Building Capacity to Implement Community Schools

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Written by Jane Quinn
Local News    In 1994, The Children’s Aid Society in New York City received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to launch a National Technical Assistance Center for Community Schools. Since then, the Center has assisted nearly all of the country’s major community schools initiatives, using a capacity-building approach that combines multiple, inter-related strategies. Key ingredients in our “cocktail” include:

  • Consultation (initial assessment and development of a technical assistance plan co-constructed by our consultant and the client, followed by additional on- and off-site consultation as the plan is implemented)
  • Training at various levels, from direct service to city and district leadership; facilitation of meetings and strategic planning processes
  • Application of planning tools for needs assessment, partnership development, assessment of progress, sustainability and other issues that are central to the work of building a community schools initiative and system

Other resources in the Center’s toolbox include study visits to our 22 local implementation sites in New York City (we host 600-700 visitors per year through customized visits geared toward the visitors’ specific goals and needs); modeling, coaching and mentoring; networking-building; relationship-brokering; on-site observations; and reviewing results. Clients appreciate the fact that our technical assistance is practice-based — that is, that our advice is grounded in the daily experience of operating community schools in a dynamic and complex urban environment.

Our clients include schools and school districts, United Ways, community foundations, local human service organizations, national organizations (such as the Public Education Network and Boys & Girls Clubs of America) and national philanthropies. Over the years, the Center’s work has increasingly moved from “retail” (one school at a time) to “wholesale” (districts, cities, national organizations), a development that reflects the maturity of the work across the field. We regularly partner with the Coalition for Community Schools, encouraging local and regional community school initiatives to join the Coalition, participate in its advocacy efforts, attend its conferences and use its materials. We also partner with and refer potential clients to Coalition member organizations that provide specialized technical assistance — for example, referring university leaders to the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania.

Because we start where the client is, the intensity of our work varies from initiative to initiative. Some groups reach out to us after conducting one or two years of careful research and coalition-building at the local level, while others ask for assistance at the earliest stage of their work. A typical engagement lasts from one to three years, although we have had some clients make great progress on their own after one or two study visits, while others have engaged our services for periods of up to seven or eight years. Our engagements vary not just in duration but also in intensity. Many have involved monthly on-site consultations for a year or more. We stay connected to all of our clients through a variety of mechanisms, including a biannual Community Schools Practicum conference, an electronic newsletter, other electronic strategies, and networking and advocacy events sponsored by the Coalition for Community Schools.

After several years of working with colleagues as they developed community schools and initiatives, our staff observed that there was a fairly predictable pattern to the work of transforming traditional schools into community schools. We began documenting that process — creating a tool that outlined four stages of development (exploring, emerging, maturing, excelling) across seven areas of work, such as governance, staffing and program development. These kinds of tools offer a vehicle for moving beyond our own direct service experience in 22 community schools in New York City and translating the experience of a wide variety of colleagues into useful field-building activities. More recently, our involvement in the new International Centre of Excellence for Community Schools in England has allowed us to incorporate many lessons from colleagues around the globe into our own local and national practice. Among its initial services, this international network will promote standards of best practice in community schools.

The comprehensive nature of the community schools strategy means that technical assistance must address a wide variety of topics. Although not an exhaustive list, the following represents many of the major content areas in the community schools technical assistance and training repertoire:

  • Community schools: A strategy, not a program (overview of community schools)
  • Child and adolescent development
  • Needs assessment; readiness and capacity assessment
  • Strategic planning
  • Sustainability and strategic financing
  • Parent and family engagement
  • Forging effective partnerships (integration/alignment; determining what partners you need)
  • Program quality (out-of-school time; health; mental health; social services; early childhood)
  • Leadership/governance
  • Developing a results orientation and assessing actual results

The current policy climate augurs well for community schools. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has gone on record as supporting the dramatic expansion of this strategy, saying recently on national television: ”I think our schools should be open 12, 13, 14 hours a day…It’s not just lengthening the school day, but offering a wide variety of after-school activities: drama, arts, sports, chess, debate, academic enrichment, programs for parents, GED, ESL, family literacy nights, potluck dinners…health care clinics. Where schools become centers of the community, great things happen.” i

Over the past 15 years, community schools have proliferated, even during the less favorable and more limited policy context of No Child Left Behind. Creative practitioners have solved hundreds of technical problems, large and small, and have produced very powerful results.ii As federal and state policymakers extend their search for proven strategies that address both the academic and non-academic needs of students, they can feel confident about two things: that a strong body of knowledge from both research and practice undergirds the community schools approach; and that the field now knows what it takes to help colleagues make the transformation from traditional to comprehensive, integrated community schools.

iInterview with Charlie Rose on The Charlie Rose Show, March 13, 2009.
iiSee, for example, Research Results ’09, Washington, DC: Coalition for Community Schools, 2009.