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Response: Community Schools 'Transform the Lives of Children and Families'

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What happens in Community Schools—how do they work?

More and more public attention is being shined on Community Schools.  We'll explore them today with commentaries from several guests and comments from readers. 

Mark Gaither, Dr. JoAnne Ferrara, Katrina Kickbush, and Mavis G. Sanders share their thoughts, and readers who are leaders of Community Schools around the United States also contribute their experiences.  You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Mark and JoAnne on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.


I've also collected related resources at The Best Resources For Learning About Community Schools.

Response From Mark Gaither

Mark Gaither is in his 27th year as an educator and his 12th year as Principal of Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, Md.  Mark received a BA from Haverford College in History, an MA in Elementary Education from Bank Street College of Education in New York, and an MA in Educational Leadership from University of Rhode Island:

My first response to the question "how do they work?" is "They work really well!"

As principal for twelve years at Wolfe Street Academy, a Community School in Baltimore, MD, I know from experience that if we are serious about providing children who live in concentrated poverty the kind of education we want for our own children, the very best way to accomplish this goal is through Community Schools.  Using this strategy (not a program), we have moved from 77th to the 2nd highest performing elementary school in Baltimore.  Ninety-six percent of our students live in poverty and 80 percent of our students live in homes where English is not their first language.

My answer to what happens in Community Schools is equally brief.  "Each is similar yet unique from the other."

All Community Schools create a network of relationships and partnerships that identify needs of a students and families, identify assets within and around the community, and apply those resources to address needs.  Once this process is started, the Community School thrives by being a flexible, hyperlocal, structured system that nurtures its relationships and partnerships for the greatest degree of efficacy.

From California to New York, over 27 years, every school I have worked in has had educators who are committed and work hard to help their students succeed at high academic levels.  In affluent communities, educators are able to teach to the highest levels because there is such an integrated network of support for students outside the schoolhouse.  Students in affluent communities have summer trips and clubs that expand their horizons, dental care and eyeglasses available through health insurance, academic support from parents with college and post graduate degrees and paid tutors, and the security of food, shelter and stability through salaries, employment, home insurance, 401(k) programs and Roth IRAs.

Students who live in communities of concentrated poverty face a different reality.  Educators want to teach to the highest level but when students do not know if they are going to be able to eat over the weekend; when they cannot sleep well because they share a bed with three others and a parent has to get up at 2 AM to go to their first of three jobs; and, when they cannot concentrate because of a toothache or fear of being evicted, they cannot thrive. They are just surviving.

Here is what Community Schools look like in Baltimore.  Each has a full-time Site Coordinator in the building.  This person is tasked with identifying the needs of the students and community and then developing structures and systems that will address those needs at scale so that no student or family falls through the cracks.  The Site Coordinator is not the one who brings absent students to school but is the person who finds out why so many students are absent and develops partnerships with local resources to address the underlying causes of absenteeism.  That need could be child care in one community and unsafe streets in another.  The hyperlocal character of the strategy allows the flexibility to efficiently address different needs in various communities or changing needs in the same community. 

As well as improving academic outcomes for our students, the Community School strategy is sound economics.  It generates three dollars of services for every dollar we invest, and it allows each dollar invested in teacher salaries and social services to be more effective because there is a network that can help connect families to the social supports they need.

My final thought is a caution, "Community Schools only work when lawmakers, legislators, politicians, educators and families decide they are ready to educate all children, regardless of the zip code in which they are born."

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Response From Dr. JoAnne Ferrara

Dr. JoAnne Ferrara is the associate dean for undergraduate education and professor at Manhattanville College in Westchester, NY. She is the author of Professional Development Schools: Creative Solutions for Educators (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and the co-author of Whole Child, Whole School: Applying Theory to Practice in a Community School (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012) and of Changing Suburbs, Changing Students: Helping School Leaders Face the Challenges (Corwin, 2012). She is the co-editor of Professional Development School Research Book Series, Volume 5 and 6:

The landscape of public schools is changing. As a result of shifting demographics more students are experiencing high levels of poverty, mounting childhood stress, and frequent mobility.  Repeatedly, educators struggle to find resources to effectively manage the multiple needs of students living in neighborhoods plagued by poverty and disadvantage. In high poverty schools it is widely acknowledged that resources are critical to combat barriers to student learning. Students in these settings require widespread support beyond the classroom level. In addition to support, restructuring schools and reframing how schools respond to students' needs is essential.

Fortunately, there is a way to restructure schools to support the physical, social-emotional, intellectual, and ethical needs of children under one roof.  Known as the community school strategy, this model addresses all aspects of child development and learning in a comprehensive approach. For more than three decades, community schools have led the charge to remove systemic educational disadvantage. Community schools operate as a hub of integrated social services and programs providing equity and access to underserved students by harnessing the resources of partners to improve student outcomes and strengthen the community. Tasked with addressing students' non- academic and academic needs with rigor and attention, these schools are places where the overall well-being of the child is equally as important as standardized tests score, because test scores will rise when a child's basic needs are addressed.  

Community schools work for many reasons. First and foremost, community schools subscribe to an ethos of providing pastoral care for underserved students.  Inherent in the philosophy of community schools is the belief that all children regardless of their zip code deserve access to those opportunities which foster success in life. Place matters. Educators are keenly aware of the challenges faced by children growing up in conditions with less than optimal opportunities for learning. The good news is that policymakers now understand the challenges, and like educators, are also calling attention to the persistent disparities in economically depressed communities. 

It's time to stop blaming schools for the lagging achievement gaps. Instead, let's help schools close the opportunity gap plaguing our children. With this in mind, let's build schools' capacity to transform the lives of children and families by developing partnerships, providing site-based services and organizing them around a core set of beliefs that puts the well-being of the child at the center of all policies. At the same time, let's have a renewed urgency to strengthen struggling communities and thereby strengthen the schools that serve them.

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Response From Katrina Kickbush

Katrina Kickbush has served as a special education teacher for the past 22 years working in a wide variety of educational settings and positions.  Ms. Kickbush began her public school career with Baltimore City Public Schools fourteen years ago where she remains at Wolfe Street Academy, which is a community school:

A few weeks ago a fellow union member, after hearing me mention Community Schools yet again, asked me "So what is this community school thing you are always talking about?" 

I thought, "A perfect opening for me to explain one of the most amazing strategies in education."  A strategy that has made my job as a teacher so much easier, more rewarding and impactful. 

I told him to think about the kinds of things he knows he needs to do everyday in order for his children to be the most successful.  But then I threw him a twist.  Only think about the things outside of the classic instructional world.  He thought for a moment, stepping outside of the traditional teacher box but squarely into what we know children need.   He said, "Buy snacks to help when my kids didn't get enough to eat at home."  I waited.  "Giving extra help after school."  I agreed.  "Talking with a student who is struggling with a tough home situation."  Exactly.  As we continued to talk a longer list developed. We agreed that these types of things are what every educator wants to do to help their students.  But we also agreed that trying to do this work while also focused on classroom behavior, testing and the other fundamentals of being an educator, and then doing it for 25 or 30 students in our classroom is nearly impossible.  That's when I went to the heart of the matter.

Community Schools makes it possible to provide all of this and more, helping families overcome barriers, and allows us, the teachers, to teach students who are available for learning.  And all of this "at scale," not just for a few students we might notice and have the time and resources to help.

The Community School Strategy works by creating partnership to address these needs of all children in the school.  Local food bank partnerships provide an emergency food pantry, while support is given to apply for and maintain food stamps. Or the Community School Site Coordinator, the person specifically tasked with discovering the needs of a community and linking them to resources, can find grants to create an extended day program to help not just the one or two students you might have the time to tutor but all the students in the school who need after care and academic support. 

And we both agreed that while a given teacher might know about one student who has suffered trauma, many, if not most, of children who live in concentrated poverty are victims of childhood trauma.  The Community School Strategy can create a partnership with a mental health organization so any child in need at the school can get therapy and mental health support. 

That is what my community school, Wolfe Street Academy, has done over the past decade.  Now I have children who are available to learn. I have a site coordinator in my building to help me get my students what they need, so when they walk in my class they are ready to learn.  It's amazing.  I can focus on the art of teaching, knowing that there is a team to help me with all of the "outside" aspects of educating children.  This community approach allows me to become more invested in my classroom and in my school.  I am not alone.

After 21 years of teaching I can honestly say that I would never want to work in a school that was not a community school.  I need access, my parents need access, my colleagues need access and my students need access to the support network of the Community School for all of us to play on a level field and have a chance at a bright educational future. 

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Response From Mavis G. Sanders

Mavis G. Sanders, professor of education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), examines the role of principal and teacher leadership in restructuring learning opportunities for low-income students through full-service community schools:

Full-service community schools (FSCSs), also referred to as full-service extended schools, community schools, or school-based integrated services, are of growing national and international interest. In the United States, there are about 5,000 FSCSs serving about 2 million students in over 150 communities [1}. New provisions in the current reauthorization of ESEA (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), Every Student Succeeds, increase support for school, family, and community partnerships. Thus, it is likely that the number of full-service community schools will significantly increase over the next several years.

The interest in these schools stems from a belief among educators and other human service professionals that in order for children to perform and excel in schools, their basic needs must be met. Thus, FSCSs seek to provide more comprehensive and coordinated services that meet the complex needs of children and families in low income and marginalized communities while reducing fragmentation and delays in services. They also seek to promote community development, and draw on community resources to enhance students' learning opportunities.

Defining characteristics of FSCSs include: 1) extended learning opportunities; 2) health, mental health, and social services; 3) family engagement; and 4) community-centered activities. While these elements provide distinguishing features of FSCSs, configurations vary from one school to the next. This variation allows schools to address the complex needs and build on the unique assets of students, families, and communities. The development and maintenance of these features require the active engagement of school principals and community school coordinators (CSCs). CSCs are school personnel who are responsible for the identification, evaluation, and maintenance of the services and supports provided.

To illustrate how these schools work, I'll describe one effective elementary FSCS that I had the opportunity to study for over a year. The school partnered with 23 organizations and institutions to provide a variety of services to its mostly low-income Latino students and families. These included three meals per day; mental health counseling; an after-school program offering tutoring, homework help, and enrichment activities; a summer learning program; site-based dental screenings, education, and referrals; a physical education program, Playworks; a string instruments program; and adult Spanish and English literacy classes. 

The CSC, who was a licensed social worker, also helped nearly one hundred families to secure supplemental nutrition assistance through federal and local programs; secured eyeglasses and weather appropriate clothing for students; and ran a food pantry, in coordination with a state food bank, for families and community members.

Supportive services were also provided by volunteers, who painted the school's brightly colored walls, and built storage cabinets and cubbies for students' books, coats, and bags. A local university donated a set of microscopes to the school to aid science instruction, and volunteers from the same university assisted students with their award winning science fair projects. In addition, the neighborhood association purchased classroom supplies from teachers' wish lists as an annual teacher appreciation activity. Community engagement was also important for integrating service learning into the curriculum. These activities were valued by families and community members and clearly linked to the schools' high academic outcomes.

Thus, FSCSs intentionally develop relationships that assist them in providing needed services to students, families, and communities, and in expanding curricular and extracurricular opportunities. At their best, they are excellent examples of schools that seek to create more equitable learning environments for historically underserved students through school, family, and community partnerships.


[1] Blank M. J., & Villarreal, L. (2015, fall). Where it all comes together: How partnerships connect communities and schools. American Educator, 4-9.

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Responses From Readers

Jane Quinn, Director, National Center for Community Schools, and Vice President, The Children's Aid Society:

In a community school, adults—principal, teachers, parents, school leadership team—work with their community school director (often someone employed by a community partner agency) to document and respond to the needs of the school's children and families by recruiting partners whose skills and competencies can complement those available in the school.

At The Children's Aid Society, which serves as the lead partner agency in 22 New York City community schools, we define community schools as "a strategy for organizing school and community resources around student success," a definition we learned from former St. Paul superintendent Patricia Harvey. Furthermore, we conceptualize our community schools as a developmental triangle, that integrates three important sets of inputs: (1) a solid core instructional program; (2) expanded learning opportunities, including after-school and summer enrichment programs; and (3) comprehensive services (e.g., medical, dental, mental health, social services) that remove barriers to students' learning and healthy development. The main job of the community school director is to integrate these three sets of inputs and make sure that we get the right partners doing the right work with the right students

Christine M. Schuch, Executive Director, NYC Community Learning Schools Initiative:

In each of the United Federation of Teachers 28 Community Learning Schools in New York City, we work to create a holistic approach to educating our 16,000 students as well as engaging parents and community members by leveraging resources for students and adult programming with diverse partners in the public, private and government sectors.  These partners provide the backbone of ensuring our programs and services are sustainable.  Our schools are collaborative.  

We give voice to educators, parents and community members so that together we can work on removing barriers to learning and fostering successful outcomes for children in school and in life. Our schools ensure that through this collective voice and problem-solving, we create a strong academic core and solid support for children's social and emotional well-being.  Whether it is ensuring that children get timely vision services, mental health supports, afterschool programming cohesively connected with the school curriculum or providing parents GED and financial literacy programs, our Community Learning Schools understand the importance that by strengthening schools we strengthen communities.

Felicia Callis Guerrier:

My school is located in [the Brooklyn neighborhood of] Brownsville (Dr. Betty Shabazz School) in a high poverty, high crime, neighborhood that creates a toxic environment for many of our students. We work with a population that is familiar with trauma. As a community school director, I have partnered with many local community organizations that play a pivotal role in supporting our students and families. Hosting an after school program provides a safe place for students to complete homework, and have enrichment activates that allow creative expressions. These include, sports, dance and art.

As a community school, we provide eye exams that include free eyeglasses for students in need. We provide dental care that includes not only tooth cleaning, but cavity filling on site in the school. The CBO that I work for is Partnership with Children (PWC). PWC includes a social worker and two interns. PWC addresses the social emotional needs of the students and helps to decrease suspensions, and behaviors that take time away from instruction. Our school also partners with many wellness agencies that provide mental health services from our referrals. Our food pantry helps with food insecurity and our coat and toy drive assist to make the holidays bright and warm for each student. We start each school year off with book bags and school supplies. Our school has HRA in the building twice a week to assist families with obtaining public benefits. We also work with Brownsville Jobs Plus to assist families with job placement training and employment.

The community school model has many success stories on how we have played a major role in assisting families in major life crisis. What other model has the ability to provide such wrap around services?

Grim, Jim:

Here on the Indianapolis Near-Westside, we know firsthand the incredible impact Community Schools has on otherwise underserved children, their families and neighborhoods. While we are now in the middle of taking the work to scale throughout all of the community schools of the city's Near Westside in our second USDOE-funded Full-Service Community Schools project, earlier funding to lead-partner Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center focused on high school graduation and postsecondary education. The following achievements highlight outcomes as our FSCS work was underway:

  • The high school graduation rate at George Washington Community School increased from 47 percent to 77 percent within the first four years
  • Sixty-nine of the high school graduates during the second through 5th years of the project enrolled in and actually attended postsecondary education—and a year after the first phase of the project ended, 63 percent of the same high school graduates remained in postsecondary education or had completed their course of studies, a phenomenal achievement because Census data had showed that only about 5 percent of the neighborhood population had attended any type of college
  • By the third year of the project, individual parent engagement had doubled
  • Of the 63 percent of the student body that participated in afterschool programming, minority males academically outperformed all other student groups

A real-life example of impact is illustrated with a family of immigrant children adopted by a missionary couple in the neighborhood at that time. Three young previously Brazilian street boys came to GWCS speaking next-to-no English. Each of them subsequently graduated as valedictorians of their graduating classes and has since graduated from college: one from the Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, another Wabash College with a graduate certificate from the IU School of Philanthropy, and the third one from West Point Academy. The boys credit their success to the comprehensive support of their full-service community school. The young man from West Point even discussed it in a documentary:

"What carried us through was that constant mentoring and the constant of mentors and friends and counselors. The beauty of that school [GWCS] is that it was a community school that worked together, and they really wanted to provide a successful path to all the students. And that is exactly what they did," Douglas Sprowl said in the documentary, Surviving and Thriving: A West Point Graduate's Story of Turmoil, Faith, and Service, West Point Center for Oral History.

Rachel Donegan, JD, Assistant Director, Promise Heights, University of Maryland School of Social Work:

Community Schools employ an equity strategy to provide the broad school community—students, staff, families, neighborhoods -- with supportive services, extended learning opportunities, and engagement strategies. The strategy is inclusive, social justice focused, and serves to address the systemic barriers created in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. Community School Coordinators work to develop, facilitate, and leverage high quality partnerships with organizations and individuals who can provide comprehensive social supports, family stability services, integrated health services, and extended learning opportunities (academic, enrichment, project-based learning, college & career).

Promise Heights, an initiative out of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, is a place-based initiative working in Upton/Druid Heights in West Baltimore. We are the lead agency for five public schools (three elementary, one middle, and one high school) serving over 1900 students and their families, plus the surrounding neighborhood. We have a life course focus, starting with pregnancy case management services and moving through to college/career/workforce development.

All services are free, all are co-located in schools, and all are open to community members, regardless of whether or not they have student at the school. A first-time mother may come to the school to receive pregnancy support. A single adult male may come to a school to attend financial education workshops. School leaders accept the reality of and responsibility for the idea that school is more effective and students are more successful when the broader community is positively engaged in personal and community development.

Thanks to Mark, JoAnne, Katrina, and Mavis, and to readers, for their contributions!

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