Leaders in the Field Comment on Momentum of the Community School Strategy

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The work of community schools (CS) is spreading with deeper focus and intentionality. Positive outcomes and concerted advocacy have contributed to growing momentum across the nation. Below, leaders of the field with long-term perspectives share their observations about the risks and opportunities of momentum; the role of philanthropy, universities and advocacy moving forward; and on how technical assistance can keep momentum building and ensure the integrity of the strategy.   

Lisa Villarreal, SFF program officer for education, and chair Coalition for Community Schools Steering Committee

The movement is galvanizing across the country with growing recognition for the name and the work. There is increasing understanding that schools must do, in the words of journalist Paul Tough, “whatever it takes.” That said, we must make sure to capture and document positive results, translate them into cost savings, and market them as the way that schools of the future should and will be run. We have a small federal appropriation for community schools, we need similar state appropriations.  And CS strategies should be taught in education leadership programs and teachers colleges.

Challenges include: a) mixed buy-in from site and district leaders who do not (for fiscal or ideological reasons) see CS partnerships as value added or an essential education reform strategy; b) no consistent mandate or funding stream exists to support CS partnerships; c) positive results need to be shared and marketed; d) no one model for replication exists –there are many; this makes it harder to standardize best practices, outcomes, indicators, and evaluation. For some in education reform, that's a deal breaker.

Opportunities include: a) the strategy addresses many of the failings of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) by focusing on the whole child; b) Common Core Standards and NCLB waiver language now include significant references to CS as effective strategies to address the goals of Common Core and Adequate Yearly Progress; c) a renewed focus on equity (50 years after Brown v. the Board of Education and the War on Poverty) puts CS in the national spotlight as an essential reform strategy.  But, if CS are spread too thin without enough preparation, or depend on charismatic leaders rather than systemic change, they run the risk of failure due to a lack of understanding of what it takes to plan, implement, fund, evaluate and sustain a CS. We need high-quality intermediaries to help the movement at every turn.

The role of philanthropy is expanding and getting deeper. I came to philanthropy explicitly to create a portfolio for CS, and slowly but surely we have an emerging CS funders network across the nation. Funders can help seed the movement across the country by providing planning grants for emerging CS and by funding intermediaries to help districts plan their CS initiatives.

Technical assistant providers and advocacy leaders have been the modern-day pioneers who created the pathways for the movement. They must continue to model the very best partnerships for policy, advocacy, technical assistance and leadership; so the field can see that the outcome of high quality CS for student success in school and life is far more important than the notoriety or cornered market of any one intermediary. In short, we must “walk the talk” of CS partnerships at every level, i.e. shared leadership, shared responsibility, and shared accountability for success.

Ira Harkavy, associate vice president and founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships, University of Pennsylvania and founding member of the Coalition for Community Schools –and team

Across the country we are seeing the community schools (CS) strategy being adopted by increased numbers of schools, districts and state education policies in recognition of the positive results that these schools are producing.  Oakland, Nashville, Providence, and Evansville, for example, have been working to grow citywide initiatives, and states like New York and New Mexico have adopted legislation in support of the strategy. At the national level, the funding for the Full Service Community School program has been recently reauthorized. Momentum is solid.  Growth of community schools nationally supports this.  However, to keep it going we need supportive policies at local, state and national levels, as well as ongoing learning from colleagues doing the work to advance practice.

Since community schools require unprecedented levels of collaboration between school and community partners, significant preparation is needed for the partners to function as an effective team at a school site.  Assessment of needs, sharing of data, and developing and scheduling of the range of support services and programs are among the issues that the partners need to address.

The opportunity to learn from other community schools initiatives is extraordinarily helpful as people begin or take their work to the next level.  The movement to date has grown in large part by learning from others in the field.  Through sharing of models, best practices and lessons learned, the field has advanced and is poised to have broader impacts on society.

The role of university partnerships continues to expand.  The Netter Center developed the university-assisted community school (UACS) model in the late 1980s and has supported its national adaptation, including regional training centers in the Southwest and the Midwest. In the past few years, there have been numerous examples of universities helping to develop UACS—such as Florida International University (FIU), and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.  Higher education also continues to serve as a lead partner in a growing number of initiatives led by intermediary organizations.  In Baltimore, for example, the University of Maryland is a lead partner in a number of the community schools coordinated by the Family League.  Seattle University is a major partner in a Promise Neighborhood initiative.

At the national level, the Anchor Institutions Task Force (AITF) has over 300 individual members committed to democratic engagement with their local communities, many of whom are interested in partnerships with local schools. Recently the AITF has been working with the Promise Neighborhood leadership at the Department of Education.

The resources of higher education are also tapped more generally by community schools. Undergraduates and graduate students often are involved in service-learning and academically based community service courses that are connected to the creation, development and operation of university-assisted community schools. Students also work as volunteers, interns, and work-study students in afterschool programs, school-based health centers, and school day programs at these university-assisted community schools. Faculty has connected their research and teaching to working with teachers, students, parents and other community members to help solve school and community problems.  Faculty and staff have helped to plan the community school initiative, served on governance structures, served as facilitators for this work, and helped to secure resources for university-assisted community schools.

Advocacy leaders such as the Coalition for Community Schools  and its partners –including CAS-NCCS and the Netter Center which are founding members— have been essential to the growth of the community school movement.  They have helped to spread the word, provided guidance to emerging programs, documented the outcomes of the work across the country and created something like “community school learning communities,” in which practitioners can learn from each other.  Such leadership continues to be invaluable to sustain and grow the movement.