The Community Schools Model
An approach to transformative school improvement challenges existing education models.
In recent decades, an education approach commonly called “community schools” has challenged the notion of top-down policy making from Washington, D.C. and state capitols and provided an alternative model that is decidedly more bottom-up. The approach, which has taken hold in a number of school districts across the country, seeks to address student achievement challenges by responding to the full range of factors that can influence learning, including factors outside of schools.
Community schools look different from state to state, and even different from school to school, but at the heart of the model is an emphasis on meeting the multiple needs of not only students but also the community that surrounds the school. The basic idea is that schools should serve as hubs in the community and partner with local organizations that serve the many needs of families and students. Schools are the delivery source because that’s where children and families are. Also, the school’s curriculum should reflect the local culture and interests of the community, and the governance should be shared among the various stakeholders that the school actually serves.
The approach, as defined by the U.S. Department of Education’s Full-Service Community Schools (FSCS) program, involves “the coordination, integration, accessibility, and effectiveness of services for children and families, particularly for children attending high-poverty schools, including high-poverty rural schools.”
A Nationwide Movement
The community schools approach got its first significant national attention in the 2020 Democratic party presidential campaign when leading candidates for the nomination committed to investing in community schools.
The profile of the community schools approach rose even higher in February 2021, when a coalition of education advocacy groups, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, wrote an open letter to congressional leaders asking that more federal dollars be spent on full-service community schools. The letter noted Congress allocated $30 million in funding for such schools nationwide, a number the coalition deemed far too low to meet the “need and demand for this strategy.” Subsequently, in April 2021, the Biden administration proposed a fiscal 2022 budget for the education department that included an increase in spending of $413 million for the FSCS, a nearly 15-fold boost for the program, from $30 million to $443 million.
Days after the budget announcement, Cardona visited an elementary school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, that “is one of 65 ‘community schools’ in the county,” the Washington Post reported, “each considered a hub for family support and social services, along with student learning.” This marked one of the first school visits of his tenure.
While giving input to Congress on behalf of Biden’s proposed budget for the Department of Education, Cardona explained that full-service community schools honor the “role of schools as the centers of our communities and neighborhoods” and are designed to help students achieve academically by making sure their needs—for food, counseling, relationships, or a new pair of eyeglasses, and so on—are also being met.
What Are Community Schools?
Advocates for the community schools approach often stress that it is not a program, but a strategy for transformational school improvement.
As the language of the federal government’s grant program suggests, one of the chief features of the community school model is for the school to serve not just as providers of academic services but also as hubs for services, often called “wraparound services,” that meet other needs that children and families may have. For this reason, many educators describe the community schools approach as a whole child approach to education that considers more than just students’ academic outcomes and includes attention to students’ health, mental, socioeconomic, and cultural conditions that often have more impact on students’ abilities to learn.
But it would be a mistake to view the model as simply a matter of adding wraparopund services to a school’s programming. Formal descriptions of the community schools approach, such as the one offered by the Learning Policy Institute, frequently get into details about multiple components of the model, often called “pillars.”
But practitioners of the approach often boil it down to the fundamentals of democratic governance and shared leadership of school polices and programming. For example, every community schools implementation requires the school to conduct a needs assessment, including an audit of program strengths and weaknesses and assets in the surrounding community, and an outreach, via surveys and interviews, to students, parents, business leaders, local nonprofits, and others. Implementations of the model also require schools to create structures, such as teams or committees, that are representative of the multiple voices that make up the school and that genuinely address problems people care about most.
Practitioners of the community schools approach say the model’s emphasis on community engagement and participation creates a sense of cohesion among the community members that make up the school, and this greater feeling of belonging to something much bigger than oneself can lead to a heightened concern for those in the community who are struggling.
Classroom teaching also becomes something that has to be responsive to the needs and interests of students rather than a static curriculum, and teachers in community schools often need to undergo professional development on culturally responsive teaching.
Evidence of the Model’s Success
Advocates for the community schools approach frequently cite Cincinnati—where community schools are referred to as community learning centers—as an exemplar of the approach’s success.
Cincinnati’s record of improving student academic measures had been reported by Greg Anrig, an author and vice president of Washington, D.C., think tank the Century Foundation, in 2013. A 2014 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the district’s model of turning schools into “community learning centers” was being hailed as a potential “national model” for urban districts.
Cincinnati schools that had taken up the community learning center model operated as “neighborhood-based ‘hub[s],’” according to a 2017 joint report by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center, with schools that had a special coordinator who created partnerships with local agencies and nonprofits to provide a range of academic, health, and social services to students and families.
That study found that “well-implemented community schools lead to improvement in student and school outcomes and contribute to meeting the educational needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools.” The study identified four common features of the approach: integrated services, family and community engagement, expanded learning time, and collaborative leadership. It found that these four features, when effectively implemented, “increase the odds that young people in low-income and under-resourced communities will be in educational environments with meaningful learning opportunities, high-quality teaching, well-used resources, additional supports, and a culture of high expectations, trust, and shared responsibility.” Cincinnati schools offering these services “had better attendance and showed significant improvements on state graduation tests,” according to the joint report.
In early 2020, a research study released by the Rand Corporation looked at the results of the community schools program in New York City, where the idea was introduced in 2014, and found that schools using the model were able to increase attendance and graduation rates, improve school climate and culture, raise math scores, and ensure higher percentages of students advanced to the next grade. Older studies of the community school model’s impact have found similar results in terms of improving attendance, quality of school life, and graduation rates. The model’s impact on academics is more mixed, according to these studies, but those outcomes would likely take longer to show up. According to the Center for American Progress, every $1 invested in a community schools program in New York City delivers an additional $12 to $15 in social value—a measure not only of revenues generated and costs avoided, but also of “qualitative impact.”
Opposition to the Approach
To some, the idea of saddling schools with even more responsibilities beyond academics seems an overreach, especially when schools are already sorely challenged to deliver adequate instruction in core academic subjects.
First, local educators and school board members readily admit that all the emphasis on community involvement and inclusive democracy takes time.
The community school approach also goes in the opposite direction from the decades-long trend of a school improvement model driven mostly by test scores, and other forms of “data,” and devoted to command-and-control decisions made by central offices in local, state, and federal governments. Thus, the approach creates some tensions for school boards because they are still being held accountable by state and federal measures that have changed little over the past two decades.
Under current federally imposed accountability for test scores, educators and activists seeking to address the underlying causes of low achievement—such as poverty, childhood trauma, racism, or family dysfunction—were accused of making “excuses” for low achievement. “When will we stop making excuses for poor performance?” asked former President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, in a speech at Hampton University in 2010. In an address to the National Urban League in 2010, he called for “rejecting the old excuses for why kids can’t learn.”
The “no excuse” term originated from a belief that too many schoolteachers who blamed poor student performance on factors outside their control—including a lack of funding, parent indifference, or poverty—were using the “age-old excuses” to divert attention from the supposed “real” cause of low achievement: bad teaching. Due to the primacy of “no excuse” thinking, an idea like community schools—with its emphasis on educating the whole child and directing school resources to community needs and interests—got scant attention.
Advocates for “school choice” policies that redirect public funds to local schools to private providers also generally oppose policy measures that would give the physical presence of public schools more prominence in communities.
During the COVID 19 pandemic, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo responded to the pandemic’s impact on education by announcing vague plans to “reimagine” schools as something no longer reliant on “all these buildings, all these physical classrooms”—a rejection of the whole idea of schools as a physical presence that can serve as a hub for the community.
Former Florida governor and failed presidential candidate Jeb Bush declared in an op-ed in the Washington Post that online education was “the future of learning” and that the lesson to be learned about the pandemic was that the “longer term” plan for public education is to “continue without access to classrooms.” And Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education under former President Donald Trump, announced new grant money for those school districts willing to “rethink education” as long as the education is somewhere other than “what takes place in any given physical building.”
Another problem the model faces is that it doesn’t fall into the traditional media narrative of schools as places with heroic individuals—the one great teacher or the hard-charging principal—but rather as institutions with systems and problem-solving processes. Building the right systems and structures is what makes community school work.
Nevertheless, educators who are implementing the community schools approach on the ground are proving these naysayers wrong.
Examples of Community Schools Implementations
In New Mexico: A practical approach in the toughest of circumstances
One state where the community schools approach has taken hold to a great extent is New Mexico, a state that greatly struggles to adequately educate children and serve their communities.
In 2017, the state was tied with Louisiana for the second-highest poverty rate in the nation, 19.7 percent, according to World Population Review. Personal finance site WalletHub ranked New Mexico as the worst state in America to raise a family, based on a range of factors, including education and childcare, where the state ranked last, and socioeconomics, where it ranked 48.
In its 2019 state-to-state comparison of overall child well-being, the Annie E. Casey Foundation rated New Mexico at the very bottom. The highly respected analysis was especially brutal in ranking New Mexico 50 in education due to the state’s poor fourth-grade reading test scores (with only 25 percent of students rating “proficient”) and high percentage of high school students who do not graduate within four years (29 percent). The state also ranked bottom or near bottom on a number of other factors including health care, economic conditions, and household and community circumstances. New Mexico, along with Mississippi, has the most children living in high-poverty areas—24 percent.
All these adverse conditions correlate to big problems for children’s education attainment unless the government can come up with significant amounts of school funding to address complications caused by poverty and its related trauma. Yet New Mexico’s school funding is both too little and poorly allocated.
In an April 2019 analysis of state-level school funding in the 2015-2016 school year, written by Bruce Baker, Mark Weber and Matthew Di Carlo for the Albert Shanker Institute, New Mexico ranked above average, 13, for its “fiscal effort,” a measure of the state’s school spending as a percentage of the state’s gross domestic product. But part of that above-average ranking is due to the fact the state’s GDP severely lags most other states, ranking 38 according to Wikipedia.
The state struggles in other funding measures, according to the analysis, ranking 44 for how it funds its highest-poverty districts, and it is in the bottom third for its “progressivity”—a measure of state and local revenue in higher-poverty districts compared to the lowest-poverty districts.
All these factors have crippled academic achievement in New Mexico. The state’s eighth-grade students’ scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a periodic exam often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, have not seen any progress in their reading scores since 2002. In the most recent round of exams in 2019, reading scores declined modestly from where they were in 2002. Eighth-grade math scores on the exams seemed to be on an overall trend of slight improvement in the first decade of this century, but they have been generally dropping steadily since 2011.
Despite these adverse circumstances, the community schools approach has become a practical strategy being implemented statewide. A 2019 memo to the state legislature from the state department of education listed 29 community schools, and others have taken up that approach since.
One such implementation has been taken up in Las Cruces where median household income in the district is almost $5,000 less than that of the state, 42 percent of children live in single-parent families, more than a quarter of households lack broadband internet, and over 18 percent of public school parents are unemployed. In 2016, a partnership that included the local teachers’ union; leaders of community, youth-focused nonprofit organizations; and representatives of the business sector had spearheaded a successful effort to get the district’s first community schools program located at Lynn Middle School in 2017.
Progress happened quickly, according to a report by New Mexico in Depth. The article quoted Principal Toni Hull who said that by 2018, absentee rates at Lynn Community Middle School had dropped substantially, a new disciplinary code emphasizing conflict resolution instead of suspensions cut discipline incidents in half, and the school district’s grade on the state report card rose from an F to a D.
By 2019, Lynn Community Middle School was providing, through its community schools initiative, a wide range of services to students and families, including an on-campus dental clinic, mental health services, a food bank, summer programs, horticulture classes, service learning projects, money management and nutritional education, a garden and cooking club, and a family center, which provides “clothing, hygiene items, access to technology, [and] a healthy snack bar,” according to Las Cruces Sun News.
Drawing from the success at Lynn, Las Cruces city officials and the school district moved to spread the community schools idea to other schools. Among those schools was Doña Ana Elementary, which officially kicked off its community schools program in February 2020. Doña Ana, a rural village about 10 miles outside of Las Cruces, already faced formidable educational challenges. Family food insecurity is widespread, the community lacks affordable housing, and the local economy is stagnant. Reliable transportation and money for gas is also a challenge for families.
Since adopting its community schools strategy, Doña Ana Elementary provides free breakfast, lunch, and a healthy snack to 100 percent of its students and a free dinner and snack to students enrolled in its extended learning (afterschool) programs. The school also provides mental health support to students and their families through its school counselor and its school special education psychologist. Through its community schools program, the school also provides adult education courses, including computer classes.
Doña Ana also put in place a network of community partners to bolster support for students and families. Among those partners is New Mexico State University, which has provided school supply packs and other resources to the students. Another partner, local nonprofit Ngage New Mexico, has provided parents a webinar in Spanish and English on subject such as “Creating Effective Home Learning Environments.”
In Milwaukee: A positive alternative to school choice
Milwaukee has been the nation’s longest-running experiment with school choice, starting 30 years ago when Milwaukee became the first city in the nation to introduce school vouchers that allow parents to transfer their children to private schools at taxpayer expense. Since then, the choice agenda has been greatly expanded. Now, Milwaukee families can choose to enroll their children in public schools operated by the district; in charter schools, managed either by the district or by a private organization; in private schools, religious or nonreligious; in virtual schools, operated either by the district or by a for-profit company; or in suburban schools outside the district—all with taxpayer dollars following the students. According to a 2020 analysis by Urban Milwaukee, 54 percent of Milwaukee students attend traditional public schools, 32 percent use vouchers to attend private schools, and 14 percent are enrolled in charter schools, most of which are operated by private management.
All this choice was instituted for the sake of raising the educational attainment of Black and Latinx students. While certainly some families may have benefitted from the city’s complicated approach to school choice, the community as a whole has not improved its academic outcomes. After nearly 30 years of choice, Milwaukee students are consistently behind their peers in other urban communities and aren’t catching up, according to results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), considered the gold standard in assessments. According to the 2017 biennial NAEP, among the 27 nationwide urban districts included in the exams, fourth-graders in Milwaukee had the second-lowest scores in the nation for math and reading, behind Detroit. Milwaukee eighth-graders also bested only Detroit in math and scored above only Detroit and Cleveland in reading.
Further, the primacy of choice has resulted in creating a chronically disruptive system in which schools open and close at high rates and students churn in and out of schools that often do nothing to advance their education. A study of Milwaukee’s school voucher program published in 2016 found that “41 percent of all private voucher schools operating in Milwaukee between 1991 and 2015 failed.” Charter school failure rates have also been high. According to a 2020 analysis by the Network for Public Education, of the 119 charter “schools in the greater Milwaukee area that opened between 1998 and 2015, 72 (60 percent) failed by 2017.” Most of the failures—“57 percent (41 of 72)”—occurred in high-poverty areas (“census tracts with poverty rates that exceeded 30 percent”). A 2018 analysis of the high rates of student transfers in the district conducted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that “Milwaukee has one of the most open education landscapes among the nation’s largest cities, one built on the idea that parents—especially low-income parents—should be able to choose the best school for their child.” The analysis concluded, “The sheer volume of churn may be undermining the goal of enhanced school choice: higher academic performance.” The suggestion by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Erin Richards that the high rate of student churn in Milwaukee schools “may” harm academic achievement is an understatement. Studies have found that high rates of student churn in schools hurt not only the students who come and go, “but also those who remain enrolled,” according to a review of the research in Education Week.
Instead of a system of choice and churn, for many years educators, teachers’ unions, and community organizers in Milwaukee have proposed that community schools are a positive alternative that would prioritize stability and the real needs of students. The push for community schools in Milwaukee goes back to 2013, according to Milwaukee school board member Bob Peterson, when the state, compelled by the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, was looking at options to address the 5,000 lowest-performing schools in the state, most of which were located in Milwaukee, that were threatened with being closed down if they did not improve. But there was so little success with the agenda imposed by NCLB, that school board members agreed there was a need for trying a different approach. With the support of the local teachers’ union and local United Way, the board was persuaded to turn some of the Milwaukee schools that faced closure into community schools. Also, according to Peterson, the board learned the effort would hardly break the bank—only $100,000 per school, mostly to pay for startup expenses and the community school coordinator, who would remain an employee of United Way. By 2020, there were 12 community schools in the Milwaukee district.
As in other implementations of the approach, community schools in Milwaukee feature onsite coordinators, counselors, nurses, and social workers, and they have formed existing partnerships with other care agencies in the community to bring their collective resources to serve the needs of families. But Milwaukee schools are also using the strategy to have significant impact on academic programs and achievement.
Guided by the input of students and community members, some schools have created youth youncils for their schools which have resulted in changes to school curricula. Members of youth councils have lead community conversations in the classroom and formed alliances with students from other Milwaukee high schools to successfully persuade the school board to provide funding for ethnic studies courses. In June 2020, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the district pledged to provide funding for up to 12 ethnic study positions in the next school year.
Refuting the idea that a focus on the whole child distracts from academics, Peterson points to the steady progress Hopkins Lloyd, a Milwaukee high school that implemented the community schools approach, made on the state’s school rating system, moving from a rating of “Fails to Meet Expectations,” with a score of 52.1 in 2016-2017, to a rating of “Meets Few Expectations,” with a score of 61 in 2018-2019, just two points shy of the “Meets Expectations” level.
In Durham, North Carolina: An alternative to state takeover
In 2017, Lakewood Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, was a flashpoint of grassroots protest due to a threat by the state to take over the school. “Roughly 200 protesters, parents and neighborhood residents” rallied at Lakewood Elementary to keep the school out of the state’s new Innovative School District (ISD), reported NC Policy Watch, a media project of the North Carolina Justice Center.
The ISD was created by the state legislature to take over low-performing schools and transfer governance from the local school board to charter school management companies. Lakewood, along with Glenn Elementary in Durham and three other schools in the state, was on the shortlist of schools at risk of being transferred into the ISD. In response to the news of the takeover, Durham teachers parents, community activists, and the Durham school board united in an effort to stave off a transfer of school governance from the community to a private organization. The activists formed the group Defend Durham Schools to share research and talking points on state takeovers and started a Facebook page to recruit more community support.
The resistance was successful, as state officials dropped the Durham schools from their list of takeover targets and eventually took over only one school in Robeson County. But today Lakewood remains a much-talked-about school not for resisting the state takeover but for what happened after.
As NC Policy Watch reported in September 2019, after the successful effort to stave off a takeover, Lakewood’s performance on the state’s annual school report card assessments leaped from a grade of F to a C, and its measures of academic growth improved by 16 percentage points, with grade-level proficiency increasing by 17.6 percentage points. In contrast, the Robeson County school taken over by North Carolina’s ISD made scant improvements since it was taken over, NC Policy Watch reported in 2019, making gains in third-grade math only and earning an F rating on its state report card.
Lakewood’s conversion to the community school approach was likely instrumental in its success. After the state’s threat to take over the school, the Durham school board partnered with teachers and local organizations to examine school improvement models being used in communities with similar demographics, such as Cincinnati. Durham school board members also listened to local teachers rather than treating them as adversaries and worked with the Durham affiliate of the National Education Association to explore successful approaches that had been used in other urban school districts.
The consensus view that emerged from these discussions was that people wanted schools to serve as neighborhood hubs that serve the multiple needs of families. They also wanted schools, when determining their policies and practices, to be more inclusive of the diverse voices of teachers, parents, students, and community members.
Borrowing from Cincinnati’s community learning centers and what the teachers’ union called “community schools,” Durham gradually put together a school improvement approach that grew from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down and a renewed commitment to be more inclusive of others and more committed to solving inequities.
A key to the school’s success with the community schools approach, according to local educators, was to increase engagement and participation and ask the community what it needed, not make assumptions about what families wanted. To conduct the outreach, the school started “family engagement goal teams” to increase interaction between teachers and families. This included home visits and a phone bank that contacts families.
In Hillsborough County, Florida: Reading scores improved with streetlights
Gibsonton Elementary is part of the Hillsborough County Public Schools system, the seventh-largest school district in the U.S., serving nearly 224,000 students. By 2022, the district was in its third year of implementing the community schools approach, with six schools in the district in their third year of using the community schools approach, two in their second year, and two more being added in 2023. Gibsonton Elementary seemed like a good fit for the model.
The school is just one of a handful of schools in Gibsonton, an unincorporated, semi-rural community south of Tampa Bay that has its roots in agriculture, light manufacturing, maritime-related businesses, and the carnival industry. Nearly 20 percent of households in the community are at or below the poverty rate, according to World Population Review, with a median house value of only $188,400, and with 71 percent of adults having attained an education of less than an associate or college degree. The community seems bereft of many services children and families would need. Clinics and other health care facilities are sparseand modest and mostly inconvenient to families living near the elementary school. Facilities for dental care and eye care are even rarer. Other than a Walmart Supercenter, there are no grocery stores, so many families have to rely on small convenience stores and bare-bones retailers like Dollar General and Family Dollar that offer very little in the way of fresh and nutritious food.
Gibsonton Elementary also has a student population that often struggles in the public school system. Most of the students (56.4 percent) are Hispanic, according to state data, and nearly all the students are economically disadvantaged (94.1 percent), with 26.3 percent being English language learners, and 23.8 percent having some sort of disability. In March 2018, Gibsonton Elementary leadership, faculty, and support staff agreed the school should adopt the community schools approach.
Much of what the school needed seemed obvious to Gilmore and her colleagues, but the first year of implementing the community schools model requires the school to conduct a needs assessment, including an audit of program strengths and weaknesses and assets in the surrounding community, and an outreach, via surveys and interviews, to students, parents, business leaders, local nonprofits, and others. After the audit and survey results were accumulated and ranked, the foremost concern was the low rate of student attendance. Parent engagement was also lacking, and families said they wanted a more enriching program for their children—not just the basics. Based on the community input, the school expanded its on-campus food pantry to include more fresh fruit and vegetables, bread, and fresh meat. Every two months, the school sends out fliers asking families what they need, and the outreach effort that has helped families with a wide array of assistance.
The school’s initial assessment of its strengths and challenges found out there was a problem with attendance. When the school asked parents why attendance was a problem, one of the most frequent responses was that not having clean clothes was an impediment to coming to school. The school responded by installing a campus washer-dryer and eventually opened a clothing closet that provided some free clothing articles.
Another factor contributing to the attendance problem was that in the shorter daylight hours of winter, streets were often too dark for students to safely walk to the bus or to school, and there were too few streetlights. Given this response, the school organized an effort to have the county install new streetlights around the school. Working with the commissioners, the number of streetlights near the school quickly increased from nine to 51. Attendance immediately improved.
After these efforts to raise school attendance, Gibsonton’s results on Florida’s school performance report card rose from grade C to D. A significant factor in the school’s dramatic increases was due to students’ learning gains shown in assessment test scores from one year to the next. Comparing 2017-2018 results to those in 2018-2019, achievement gains in English language arts increased by 12.8 percentage points. The gains were even larger in mathematics, 16.3 points. The increases were more significant for the lowest-performing 25 percent of students, rising by 16.6 percentage points in English language arts and 24.8 points in mathematics.
No doubt, much of these gains had to do with the work the school did to increase attendance, and how the school went about increasing attendance was guided by its use of the community schools approach.
In Minnesota: An approach that works for urban and rural schools
Minnesota is widely known as the land of 10,000 lakes—actually, there are more than 10,000. But the state, which was the first in the nation to pass a charter school law in 1991, could also be described as the land of school choice. Beyond charters, Minnesota is also home to the nation’s first comprehensive open enrollment law, dating back to the late 1980s, which allows K-12 students to attend any public school in a district of their choice, provided there is space in the host district. The end result, critics allege, is an increasingly segregated public education landscape across the state, with no widespread boost in student outcomes to show for it.
But Minnesota—as well as many other states and the federal government—is awakening to another approach to school improvement that is expanding, from the ground up, in a more natural way: the full-service community schools model, which a handful of districts have adopted this model, often with impressive results.
The state’s longest running full-service community schools implementation is in Brooklyn Center, a suburb just north of Minneapolis. Since 2009, the city’s public school district has operated under the full-service model, providing such things as counseling and medical and dental services alongside the traditional academic offerings of the school system. As National Public Radio reporter Becky Sullivan noted, it is Minnesota’s “most diverse city,” thanks in part to a steep and recent decline in the number of white residents. While white and middle-class residents have moved away from Brooklyn Center—partially because decent-paying jobs have also left the area—immigrants and people living in poverty have moved in. Sullivan’s piece for NPR contains two stark data points: As the median income “dropped more than 16 percent from 2000 to 2018,” the poverty rate “more than doubled since 2000.” This makes Brooklyn Center an ideal place for the kind of wraparound support that a full-service community school can provide, according to a 2019 report from the statewide teachers’ union, Education Minnesota. The expanded view of education that community schools offer is especially important considering the demographics of Brooklyn Center and its public school district. Nearly 75 percent of the 2,300 K-12 students who attend the schools in the district live in poverty, according to the federal criteria. Brooklyn Center is also a food desert.
The benefits of the community school approach shone through especially when popular unrest erupted after George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020. Then, in April 2021, as Chauvin’s murder trial was underway a few miles away in downtown Minneapolis, a white Brooklyn Center police officer shot and killed a young Black man named Daunte Wright during a traffic stop. The clashes between police and protesters escalated quickly, thanks to an aggressive, militarized response from National Guard soldiers tasked with quashing unrest. When the officers began firing flash-bangs and tear gas at the crowd, many Brooklyn Center families who live in the area suddenly found themselves in need of food, shelter, and comfort. This crisis heightened both the ongoing challenges that area residents have been facing, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the healing potential present in full-service community schools.
This layering of trauma upon trauma might have broken the Brooklyn Center community apart, as large protests soon took place outside the city’s police headquarters and caused disruption among residents—many of whom are recent immigrants and refugees. But during this turmoil, school district staffers, already familiar with the needs of their community, were able to quickly mobilize resources on behalf of Brooklyn Center students and families thanks to the existing full-service community schools model. Through its network of local partners the school was able to deliver a variety of services to students, staff, families, and the broader community, including appointments for mental health counseling, a physical, or an eye exam, that can be scheduled during the school day. Students in need of eyeglasses can get both the exam and the prescription filled at school, for free. Also, educators knew families would have an even harder time accessing groceries amid the ongoing protests. So the school’s staff organized to distribute items such as diapers, Gatorade, food, and COVID-safe masks. Soon, a GoFundMe account that was started on behalf of the community had garnered more than $100,000 in cash donations.
Getting resources to people in need wouldn’t have happened as quickly and efficiently had the school not been a community school with existing relationships with organizations and businesses that could donate supplies, money, and time.
But it’s not just urban districts like Brooklyn Center that have benefited from this approach. In rural Deer River—where more than two-thirds of the district’s K-12 students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines, and 85 Deer River students are listed as being homeless—the school district adopted the full-service model in recent years, thanks to startup grants from state and federal funding sources. Deer River Public Schools serves approximately 900 students in the densely forested, lake-filled reaches of northern Minnesota. The town of Deer River has an equal number of residents—around 900—but the school district pulls kids in from the surrounding towns and covers more than 500 square miles, boosting both its enrollment numbers and the complexity of issues the school district has to tackle. Also, the school district is located within the Leech Lake Reservation, which is home to nearly 10,000 members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and is anchored by the breathtaking expanse of Leech Lake, which boasts nearly 200 miles of picturesque shoreline. Approximately one-third of Deer River’s student population is Native American, and therefore these students belong to a demographic group that is known to be consistently underserved by Minnesota’s public schools. More than two-thirds of the district’s K-12 students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines; 85 Deer River students are listed as being homeless. On top of that, almost 25 percent qualify for special education services.
It’s numbers like these, along with the faces and names behind them, that prompted Deer River educators to seek access to more resources through the community schools approach, an effort that was already showing promise in the nearby Duluth public school system. The momentum for the full-service model started in 2016, right after district employees successfully lobbied the community for a $10.5 million referendum. The injection of taxpayer dollars was needed to upgrade the town’s elementary school, and, in order to sweeten the pot, the school district decided to pitch the referendum as a way to add more services to the school building and include a senior center and an early childhood wing to the project.
The funding infusion also helped lay the groundwork for what came next: a grant to bring the full-service community schools model to Deer River. In 2015, the Minnesota state legislature authorized $500,000 in one-time startup funds for school districts interested in exploring the community schools approach, and Deer River employees jumped at the chance to bring even more services to area students and their families.
The district’s longtime superintendent, Matt Grose, was supportive of the idea and had already helped bring mental health services to the area’s schools. The statewide teachers’ union, Education Minnesota, also pitched in with programmatic support and startup resources.
Although there was support for the full-service model in Deer River, thanks in large part to Grose’s leadership, it wasn’t always easy to get it off the ground. For one thing, while money from the initial implementation grant lasted eight months in Deer River and helped put the full-service community schools model in place, it wasn’t enough to sustain it. District personnel then used some general education fund dollars to cover costs associated with the program’s implementation until a federal grant opportunity arose in 2019. The Department of Education authorized grants worth millions of dollars for full-service community schools throughout the U.S. that year, and, while Deer River applied but wasn’t selected then, in 2020 the district did receive a five-year grant worth $2.2 million. An additional $2.4 million came from area organizations such as the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
Staff in Deer River are reportedly very happy with the full-service model, which allowed them to pivot during the COVID 19 pandemic and provide food, transportation services and other community-specific needs. A local media outlet even noted that the community schools approach enabled school district employees to survey families during the COVID-19 shutdown and provide them with things such as fishing poles and bikes to help them get through this challenging time.
In Erie, Pennsylvania: Helping a community hit by hard times
By the 2016-2017 school year, the school district in Erie, Pennsylvania, estimated its schools were 5,000 students below capacity, reported the Erie Times-News, which meant less money was coming into the district from the state, compounding the district’s long-standing funding deprivation from the state—among the lowest in Pennsylvania, according to the Erie City School District’s assessment. Asking local taxpayers to dig deeper was not an option in a city where almost 28 percent of residents lived below the poverty level, the median home value was significantly below the state average, and an abundance of government-related buildings made almost a third of the real estate tax-exempt.
Erie’s school district was also bleeding money to an expanding charter school sector, one of the largest in the state. In the 2015-2016 school year alone, Erie paid more than $22 million to charter schools. Students remaining in district schools tended to be the ones who were the costliest to teach. In a 2016 report using data from the 2014-2015 school year, 80 percent of Erie K-12 students were classified as poor, and 17.6 percent qualified for special education services. The district was also in the top 3 percent among Pennsylvania school districts for the number of English language learners. By 2016, the combination of the cratering local economy with declining school revenues had resulted in the district accumulating a debt load of $9.5 million in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Erie Times-News. Outgoing superintendent Jay Badams announced he would leave the district at the start of the 2017-2018 school year, partially due to his frustrations with funding. But before he left, he put into place two innovations that would help pull the district out of its nosedive.
First, a fiscal rescue package that included state emergency funding and a plan to consolidate schools resulted in the district rebounding from a deficit to a budget surplus of nearly $714,000 going into the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Erie Times-News. The second innovation would take longer to bear fruit but would nevertheless show how public schools can be a rallying point for communities traumatized by wrenching change.
Working with the United Way of Erie County, a local nonprofit, Erie Public Schools implemented a pilot project at five Erie schools in 2016 testing a community schools approach aimed at helping schools in a high-poverty district address the needs of students who have increasingly difficult lives. The model would also need to work within the district’s ongoing financial constraints.
The community schools approach matched the district’s criteria because, by design, it repositions schools as neighborhood hubs, not only for education, but also for integrated health, nutritional, and social services. And rather than requiring significant new outlays from local taxpayers, the funding model relies by and large on establishing a network of donor sources, primarily government grants and donations from local businesses and nonprofits with strong ties to the community.
In Erie’s case, seed money of $1.5 million for the pilot was provided by local and regional nonprofits, according to the Erie Reader, and each school implementing the approach was paired with corporations and nonprofits that pledged to cover ongoing costs of $100,000 per school, per year. The entire effort would be coordinated and managed by the county United Way.
While there were concerns about how teachers would welcome having yet another program coming into their school, especially one that saddled the school with the responsibility to address community conditions outside of the school, it turned out teachers appreciated the community schools approach it came with a site-based community schools organizer that provided a person teachers could rely on to address the nonacademic issues that interfere with student learning but can’t be addressed by time- and resource-constrained teachers. For instance, when teachers noticed students came to school late, or not at all, because they lacked warm clothing that students for the typically harsh Erie winter, there was someone to turn to for organizing an effort to bring coats, boots, gloves, and hats into the school.
What the community school approach also quickly addressed were the ongoing needs for families to have to basic food items that could be supplied by the in-school pantry. Safety issues—such as lighting, security, and accessibility—also needed to be addressed. Eventually, Erie schools also helped families with things like utility bills and homelessness.
Sometimes, the issues were more complicated than what the school’s partnership with the United Way of Erie County could handle. But the community schools approach offered ways to take on and address those bigger challenges, too. For instance, getting to and from school became harder for Erie families when the city’s financial collapse caused the district to limit school bus service to only those families living outside a one-mile radius of the school. Later, that limitation was raised to 1.5 miles. So, children as young as kindergarten were having to cross dangerous roads, including highways, to get to school, which proved to be an incredible impediment to attendance. Consequently, McKinley Elementary School averaged only 73.5 percent of its students attending regularly in the 2018-2019 school year, which was well below the statewide average of 85.7 percent.
To begin to tackle the challenge, Erie educators and administrative staff, along with the support of their United Way partners, secured a grant to conduct a safe routes assessment to note where students live, the intersections they had to traverse, and the stoplights and sidewalk conditions students encountered along the way. To address how students would get to and from the school, Erie schools and United Way of Erie County staff created a walking school bus. A walking school bus consists of a group of students walking to school escorted by one or two adult “drivers.” The “bus” has designated “stops” in the morning where children “board” and proceed to the next stops along the way to school. When school ends, students gather with their fellow “passengers” and are escorted back to the stops closest to their homes. Bus routes change based on safety conditions and the transportation needs of families from year to year.
Adult escorts for the walking school bus were recruited from a local service-oriented organization called the Blue Coats. The Blue Coats was an entity born out of the need for Erie to address issues of unruliness and violence in the schools. The organization recruited volunteers, mostly men, to stand on street corners and other key traffic areas to monitor the behavior of students going to and from schools. In 2015, the Erie school district credited the Blue Coats “with a sharp decline in violence in and around the schools,” according to an Associated Press article that appeared in the Washington Times, prompting a local philanthropy to award the Blue Coats a $300,000 grant, “to shepherd Erie children” through school.
McKinley Elementary’s first walking school bus started in February 2021 with only four students enrolled, but by the end of the school year, there were 30 students enrolled, according to Jaruszewicz. Of the 30 students enrolled, 26 increased their attendance, and the average number of students attending McKinley regularly jumped to 86 percent by the end of the school year in 2021, besting the state average.
Other Erie schools involved in the community schools pilot had similar success with raising student attendance rates. Strong Vincent Middle School saw chronic absenteeism decrease by 20 percent. Edison Elementary School saw chronic absenteeism rates drop from 22 percent to 11 percent between 2017 and 2020. In 2018 and 2019, Erie’s Public Schools added one new school each year to its group of schools using the community schools approach. In July 2021, the district announced it would expand the approach to five more schools, based on the success of its pilot program, according to the Erie Times-News.
The short-term goal of the approach is for all students entering Erie High School to have attended a community school in their elementary and middle school years, according to the article. But the long-term goal is to grow academic success. That may take years for the results to show, but the progress Erie schools have made on improving student attendance is encouraging, as numerous research studies have found a close association between attendance in the elementary grades and achievement and social-emotional outcomes in later grades.
But Erie advocates for the community schools approach also tend to frame their efforts in a narrative about the city’s financial comeback.