When I was a community school director in Queens, New York, I designed a mentoring program for 10 percent of my chronically absent students. I enlisted a handful of volunteer staff members to serve as mentors, and provided weekly attendance data about their mentees and activities to use during student check-ins.
These touch points helped students develop trusting relationships with staff members, who helped connect students with additional resources and enrichment opportunities. Attendance rates increased for 60 percent of these students, and this trend held across each six-week mentoring cycle. We designed a similar program during the pandemic, and students who had these check-ins attended hybrid school more frequently than their grade-level peers who did not.
On a larger scale, the Oakland Unified School District, which considers itself a community schools district, uses a centralized data platform accessible to administrators, teachers, nurses, afterschool staff and community school managers, so that all of the adults supporting a student are connected and equipped with the necessary data about that young person.
I use these examples because they show how community school tactics can help reshape schooling in this country. The federal Education Department recently closed the largest Full-Service Community Schools Competition in the program’s history. Between this program and six state programs, up to $1.1 billion will be invested in community schools nationwide this year. This is tremendous, overdue news. But how can we ensure that these investments positively impact students’ educational and life outcomes?
Related: OPINION: Community schools promote equity: We need more of them
While most known for the wraparound services like the mental health clinics and food pantries they provide, the best community schools also shift the parameters of schooling so that schools better serve students and families. A well-executed community school strategy gathers and organizes all of the supports and opportunities students need to consistently attend school, make academic progress and transition into the next level of schooling and ultimately into college or living wage employment. Quality community schools narrow opportunity gaps and improve students’ education and life outcomes. A revitalized community school movement, accelerated by the federal competition, can contribute to the urgent work of helping students make up for the in-person instructional time lost during the pandemic.
This movement will be even stronger and more impactful if it looks beyond the material supports community schools can offer.
Community schools can overcome the defects in our current model of schooling to support stronger relationships and greater personalization. Community schools can also leverage their resources and partnerships to redesign aspects of the schooling experience to more directly support students’ learning experiences.
This past year I served as a Biden administration appointee at the U.S. Education Department. I helped shape the recent Full-Service Community Schools grant competition. I also designed the Community Schools Learning Series that just finished. Before that, I led and worked in community schools in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia.
Up to $1.1 billion will be invested in community schools nationwide this year. . . . How can we ensure that these investments positively impact students’ educational and life outcomes?
I have seen the many ways community schools can assess the needs of students and try to match them with supports. But too often, these supports are provided haphazardly.
Simply co-locating services on school sites does not ensure that the right services will meet the right students, or that educators will be able to see if those services have the intended impact.
But now we have models and standards that schools can use to systematically assess all students’ individual needs, provide customized services and support and track their impact over time. These standards are based on two decades of rigorous studies and evaluations showing that more methodological approaches to wraparound services do improve outcomes for students. Some community schools already use these guidelines, but many do not. More community school leaders should use these evidence-based models.
Community schools can also create structures that encourage meaningful relationships between students and at least one school-based adult, like the one I created in my Queens school. Particularly in older grades, schools’ traditional operating logic does not support the development of such strong ties.
Yet they matter greatly: A sense of belonging and connectedness to peers and staff helps students successfully progress through school.
Community schools are well positioned to create new programs, and creatively assign staff, to promote authentic relationships, due to their meaningful family engagement and collection and use of timely student data.
Will all this impact student learning? Community school experts have long cautioned that a transformational community school requires a strong instructional core, but we still do not know much about the specific ways community schools can improve teaching practices. A recent study found that most principals struggle to tie community school pillars to instruction.
In addition, teachers at community schools often perceive the “community” aspect as something entirely focused on service delivery and removed from their work in the classroom.
Yet community schools have great potential to support and even revolutionize student learning, the Task Force on Next Generation Community Schools notes. These new federal and state investments in community schools can uncover how they can support quality learning experiences for students.
Community schools can both support pandemic recovery and help design a new model of schooling more suitable for the twenty-first century. There is now more money available to do this work than ever before; we should make sure we produce durable results.
Abel McDaniels led or worked in community schools in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia, and recently served as a special assistant in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education, where he helped shape the current Full-Service Community Schools competition.
This story about community schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.