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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Susan Paddock
September 27, 2016
In late July, the Pittsburgh Public Schools adopted a policy that will allow some schools to be hubs for social service programs for both students and neighborhood residents. The “community schools” model, according to Sandra Woolley, co-chair of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network’s education task force, says, “Let’s offer the kinds of services for children to have the same opportunity as children in more affluent families.”
A community school is both a place – a public school – and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Research shows that its integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities. Community schools are a community asset in which all local service providers are interested.
Community schools have been around for more than 50 years. At one time, the Mott Foundation was a major supporter of training for community education professionals and of research on community schools. The schools’ popularity and use declined when governments and school districts shifted their focus to academic standards and testing, and when changing demographic and economic conditions put stress on school budgets.
During the past 10 years, an increasing body of research has demonstrated the importance of non-academic factors in students’ achievement. Students perform better on standardized tests (and likely on daily school work!) when given breakfast the day of the test. Free or reduced lunch programs also positively affect academics.
Poverty, violence and nutrition have been shown to be correlated with a student’s probability of graduating from high school and of participating in postsecondary education or training—and of gaining employment and becoming contributing citizens.
Socio-economic indicators for success tend to exclude the children who live in poverty. Traumatic events, abusive parenting, the impact of violence, and being parented by a single parent, who may have limited time to share with children, frequently correlate to lower grades. Community schools which are community service centers can provide supportive services in these situations.
Quality afterschool child care can help children to develop socially, mentally and emotionally, which are positive factors in succeeding in school, and can be provided at a school. Preventive health care can reduce absences due to illness and support academic success. City and county departments, including law enforcement and the justice system, can provide information and services in a convenient location.
In addition to services for children which may support academic success, community schools support residents and parents of the children. Skill-based training, education in preparation for the GED, programs offered by local community colleges or technical schools, and programs on parenting, family, financial management or employment readiness offer services to people who might otherwise not be able to access them. Recreation programs allow residents to engage in healthy physical activities.
Individual principals sometimes initiate a “community schools” approach without explicit funding or school district board action. An elementary school in Las Vegas, for example, has within it a food pantry and a shop where students and residents can find clothing and shoes, including school uniforms. The principal has worked with local medical and dental groups to provide free health, eye and dental exams, including fitting students with glasses or orthodontia. Teachers in this school can attest to the value of providing a student (and the family) with a modicum of security in an extremely poor neighborhood.
One caveat is that free space for the provision of social services or education and training classes may be limited in rapidly-growing districts. Those districts may be using temporary or mobile classrooms to meet growing student enrollment and may, at the same time, be in most need of exactly the kind of services offered by a community school. In addition, Cate Reed, treasurer of the political action committee Campaign for Quality Schools Pittsburgh, has cautioned that the community schools concept is not a panacea for all struggling schools. “Wraparound supports are necessary but not sufficient to give kids the academic opportunities they deserve.”
Community schools offer a unique opportunity for interagency and intergovernmental collaboration. School buildings already exist, and generally sit unused in the late afternoon and evening hours (when community residents can use the facilities for education, recreation or accessing social services). They also sit idle, for the most part, for at least two months every summer. Community partnerships, coordinated by the school, allow local organizations and professionals to provide necessary supports. Community schools can also serve as “mini city service centers” where people can learn about laws and regulations, talk to municipal employees and complete required forms and applications. There are many benefits of a collaborative community schools model.
Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is the former director of Certified Public Manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin; has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources; and is an active student and researcher on what works in current or emerging organizational settings. Her career also includes work and research in community education. Email: [email protected]