Community schools recognize that students can’t focus inside the classroom if their basic needs are not being met outside the classroom.
COMMUNITY SCHOOL: A center of the community that brings together academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement under one roof, leading to improved learning, stronger families, and healthier communities.
A community school is a set of partnerships that creates a place of learning that helps students overcome the barriers that cause them to lose focus and hope. What sets these schools apart is their emphasis on caring for and uplifting all of a child’s varied needs — academic, health, nutritional, psychological, and more.
The schools are able to do this through the collaboration of multiple partners and volunteers — from pediatricians and counselors, to parents and mentors — all provided on the school campus. By providing these comprehensive services, community schools strengthen students, support parents, and build up neighborhoods.
Community schools recognize that students cannot focus inside the classroom if their basic needs are not being met outside the classroom. Students who are hungry, sick, anxious, or troubled may be too overwhelmed to learn. At more than 5,000 community schools across the nation, their needs are acknowledged and addressed.
The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the set of recommendations to improve Maryland schools passed this year — thanks to the advocacy of MSEA members and our coalition partners — will fund one of the largest expansions of community schools in the country. This expansion began with the Kirwan Commission, which built a consensus around the community school model as a pathway to closing opportunity gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers.
The commission recommended that every school with low-income students making up 55% or more of its student population receive funding for a community schools coordinator and a health services practitioner. They would also receive, on a sliding scale, additional funding to provide services identified in a needs assessment.
The 2019 legislation begins phasing in the commission’s recommendations, starting with schools that have low-income students making up 80% or more of their student population. That means 219 schools qualify this school year and 235 schools are projected to qualify next year. The vast majority of these schools are in Baltimore City (130) and Prince George’s County (45), though 15 counties will receive funding for at least one school this year.
MSEA and NEA support community schools because this strategy is one way to advocate for racial justice in education and remove obstacles that stand in the way of some students.
In far too many cases, there are still students — usually minority students — who are tracked into classes that do not prepare them for college and careers. Instead, we support the community schools strategy as a way to provide challenging and culturally relevant curricula to students while providing a robust selection of classes.
In too many schools, differential discipline practices remove disproportionate numbers of minorities from the classroom, denying them the opportunity to learn. Instead, we stand behind the use of positive behavioral supports and restorative practices to foster a healthy school climate, and to move away from zero-tolerance discipline policies that overemphasize suspension and expulsion. MSEA’s restorative practices trainings, recent Advancing Social Justice in Education programs, and focus on recognizing unconscious biases help this effort.
It’s shameful that school funding and resource allocation still favor students from wealthy neighborhoods. To counter this, community schools are places where resources are made available to students, families, and the neighborhood at the school site, including medical and mental health care, after-school programs, job and language acquisition support for parents, and other services that meet the particular needs of the community.
In neighborhoods where public schools are threatened with takeovers or shutdowns, the promotion of for-profit charter schools often takes root. MSEA has a long tradition of opposing for-profit charters, vouchers, and the use of public money for non-public schools. With their lack of accountability and transparency, for-profit charters rarely achieve good outcomes for diverse students. They seldom invest adequately in school counselors or school social workers who are needed to help students overcome a variety of challenges and succeed in class and in life. We see community schools as a way of bringing communities together without wasting resources or causing destructive competition that leads to the underfunding of neighborhood schools.
We know how to organize people, and can serve as the first mover in getting a community to survey its needs and commit to moving forward with the community school strategy. We can lead community conversations; serve on planning teams; raise public awareness about student needs and resource equity gaps and explain how community schools can meet them; and we can make sure our members understand their roles at the school building level.
And there’s plenty of support around the state to do that. NEA has been a leader in community schools — NEA’s resource guide is filled with extensive resources and NEA supports MSEA and Maryland with staff to assist in community school planning.
Baltimore has been a leader in the development of community schools. In 2016, Baltimore formally enacted board policy and regulations for community schools through the Community Schools Initiative thanks to the organizing work of the Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU), politicians, local community leaders, and community organizations. Their work helped establish the more than 50 community schools now serving students and communities in Baltimore.
A steering committee including the executives of the school board, Family League, the city, BTU, students, parents, higher ed, the Maryland Community School Advisory, and the Maryland Coalition of Community Schools oversees the formal designation process, partnership development, conflict resolution, and evaluation of the city’s community schools.
As MSEA fights for the 2020 General Assembly to pass a funding formula that fully embraces the promise of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, we know that for students and communities in need, the community school model is key to ensuring that a school community’s unique needs are met and unique obstacles are tackled. By emphasizing a grassroots, community-oriented focus, community schools help to re-center schools at the heart of neighborhoods and attempt to provide all students and all families with the resources and programs they need to succeed.
Every community school is unique, because every school community is unique. At the outset, educators and support professionals, in collaboration with families and other stakeholders, must begin by assessing the needs and concerns of students. Together they create a strategic plan that includes the necessary partners to focus on the identified needs.
They bring on board a community school coordinator (funded in the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future) who implements the strategic plan, in coordination with school staff and other stakeholders. Progress is evaluated regularly and changes are made where necessary.
Community schools are usually jointly operated through a partnership between the school and at least one lead community agency. Many are open during non-traditional school hours so that the entire community can access health, dental, and mental health services. They often include space for a primary health clinic and a family resource center that may even provide assistance and referrals for adults.
Educators provide a rich and varied academic program allowing students to acquire both foundational and advanced knowledge and skills in many content areas. Students learn with challenging, culturally relevant materials that address their learning needs and expand their experience. They also learn how to analyze and understand the unique experiences and perspectives of others.
The curriculum embraces all content areas, including the arts, second languages, and physical education. Rigorous courses such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate are offered. Learning and enrichment activities are provided before and after the regular school day, including sports, the arts, and homework assistance. The needs of parents and families are addressed through ESOL classes, GED preparation, and job training programs.
Teachers are fully licensed, knowledgeable about their content, and skillful in their practice. Instructional time focuses on learning rather than testing and they are supported by a team of paraprofessionals. Individual student needs are identified and learning opportunities are designed to address them. Higher order thinking skills are at the core of instruction so that all students acquire problem-solving, critical thinking, and reasoning skills. Educators work collaboratively to plan lessons, analyze student work, and adjust curriculum as required. Experienced educators work closely with novices as mentors, coaches, and “guides on the side,” sharing their knowledge and expertise. Together, educators identify the methods and approaches that work and change those that are not meeting student needs.
Leadership teams with educators, the community school coordinator, and other school staff share the responsibility of school operations with the principal. This leadership team ensures that the community school strategy remains central in the decision-making process. The team plans development and implementation that includes thinking about sustainability not just in terms of fundraising but also in organizing resources in new and more effective ways.
A community school committee inclusive of families, community partners, school staff, students, and other stakeholders from the school’s various constituencies works in collaboration with the leadership team.
Community school educators emphasize positive relationships and interactions, and model these through their own behavior.
Negative behaviors and truancy are acknowledged and addressed in ways that hold students accountable while showing them they are still valued members of the school community.
Restorative discipline practices such as peer mediation, community service, and post-conflict resolution help students learn from their mistakes and foster positive, healthy school climates where respect and compassion are core principles. Zero-tolerance practices leading to suspension and expulsion are avoided.
Families, caregivers, and community members are partners in creating dynamic, flexible community schools. Their engagement is not related to a specific project or program, but is ongoing and extends beyond volunteer-ism to roles in decision-making, governance, and advocacy. Their voices are critical to articulating and achieving the school’s overall mission and goals. When families and educators work together, students are more engaged learners who earn higher grades and enroll in more challenging classes; student attendance and grade and school completion rates also improve.
Community school educators recognize that students often come to school with challenges that impact their ability to learn, explore, and develop in the classroom. Because learning does not happen in isolation, community schools provide meals, health care, mental health counseling, and other services before, during, and after school. These wraparound services are integrated into the fabric of the school. Connections to the community are critically important so support services and referrals are available for families and other community members.