Jul 07 2020

In the Fallout of the Pandemic, Community Schools Show a Way Forward for Education

This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

School buildings are closed for nearly all of the country’s 50.8 million public school students, and those being hit the hardest are the nation’s most marginalized students—more than 52% in 2016–17. For these students, school closures can mean the loss not only of precious learning time but also of essential services such as meals and medical and mental health services that mitigate the stresses of poverty.

But there are schools that continue to support student learning and well-being—among them, community schools. The country’s community schools are designed to serve the whole child (addressing learning and well-being) and are based on the understanding that children are better positioned to learn when they are healthy, well fed, and safe. The United States has thousands of community schools serving millions of students already. Among these schools, 2,300 are part of the nonprofit network Communities in Schools. The nonprofit Coalition for Community Schools network supports some 5,000 community schools across the country.

Although there are other schools around the country that use some of the strategies of community schools and have also successfully responded to student and family needs, community schools are unique in that they have formalized and powered up these supports around four “pillars”—medical and mental services, extended learning time, family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership among staff. They hire dedicated staff such as community schools coordinators to organize services for students and families through partnerships with nonprofit and government organizations, including health clinics, food banks, tutoring, and after-school programs. As we begin to rebuild and rethink schooling, this is a highly effective, research-based approach that policymakers can look to.

As we begin to rebuild and rethink schooling, [community schools are] a highly effective, research-based approach that policymakers can look to.

Because community schools prioritize relationships with family members—often offering social services and classes for parents and guardians—they were already deeply rooted in their students’ lives and had relationships and infrastructures in place when COVID-19 hit that enabled them to mobilize support services and connect with their students and families meaningfully and quickly.

In New York City, for example, the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School deployed its extensive and well-established network between school staff and students and families to respond. The community schools director, family engagement coordinator, social worker, and other staff quickly organized to coordinate and provide virtual services, including tutoring, college coaching sessions, and mental health services. They also tapped their community partners to help families access food and technology and get assistance for housing and immigration issues.

At Doña Ana Elementary in New Mexico, the community schools coordinator staffed a help desk to field calls from parents, and connected students and families to mental health and social support providers. While many schools have been distributing laptops during the pandemic, families from Doña Ana were able to take advantage of the technology thanks to computing classes they attended last year through the school.

Most community schools staff are doing regular check-ins with families to assess needs, often using questionnaires that screen for stress and pressing needs. Baltimore’s Harlem Park Elementary and Middle School relies on its well-established network of mental health organizations, social workers, and other experts who can step in to proactively support family members dealing with the stresses of income loss, home schooling, sheltering in place, and medical needs.

At Duarte High School, a part of the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s community schools pilot program, the community schools coordinator keeps a tracker on all of the school’s students (close to 800 this past year), including family contact numbers and home language. Staff used this tracker to contact each family, assess needs, and arrange for supports such as hot spots and meals. During the school year, they also conducted daily Instagram-based school announcements—drawing views from more than 600 students each day—to celebrate college acceptances, give birthday shoutouts, and offer a daily resource.

Elsewhere, New Mexico’s Communities In Schools (CIS) leadership reported that the strong relationships between school staff and students and parents expedited outreach. CIS used its Family Strengths and Needs Assessment tool to gauge family and student needs and to connect them with a local network of pre-existing community partners for food, housing, and social-emotional supports. A bilingual CIS Student and Family Resource webpage provides helpful resources and updates, and a CIS Emergency Fund Campaign has provided temporary financial support for students and families.

A wide body of research shows that well-designed community schools can improve outcomes for all students, and especially those from low-income families. Most recently, research from RAND Corporation looked at the community schools effort in New York City—where students and their families have been hard-hit by the pandemic crisis. New York City Community Schools has scaled up more than 250 of these schools and seen significant gains in early indicators of student success, such as attendance rates, grade advancement, and graduation. Also notable, the study reports that these schools have significantly lowered disciplinary incidents and are safer places to learn.

A wide body of research shows that well-designed community schools can improve outcomes for all students and especially those from low-income families.

If some good is to come from this tragedy, it will be in learning from the practices and innovations that are helping to lessen the fallout of the pandemic. Community schools can’t change the fact that a growing number of American children are poor, but they can be a powerful tool in addressing the needs of those at risk from the immediate and long-term impacts of COVID-19. Community schools will also benefit their wealthier classmates, who learn and thrive in this environment as well.

Right now, state and local policymakers have the opportunity to invest in this proven approach by using funds from the recently passed federal CARES Act to launch or scale up this research-based approach. Policymakers can also look to state and city community schools initiatives gaining momentum across the country in recent years—from New Mexico to Maryland and from Los Angeles to Cincinnati to New York—for models to draw from.

In the areas where community schools are well established, we see how vital they are to the heart of their communities. The road ahead suggests that this is a highly effective approach we can double down on to ensure our students and families recover from this crisis and get back to the business of learning as quickly as possible.

Jeannie Oakes is Presidential Professor Emeritus in Educational Equity at UCLA and a senior fellow in residence at the Learning Policy Institute. Anna Maier is a research analyst and policy advisor at the Learning Policy Institute. Julia Daniel is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Foundations, Policy & Practice at the University of Colorado Boulder.