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New Reports Assess How to Sustain Community Schools and Help Teachers

A friend of mine was teaching in a classroom last year in Los Angeles. After noticing some of her students were coming to school hungry (and not eating throughout the day), she started bringing snacks from home to make sure her kids had something in their stomachs, and could pay attention in class. The "granola bar drawer" she kept was a lifesaver to get a few of the most unruly (and hungriest) to pay attention, she said.

Her experiences don't seem to be unique, according a new report from the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based public policy think tank, and the Coalition for Community Schools, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports and advocates for community school partnerships. The two organizations have released two reports today that look at how "community schools" can benefit teachers and how to build the successful partnerships needed to sustain community schools.

"A recent national survey found that 61 percent of teachers purchase food for their classrooms and spend an average of $24 out of pocket each month. Seventy-four percent of teachers say they have helped families sign their students up for free or reduced-price lunches, and 49 percent say they have referred students and their families to other services and resources," the report, "Lightening the Load: A Look at Four Ways that Community Schools Can Support Effective Teaching," finds.

For this report, interviews with teachers and school staff at community schools around the country were analyzed, and conclusions on how community schools have and could meet their needs and responsibilities were drawn. Teachers were found to focus significant attention on the "unmet needs" of students, like hunger and health, which could come at the loss of classroom instruction, particularly in low-income schools, the report says. Community schools can alleviate these concerns by providing wraparound health services, offering parent engagement and empowerment programs, and providing other services that free teachers to focus on student academic needs.

In "Achieving Results through Community School Partnerships," the ways to secure and maintain the very partnerships that enable community schools to be effective are discussed. Strategies like sharing a common vision with stakeholders built on collaboration, improving school district central office management, and using data to assess impact and results are a few mentioned.

For those unfamiliar, a community school (or a community school district) is one where community organizations and leaders partner with schools to supply social services and other resources to improve the quality of education for students. Meeting "nonacademic needs" of students can help improve academics, or at least that is the goal.

The U.S. Department of Education's Promise Neighborhoods program is one such example, but in recent years more schools and districts like Cincinnati, Oakland, Calif., and Tulsa, Okla., have become community focused, especially since many have faced significant budget cuts and need to find a cost-effective means to fill in the holes.

As you may remember, in Cincinnati community partnerships enabled the district to offer a "Fifth Quarter" program, and in Oakland, students were supplied vision testing and glasses. According to the report, only about one quarter of the resources provided in community schools are from the district; the others come from blended public and private funding, organizations, and other public agencies.

"Community schools establish 'cradle to career' conditions for learning that make it possible for every child to succeed," the report says. "This strategy works by creating a collaborative leadership structure, embedding a culture of partnership, and aligning resources. Partners set and achieve high standards of accountability across multiple platforms."

The two reports released today are in conjunction with an event at the Center for American Progress where the findings were discussed. Here's a link to the video.

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