircuts free of charge.

“At the end of school, while they’re waiting for the bus, they can have a quick haircut, which means mom doesn’t have to go out and schedule one later, which could be difficult when you’re facing other barriers,” she says.

When it comes to using government agencies funded by taxpayers, Roscup addresses cost concerns from a perspective of efficiency. Instead of asking schools to pay for external providers, counties can drop in those needed services they are already providing elsewhere.

“A savvy taxpayer will go, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t we take these adults who are sitting in these empty office buildings and put them here where people already are?’ So, it’s actually cost savings because you’re not asking the school to pay for those services. Done right, schools ask them to drop in the services they’re already providing somewhere else,” he concludes.

Organizations listed in partnership with at least one of RCSD’s community schools include Center for Youth, Common Ground Health, Coordinated Care Services, Generation 2 Rochester, Hillside, the IBERO Action League, M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, Monroe County Child & Family Services, ROC the Future, Rochester Regional Health, Rochester Youth Year and the Urban League of Rochester.

Making the transition

Transitioning to a community school is an involved process that requires both planning and buy-in.

“You can’t come in and say, ‘We’re a community school,’ and expect all the good things to happen and the bad things to go away. That’s what New York tried to do,” Roscup says of efforts by Cuomo in 2016. “It’s not a proclamation, it’s a process.”

Turner says schools often spend a year onboarding before launching as a community school to make sure leadership and staff are aligned on why the change is being made.

“Oftentimes, (what) our educational systems are really good at is the how, but we never articulate the why. So, we don’t want to build the house without building the foundation first,” she says. “You don’t want to throw up resources and supports there without having an understanding or appreciation of that process.”

In order to set focus areas, schools need to conduct a needs and asset survey to identify areas of possible growth and strength. Fantigrossi says both quantitative data on topics such as attendance, behavior, or testing scores, as well as qualitative data from interviews with students and families are important for the standards of equity, efficiency and effectiveness.

He adds that cost concerns are fair, since most school district funding is directly based on property taxes. There has been an increase in government grants with the rise of community schools. At the federal level, for example, the Full-Service Community Schools grant increased from $25 million in 2020 to $150 million in 2023. Also, many programs are funded through organizations’ own grants rather than the school itself.

“If you are implementing the community schools strategy with fidelity, your return on investment is anywhere from $7 to $10 on the dollar for that work,” says Fantigrossi of the research done into the finances.

Flexing to needs

While the framework guiding community schools is well established, it is a flexible system depending on needs. Different school populations naturally have different needs and a good community school system should be able to adjust accordingly.

For instance, School No. 9 has a food pantry. It also has a significantly larger Hispanic student population (72 percent) than the district as a whole (34 percent).

“So, I know, in that food pantry, we should order the food that those families want and will actually use,” says Taylor. “Because you could have a pantry with bulgur wheat or wheatgrass that’s just a waste for this school because that’s not part of their normal diet.”

There is still plenty of crossover in areas of need, however. Young people are universally dealing with trauma and disconnectedness, which requires mental health and social emotional training, Fantigrossi observes. That commonality can be a strength for community schools, if properly aligned.

“For the longest time, we’ve expected all these county-level officials to get to know all of these different school districts in the county and to bend the way they do service to the rules and regulations of each school,” he says. “All of these systems have their own language, training and terminology. Successful community schools find a way to open lines of communication, speak on the same level, and see the commonality that they all want to help young people. This work does require setting egos aside.”

Fantigrossi currently heads a Cooperative Service agreement (Co-Ser) through Monroe 2-Orleans BOCES. Purchasing services through this Co-Ser would connect schools with appropriate partners and could help provide state aid.

The steering committee includes the Monroe County districts with community schools, Common Ground Health, United Way, Delphi Rise, Bivona Child Advocacy Center, the Children’s Institute, Monroe County Department of Public Health, the Center for Youth, and the Warner School of Education. Their opening event will take place this fall with 75 agencies invited to the table.

“It is a blessing of Monroe County that there is such a wide variety of agencies and (community-based organizations) and government entities and school districts that want what’s best for the county,” Fantigrossi remarks.

Success stories

Among RCSD’s community schools, a third have either improved out of receivership or never fell into that category.

East Upper school, which is set to rise out of receivership next year, went from graduation rates under 40 percent with the 2011 cohort to 78 percent as of August 2023, compared with 86 percent statewide and RCSD’s 67 percent average. Proficient scores on state testing for Math and English Language Arts also rose during that time period.

Collected research from a 2017 Learning Policy Institute report documents this trend of improved student outcomes. The Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, for example, saw increases in attendance and improvements on both math and reading state tests. It does also note those effects take time to develop.

“If I started my diet two weeks ago, and I go, ‘Gosh, I just haven’t lost those 40 pounds yet,’ well, maybe I just need to give it more time. I also need to make sure I’m sticking to the process that I set out,” Roscup says. 

He brings up improving behaviors based on data about conflicts in a school as an example. Teaching young people how to disagree politely or training teachers in de-escalation tactics should hopefully lead to fewer office referrals, but it takes time and careful observation.

“It’s not just dropping in a bunch of random programs and hoping it works,” Roscup says. “If I say I’m going to stick to my diet and then I’m cheating on it every day, well, is the diet not working or are you not working the diet?”

“It is not a silver bullet. But it is an excellent way of organizing our work for collective impact,” says Fantigrossi. “I’ve been in this profession for 27 years and it’s the first strategy that I can wholeheartedly put my belief and my reputation behind.”

While quantitative data are important to consider, Turner says for her, it’s the sights and the sounds that really touch an emotional core.

“I can tell you, without any data point, this school has a drastic reduction in suspensions because you can see, hear and feel it,” she says. “What you see, hear and feel are hallways that are quiet, students that are engaged, teachers that are passionate. You see parents who feel like they’re really part of the school.

“You see a community,” she concludes.

This Community Chronicles article was made possible by a grant from the ESL Charitable Foundation. 

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

3 thoughts on “The promise of community schools

  1. WEB Pages to SHARE School Ideas and Accomplishments, might help!
    Not to brag, but I set up a primitive school idea page, called:
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    Why do schools have to constantly, “REINVENT the WHEEL” when it comes to ideas,
    to motivate students and teachers?
    Also, I suggest RELAXATION ideas, to help students, teachers and parents cope with stress.
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  2. Where to begin. Community Schools will actually provide socioeconomic support. What leads to that need is the family breakdown. Outside organizations with tax dollars are stepping in because of the family breakdown. That said, I am beyond pleased that the Community School process or concept has been implemented. They obviously get the job done. Now lets address the RCSD and its abject failure to educate our youth. Unless that aspect is addressed, the Community School will become a fixed item. The county doesn’t seem to need the Community School. The fact of the matter is that a solid education will lay the foundation for attaining a profession or career that is self supporting. When are the members of the RCSB going to realize this and give the urban kids an opportunity to escape the generational poverty? When? Education provides choice. Choice is absent when one has no skill or career. All kids, urban included, have innate skills or gifts. The educational journey needs to help kids discover those skills/gifts. It’s really that simple. Get er done!!

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