Now, Every School Can be a Community School: The Nitty Gritty
By Zach Vander Veen
Part Two: The Nuts and Bolts
By definition, the power of Community Schools resides in the local community. It is the identification, structuring and connection of the many assets within the community, and goes far beyond academics to include the total needs of child, family, school faculty and staff, and the business and faith communities. Everyone that makes up the community has a place in the workings of a Community School. Think of it as a community center. A point from which everything flows.
Community Schools are public schools with strong and intentional community partnerships ensuring pupil learning and whole child and family development, including the following features:
- Integrated student supports, which can support student success by meeting their academic, physical, social-emotional, and mental health needs.
- Family and community engagement, which involves actively tapping the expertise and knowledge of family and community members to serve as true partners in supporting and educating students.
- Collaborative leadership and practices for educators and administrators that establish a culture of professional learning, collective trust, and shared responsibility for outcomes in a manner that includes students, families, and community members.
- Extended learning time and opportunities that include academic support, enrichment, and real-world learning opportunities (e.g., internships, project-based learning).
According to the California Community Schools Partnership Program (CCSPP), there are 4 recognized pillars for Community Schools, each contributing to a framework which strives to better serve every student.
Integrated student supports address out-of-school barriers to learning through partnerships with social and health service agencies and providers, ideally coordinated by a dedicated professional staff member. Some employ social-emotional learning, conflict resolution training, trauma-informed care, and restorative justice practices to support mental health and lessen conflict, bullying, and punitive disciplinary actions, such as suspensions.
Expanded learning time and opportunities including after-school, weekend, and summer programs, provide additional academic instruction, individualized academic support, enrichment activities, and learning opportunities that emphasize real-world learning and community problem solving.
Family and community engagement brings parents and other community members into the school as partners with shared decision-making power in children’s education. Such engagement also makes the school a neighborhood hub providing adults with educational opportunities, such as ELD classes, green card or citizenship preparation, computer skills, art, STEM, etc.
Collaborative leadership and practice build a culture of professional learning, collective trust, and shared responsibility using such strategies as site-based leadership/governance teams, teacher learning communities, and a Community School coordinator who manages the complex joint work of multiple school and community organizations.
Schools and districts are their own ecosystems—each with unique strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Even so, the goal of all Community Schools is the same: to meet and exceed every student’s needs by mobilizing stakeholders, partners, and resources around schools as a center of community life. Access is a fundamental part of this goal— leveling the playing field to ensure every student receives the same level of attention and support as their peers.
With overarching objectives in mind, the first step in planning specifically for your stakeholders’ needs is to identify your community-specific goals. Because each school/district has their own needs, the path to becoming a Community School will look different for each of them.
First, take inventory of the needs of your students and families. Are you seeing a need for increased academic support? Access to extended learning opportunities? Childcare? Be specific.
Second, review what supports should be added and which partnerships need to be built to support the needs identified in the previous step.
Here are just a few of the possible changes you need to make before adopting a Community School model:
- Mobilizing inclusion efforts so every student has equal access to in-school and out of school resources.
- Connecting students and families to community resources by bringing them to schools— which in turn become centers of community life.
- Consistently tracking student data and taking informed action upon it
- Growing expanded learning time and opportunities
- Engaging families in the community and providing them with the tools they need to foster student success
Schools, and students’ success within them, are heavily influenced by families, partners, staff, and all members of the community. Meaningful involvement from stakeholders is key to any Community School, and to catalyzing student success and well-being. Community Schools aim to make Whole Child success an initiative that is not siloed to just the seven hours students are in school every day.
The School Side
Establishing designated decision-making teams with students, families, and staff that:
- Identify school needs, assets, goals, and priorities.
- Take action based on their findings.
- Mirror true representation of the communities they serve.
The Community Side
Equip your Community School with systems that:
- Forge relationships with community organizations and outside partners to provide access to programs and supports as part of your Community School offering that meets students’ unique needs.
- Collaborate with current partners while tracking their respective impact.
- Implement actionable strategies to further partners’ benefit within the community.
Family engagement is often the #1 predictor of student success. Students with engaged family members are likely to earn higher grades and test scores, graduate high school, and develop self-confidence and social skills in the classroom. Community Schools aim to involve and engage not only family members, but all stakeholders involved and engaged in Whole Child success.
Increasing student and family engagement begins with facilitating school-based activities that emphasize family learning and build strong relationships with the community. These activities foster trust as well as promote a sense of purpose and belonging in the community.
Using a digital platform to facilitate the logistics of organizing Community School activities is essential not only for keeping students and families informed, but also for engaging them.
Digital platforms also present the opportunity to measure data on which activities lead to the most engagement, providing crucial insights into how to better serve your community’s unique landscape of students and families. Having a centralized hub where families and students can stay connected is crucial. These digital platforms also allow districts to report back on engagement growth numbers and activities, especially for schools that are in PI (Program Improvement) or FPM (Federal Program Monitoring).
In Part Three, we’ll see the important role that data plays to make it all work.
About the author
Zach Vander Veen has worn many hats in education, including history teacher, technology coach, administrator, and director of technology. He loves learning, teaching, traveling and seeking adventures with his family. Currently, Zach is the co-founder and Senior VP of Innovation and Outcomes at Abre.io, an education management platform.