Spotlight Exclusives

A Moment of Promise For The Community Schools Movement

Marcus Ransom Marcus Ransom, posted on

The trauma and learning deficit created by the pandemic for the nation’s students, particularly those already facing educational challenges, has only underlined the need for new strategies. Freedman Consulting Senior Associate Marcus Ransom recently completed a research project on the community schools movement and how it might be further energized by federal investment and philanthropy to help meet this crucial moment. Spotlight spoke with Ransom recently; the transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length. Editor’s note: Freedman Consulting is one of two partners — the other is The Hatcher Group — who produce Spotlight.

What prompted this project?

 I think it was a few different factors. Part of the idea stemmed from some of the things that I started to notice in the early months of the COVID pandemic in terms of how students were being impacted. At the time I was volunteering with two different non-profit organizations in D.C. that support underserved students of color through tutoring and mentorship. So, I was personally seeing the impact of school closures and the digital divide in real time and couldn’t help but think about how that would’ve impacted me when I was a student in school. Even though all of the kids I was working with were incredibly smart and had so much promise, it was clear that the cards were stacked against them in many ways that were beyond their control. It led me to thinking both about how we can better support students now, and also what the long-term consequences of the pandemic’s effects on these students might be.

On a more macro level, I started to see some news and data that was coming out around the impact of COVID on the education sector — including learning loss, the impact of the digital divide, increased absenteeism, decreasing graduation rates, the worsening mental health crisis, among other factors. Of course, many of these ramifications are tied to pre-existing inequities that COVID exacerbated. And while we were working on a number of important projects at Freedman in 2020 and 2021—including benefits access, the expanded Child Tax Credit, and our public-private partnership work in California—I felt there was a major gap in not looking more closely at the K-12 public education sector. In my view, examining the education sector is a really concrete way to examine exactly what’s happening in our country and how racial and economic disparities are playing out.

So, in early 2022 I started to do a scan for any strategies or ideas that were emerging around how schools can recover or should be thinking about recovering from COVID. I came across the idea of a community school strategy in several places, including a Brookings Institution report. That seemed like a really interesting idea, and I thought it would be cool to try and design a project where I could talk to experts, look into the research, and explore some key questions like: What is a community school approach and what does that mean? What’s the history of the movement? What are its core components? How is it different from how we think about traditional public schools? How could this strategy be a piece of the puzzle in helping students recover from the pandemic? And what are its implications for equity? So, I was able to start the process of starting to look into those questions in May of 2022.

That’s a perfect transition — so, what defines a community school?

That’s the million-dollar question and was one of the biggest questions for me throughout the project. I think at a high level, community schools are an equity strategy to enhance the way schools are designed and function. They are a transformational approach to redesigning public schools into neighborhood and community hubs that engage families, partner with community organizations that are really leveraging the assets of local communities and provide a more holistic array of services to students and families to support the whole child.

Scholars who have done research on the movement tend to frame it as more of an approach than a specific definition. There’s not one model of what a community school should look like. It’s a strategy that has risen to prominence at different times throughout our country’s history, especially in the 20th century. There were leaders like Jane Adams and John Dewey who were advocating for how to rethink education, rethink public schools, and design schools to be more like social centers and civic hubs, especially to promote better engagement in democracy and more well-rounded citizens.

In the 21st century especially, there have been deeper efforts to concretize and define what the community school approach actually means. And at the federal and state and local level, there have been more efforts to coalesce on what that means and more and more efforts to put investment into community school strategies. Organizations like the Brookings Institution, the Coalition for Community Schools, the Learning Policy Institute, and the National Education Association are just some of the organizations that are working on elevating and defining this strategy.

You’ve got some examples in your paper. Why don’t you share one of those and we can go a little deeper into how it works, at least in one setting.

One interesting model that emerged during COVID was Potter Elementary in Tampa, Florida, which is actually where I’m from. The Hillsborough County Public School District doesn’t have a specific district-wide community schools program or strategy, but they did pilot having community school coordinators in a few schools. I had the chance to speak with the former school resource teacher at Potter Elementary this past summer and was really struck by what she shared. What the community resource teacher at Potter did was to go into the community both to get to know the overall community better, hear their needs, and try to develop different partnerships with non-profit organizations. Because she took the time to build these relationships, Potter was able to partner with an organization called Feeding Tampa Bay to supply an in-school food pantry during the pandemic. They also partnered with the Hillsborough Education Foundation to provide laptops and hot spots for students. And I think ultimately, they’re working on a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club as well to help provide after-school programming. So, that’s a good example of what the integrated student supports pillar of community schools can look like. And that’s just one of the four main pillars.

There are other examples of more mature community school models that have been around for a little while longer, that have really been able to scale at the district level and the state level. I think the Kentucky model of the family resource and youth services centers is a really good example of how the community schools approach has been able to be scaled at the state level.

So, the general idea, particularly in the COVID setting, is that this model is able to offer the student assistance in whatever issues might be going on in his or her life, whether they are academic or not?

I think that’s right. I think the concept is if there are going to be social services that we provide to students and families, why not try to integrate them into the setting where students are spending the majority of their days? And why not try to intentionally engage the families and offer them services as well? I think we have this concept that the onus is on the families and especially the parents to engage with the schools and really be tapped into the school environment. But I think we have that concept a little bit backwards. And I think it’s an equity issue too, because the reality is that due to some parents’ working situations, the number of jobs they have and just the realities of being a working parent, it may be difficult to find the time to carve out and engage with the school in ways that other families may be able to. This process should be more reciprocal, and the onus should be on the schools in some cases to ensure they’re connecting with the families and building trust. But to be clear, this strategy takes time, funding, planning, capacity. There are so many schools and teachers that are already doing the best they can to engage and support students and families, but many of them are operating within a structure and with funding that makes this extremely challenging. So, it shouldn’t just be expected that schools and teachers can design and execute a community schools’ approach without additional support and resources.

But there’s so many models that bear out that the community approach can be powerful when the right resources, capacity, and planning are put in place. For example, the integrated student supports pillar can provide services that the students and the families need and the communities express that they want. It could be medical, dental, healthcare services, food access, nutrition support, housing assistance, even like things like workforce development, job training, English language learner classes and support. That’s what’s really unique about the model, is that it’s supposed to really be derived from what the community wants. And it should be designed in a way that can flex and adapt depending on what the specific needs and the assets of the community are.

And the idea is that this approach implicitly helps the child academically or is there a specific academic philosophy as well?

In most of the research on the community schools’ approach that I’ve seen, the approach is based on four key pillar pillars: integrated student supports, expanded and enriched learning time, active family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership practices. I’ve seen other research that also names high-quality teaching and a strong and proven curriculum as key to the approach as well. And at the outset of a community school planning process, the school should engage students and families in a needs and asset assessment to get a sense of how the school can integrate programming and services the community wants. Of course, academic and curriculum needs could be a part of that. So, in some ways, the community schools’ approach can be seen as both structural and an academic philosophy. But I think at its core what makes it unique is that there is more of a holistic focus on how to better support and serve students.

Part of the community schools’ approach and philosophy is also that academic benefits and outcomes can improve when students are better served and cared for within schools.   I think this is derived from the idea that students are coming to school bringing with them all their lived experiences, and that can manifest in the classroom setting in a lot of ways. The more supports that are in place to mitigate the challenges that students are bringing and just better support them generally, that’s inherently going to have academic impacts. While the research in this area is still developing, there are numerous studies showing how the community schools’ approach is correlated with reductions in absences, reduction in suspensions, improved family engagement, increased graduation rates, increased feelings of connectedness with schools, and improved test scores, and more.

And where do you see this movement at the moment? Do you see a moment of growth, presuming that COVID has forced a reappraisal of what can we be doing differently?

I do think this is an inflection point for public education. We know that many of these challenges in schools have existed for a long time, but I think COVID has forced a different type of conversation around education. As I said, the community schools movement has existed at different levels in this country for a long time, but I think it’s really been in recent decades, and especially during COVID, that it’s emerged as an equity strategy for how we’re thinking about recovering from COVID.

From a fiscal standpoint, through the CARES Act and other federal funding streams, there’s been unprecedented investment at the federal level that’s been given to states to support education. And the reality is those funds can also be used to support community school strategies. But those funds have time limits on them too. They have restrictions. And that’s especially why the moment is urgent and important. There’s a lot of different models that are great to already look at, where states like New York, Kentucky, New Mexico, and California are scaling community schools efforts using federal funding.

Is there any action in Congress on this issue?

There has been a bill proposed at the federal level by Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand (D-N.Y.) and a few other Democratic senators called the Full Service Community School Expansion Act of 2021, which was aiming to invest over $3 billion in community schools at the national level. It hasn’t passed yet, but I’ve seen in other states, both red and blue, that there’s been interest in pursuing a community school strategy.

It’s also important to emphasize that the community school strategy isn’t monolithic and shouldn’t be thought of a very prescriptive strategy, but more of a flexible model. There are over 16,000 school districts in the country and the majority of school funding is derived from the state and local level. But at the same time, I think the federal government does have a huge role to play. I think philanthropy also could have an important role to play. The community schools approach is very promising and is already making differences for students across the country, but it’s also not a panacea to solving ongoing school segregation, structural racism, lack of adequate funding for schools, persistent achievement gaps, and the array of other factors leading to inequity in our school systems. It should, in my opinion, just be thought of as a critical piece of the puzzle that’s needed to help vulnerable students and families now and help create greater equity in system moving forward.

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