Community Schools: Building Home–School Partnerships to Support Student Success
Each year, teachers at Oakland International High School (OIHS) embark on student-led tours of the neighborhoods surrounding their school. This practice, known as community walks, gives students and families an opportunity to take charge of the education agenda for a day. One walk, for example, began with a teach-in during which Yemeni students shared information about their home country, including its location, cultural traditions, and history of civil war. Later, students and their teachers visited a halal market near the school and joined their families and the local imam for lunch at the neighborhood mosque. One OIHS staffer describes the practice as “the most student-centered [professional development] we can get. Our students lead us in presentations and through their communities. It’s empowering for them and enlightening for adults.”
OIHS is an award-winning community school, in which family and community engagement, support, and partnership are central to meeting the needs of their diverse student body. Every OIHS student is a recent immigrant. They’re all English learners and about 40% of the students have experienced an interruption to their formal education in their home country. The extra supports provided by a community school help these students to thrive in their new school and country. In addition to engaging students and families through community walks, Oakland International has a Community School Advisory Committee and a Coordination of Services Team, both of which allow for collaborative input in school-site decisions. The school also provides health care through its on-site clinic, legal representation in immigration court cases, and culturally relevant after-school programming. The student-centered learning environment includes opportunities for all students to create a portfolio of their work and present it to an audience.
Oakland International is not alone in adopting a community schools approach, with initiatives emerging in Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and elsewhere throughout the country. In recently released state plans responding to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), 13 states identify community schools as an evidence-based strategy for school transformation. For example, Pennsylvania’s state ESSA plan identifies community schools as a key element in Governor Tom Wolf and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera’s education vision, and the strategy is referenced throughout the document. Community organizing efforts such as the Journey for Justice #WeChoose campaign have also identified community schools as a strategic priority.
This trend has roots in research evidence. The Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center recently released a report, Community Schools as an Equitable School Improvement Strategy: A Review of the Evidence, confirming that community schools meet the criteria to serve as an evidence-based school improvement strategy under ESSA.
Community Schools as an Equitable School Improvement Strategy: A Review of the Evidence identifies four key pillars to the community schools approach:
- Integrated student supports;
- Expanded learning time and opportunities;
- Family and community engagement; and
- Collaborative leadership and practice.
This review of 143 studies finds that well-implemented community schools lead to improvement in student and school outcomes and contribute to meeting the educational needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools. The evidence base includes outcomes for schools with a variety of governance structures in many local contexts, ranging from small charter schools to large and small district-run schools in urban and rural communities. The review finds that high-quality community schools can effectively support students across a variety of educational settings.
Family and community engagement, such as that so ably executed at OIHS, is one of the most challenging community school pillars for school staff to address, especially in cases where the diverse backgrounds of families do not mirror the composition of the school staff. Community schools can overcome this challenge by inviting families to access supports and services, such as the health care and legal services offered at OIHS. In many places, students and parents also become true partners in decision making, collaborating with school staff to set strategic priorities and helping develop action plans for implementing programs that address local needs.
Our research review finds that family and community engagement is associated with positive student outcomes, particularly when it involves families as partners and is responsive to the local context. These outcomes include reduced absenteeism, improved academic outcomes, and more positive school climates. For example, a review of 51 studies found a positive relationship between family involvement and academic achievement for students of all ages and from families of all economic, racial/ethnic, and educational backgrounds. In Redwood City community schools, researchers found evidence that students whose families were involved showed improved academic and attendance outcomes and gains in English language development scores for English learners, and were more likely to describe their school as having a supportive environment. Additionally, family and community engagement can improve school conditions for learning, such as increased trust among students, parents, and staff, which, in turn, has a positive effect on student outcomes.
Educators in St. Paul, MN, have been working to engage families and build trusting relationships through Parent Teacher Home Visits. Nick Faber, President of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT), began leading this effort in 2010 when he was the elementary science specialist at John A. Johnson Elementary School. “We had a great community school model—our school doors opened at 8 a.m. and closed at 8 p.m. and parents were going in and out of the building all day,” recalls Faber. “But we realized that as teachers, we weren’t interacting with parents any differently than at any other school in the district. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we be a full-service community school and not really get to know the community we are working in?’”
From that “ah-ha moment” nearly 8 years ago have grown both a thriving home visiting effort in schools throughout the district (teachers conducted 1600 home visits in the 2016–17 school year) and a broader effort to partner with parents in improving educational opportunities. Regular meetings to debrief home visits have helped the union identify parental concerns and integrate them into their contract negotiation process. Faber says these debriefs have also informed his monthly conversations with the district superintendent.
Parents are an integral part of the team that trains teachers prior to conducting home visits. That training and the subsequent home visits have been identified in a recent study by RTI International as an effective strategy for increasing teachers’ sense of empathy and reducing their negative implicit biases, as well as helping parents to feel more positive and confident about interacting with school officials.
The innovative family and community engagement strategies employed in Oakland and St. Paul show the potential for community schools to help build trust and partnership among parents, teachers, and students. As Faber explains, “We’re bringing parents and teachers together to build each other’s capacity and understanding. That’s not possible when you have parents and teachers going off in their opposite corners to do the work.”