Community Schools Provide a Blueprint for Local Learning

Our public school systems play an integral role in helping children reach their full potential. A robust system that supports the whole child is key to thriving communities, and, while incredibly vital to the system, educators alone cannot provide all the supports necessary for students’ success.

Bertis Downs’ recent Flagpole piece, “Teachers Are Not the Problem with Clarke County Schools” (Aug. 29), clearly articulates this position. Blaming teachers for test-score disparities misses a crucial underlying cause: Gaps in students’ achievement are primarily rooted in gaps in students’ opportunities beyond the school itself. To address these gaps, we believe the Clarke County School District can draw on strong community assets to implement a comprehensive community schools approach.

Community schools are public schools that partner with families, students, local stakeholders and community organizations to provide the support all students need to succeed. They are designed to address the systemic barriers—often based on race and socioeconomic status—that limit the opportunities of students and families. The community schools approach is not a one-size-fits-all, prescriptive “model” that state education leaders impose on local families and educators. Instead, community schools strategies are local blueprints for student, family and community advancement in learning and healthy development.

Each community school, even within the same district, is planned by identifying the specific needs of the school community and the assets in the larger community that can address those needs. Community involvement in creating the needs and assets evaluation is the crucial first step in building a well-designed community school. While no two community schools look identical, they share four common features, or pillars:

  • Integrated student supports to address out-of-school barriers to learning, such as social and health service needs.
  • Expanded learning time and opportunities, including after-school, weekend and summer programs.
  • Family and community engagement—bringing parents and caregivers into the school as partners.
  • Collaborative leadership and practice to build a culture of professional learning and shared responsibility.

Extensive research has demonstrated that each one of these four pillars has a positive impact on student outcomes, and that the combination of all pillars exponentially increases the impact on students and families, transforming the school into the center of community life. As noted in Christopher Edley Jr. and Linda Darling-Hammond’s blog, “developing instructional strategies around this kind of whole child approach reflects what we know about the science of learning and cognitive impacts of trauma and poverty.”

Recent exchanges in Flagpole started a necessary conversation by acknowledging troubling gaps in student performance within the CCSD, and by drawing attention to the myriad out-of-school factors that can drastically affect student performance. No conversation about improving student outcomes and providing equity in education can move forward without recognizing the value of the research-based, strategic approach inherent in the community schools model. Community schools have proven their effectiveness in locations across the country, and the time is ripe for implementing these successful strategies within the CCSD.

The good news is that it appears the community schools model has strong, sustained support in the CCSD community. In choosing to become a charter system, CCSD outlined an approach that incorporates many aspects of community schools; its application speaks to addressing the needs of the whole child in every community (including early childhood education, quality health care, housing, nutrition and supportive learning environments).

This new charter system model includes local school governance teams (LSGT), which provide a logical resource for moving forward in implementing community schools. These teams of individuals have received training, and are committed to working collaboratively with the district and the schools. As such, they are valuable tools in the work needed to implement community-driven strategies in CCSD’s schools.

This conversation in Athens could not come at a more opportune time. Just last week, the Partnership for the Future of Learning released a comprehensive new resource to support the work of advancing community schools. This new resource, the Community Schools Playbook, provides tools for policymakers, community leaders, allies and advocates who want to advance this model as a strategy to improve schools.

As researchers have recognized, there are no “successful quick fixes” when remodeling a local school. The work must start from a good blueprint, keep what works and update where necessary to allow the school to function for today’s needs. The work takes time and investment, but the evidence shows that following a community schools plan truly works.

It is clear that the Clarke County community is vitally invested in its public schools and all of its students. Using the Community Schools Playbook and the extensive research behind it, now is the time for the community and the district to come together to design and implement the community schools that will provide equity for all students, families and communities, and prepare students for success in life and as citizens.

Helen Butler and Janet Kishbaugh are co-chairs of the Georgia Coalition for Public Education, a statewide group “committed to community schools as a proven strategy to advance equity in public education.”