Community Schools: A Powerful Strategy to Disrupt Inequitable Systems
This blog is part of the series, Education and the Path to Equity, examining issues of education and equity 5 decades after the Kerner Commission issued its seminal report on racial division and disparities in the United States.
Poverty and unequal educational opportunity have forever been an ugly tangle in America's fiber. We believe, however, there are now pragmatic strategies to reweave democracy. These strategies would address both educational needs and the effects of poverty through a personalized, whole child approach to schooling.
President Johnson said at the signing of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—the federal government’s first major foray into improving k–12 education—that the legislation was intended to “bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than 5 million educationally deprived children.” In late summer 1967, as several of our cities smoldered, the Kerner Commission wrote at length about the poisonous impact of poverty, segregation, and inequality of opportunity on our democracy. In its final report, the Commission pointed to the long-standing and insidious relationship between educational inequality and poverty.
To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values. The alternative is ... the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society. This alternative will require a commitment to national action—compassionate, massive, and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission report)
Fifty years later, our nation still struggles with persistent disparities in child welfare, educational opportunities, and economic outcomes. Today, more than half of children attending U.S. public schools qualify for free and reduced-price lunch—the highest percentage recorded by the National Center for Education Statistics. Children living in poverty in our country have a much weaker safety net than their peers in other industrialized countries, where universal health care; housing subsidies; and high-quality, universally available child care are the norm. As our neighborhoods and cities have become more segregated, so, too, have our schools. A growing share of children from low-income families attend schools in which poverty is concentrated; decades of disinvestment have created huge gaps between the needs of students and families and the availability of resources and services.
The Kerner Commission’s recommendations for addressing educational inequities included the expansion of opportunities for parent and community involvement in public schools. Indeed, many of the Commission’s educational recommendations—such as providing more per-student aid to districts with more disadvantaged children, making more resources available to support compensatory education programs and improved teaching—depended on a fundamentally democratic approach to change, with low-income communities and communities of color engaging as actively in their schools as more affluent parents.
And still, waves of “reforms” over the subsequent decades have failed to fill the deep fractures in quality of life and access to opportunity that run along racial, economic, and geographic lines. In most major U.S. cities, a majority of African American and Latino students attend public schools where at least 75% of the students are from low-income families. In Chicago and New York City, 95% of Black students and 95% of Latino students attend majority-poverty schools, most of which are also majority-minority. Significant racial disparities persist in how students are being treated in school, who is teaching our children, what our children are learning, and why their education matters.
The persistence of multigenerational poverty is the most villainous explanation for these continuing disparities, with structural racism as its regular sidekick. Five years ago, the congressionally chartered National Commission on Education Equity and Excellence urged policymakers and the public to sidestep the impossible challenge of eliminating poverty. Instead, the commission argued for a new dimension in our concept of education equity (paraphrasing):
- An equity strategy is adequate only if it includes a portfolio of effective, personalized measures to mitigate the effects of poverty.
- That portfolio must include interventions and supports that are provided by, and funded by, child-serving agencies outside of school districts.
There are grounds for optimism in that a scientific consensus now provides stronger support for the conclusion above, as well as guidance about the required mitigation measures. Many community schools, including both district-run schools and some public charter schools, show promise as vehicles for using these strategies to improve student opportunities and outcomes and help counteract the impact of multigenerational disinvestment in low-income communities and communities of color.
The promise of community schools is in how they prioritize the education and enrichment of vulnerable students and how they integrate services with systems of governance, professional support, and ongoing community-level dialogue. Comprehensive community schools represent a powerful equity strategy because they are designed to identify and address inequitable practices, disrupt the systems that perpetuate educational and economic disparities, and increase opportunities for all through partnerships among all of the actors who shape children’s opportunities. By building from the knowledge and assets of students’ families and fostering collaboration across a community, these schools provide students with integrated supports and enrich their academic skills in ways that fundamentally undermine entrenched inequities.
The promise of community schools is in how they prioritize the education and enrichment of vulnerable students and how they integrate services with systems of governance, professional support, and ongoing community-level dialogue.
Accordingly, many of the details of this work are context specific. Because they are designed to meet local needs, no two comprehensive community schools are exactly alike. Still, these schools share four key features, or pillars: (1) providing students and families with meaningful access to needed services and supports; (2) strengthening and sustaining family and community engagement; (3) offering expanded learning time and opportunities; and (4) supporting collaborative leadership and shared decision making within the school and with community partners.
Research shows that, taken individually, each of these four pillars has a positive impact on student outcomes ranging from attendance and behavior to educational achievement and attainment; when all pillars are present and well-implemented, their impact on schools, teachers, students, and families is multiplied. If we are to significantly alter the entrenched systems that perpetuate racial and economic oppression, all of the four pillars must be integrated into the logic, design, and implementation of the core mission of the school.
Developing instructional strategies around this kind of whole child approach reflects what we know about the science of learning and the cognitive impacts of trauma and poverty as well as what we know about creating and sustaining equitable social change. To advance equity, student-centered community schools require governance structures and classroom approaches that support personalized instruction and that facilitate connections to outside partners. The personalized instruction strengthens academic achievement by meeting students where they are; the connections with outside partners improve access to needed supports and also help to build political will for the long-term policy changes needed to rehabilitate inequitable systems.
If individual and systemic reforms work for those who deserve them most, those same reforms will support success for every child.
At the heart of this model, the power to disrupt inequality comes from the extension of responsibility for student welfare and enrichment beyond traditional educational actors and organizations to the complex and interrelated systems that serve youth from low-income households and their families. Accordingly, this kind of transformational shift implicates a range of actors and policies at the local, state, and federal levels. Children’s Cabinets in states and cities can foster closer and more strategic collaboration among youth-serving systems by encouraging integrated approaches to needs assessments and screening, shared data systems, evaluation and impact studies, the identification of shared resource allocation priorities, and professional learning supports for continuous improvement. The federal government can support these efforts by supporting the development of a comprehensive community schools framework, encouraging local needs and assets assessments, and funding critical staff positions.
Comprehensive community schools provide a blueprint for how to mitigate the impact of entrenched inequalities on student opportunities and academic and life outcomes. As importantly, these schools offer a framework for the redemption of our civic processes through the fostering of a collective responsibility for vulnerable children throughout our systems, structures, and relationships. This can be a tectonic shift, in that so many assumptions, institutions, professional roles, and expectations are implicated.
Considering the disenfranchisement of our most vulnerable communities, it is provocative and disruptive to place the educational needs of underserved children at the center of our focus, to center our civic systems on the specific interests and needs of children from low-income families. This is also good practice: If individual and systemic reforms work for those who deserve them most, those same reforms will support success for every child.
Christopher Edley, Jr. is President and co-founder of the Opportunity Institute and Honorable William H. Orrick, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Law at UC Berkeley Law School.