County-Level Coordination Provides Infrastructure, Funding for Community Schools Initiative
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.
When Pasadena High School closed its doors in March due to COVID-19, community school coordinator John Lynch quickly developed a “hyperlocal” resource guide to connect students and families with area nonprofits providing services to meet immediate needs, such as food distribution. The guide was posted on the Pasadena Unified School District website so it was available to all families in the district, which serves more than 17,000 students in Los Angeles County. John then worked with his counterpart in the neighboring Duarte Unified School District, Nathalie Umana, to adapt a template she had developed for tracking communication with every student and family at her school, including information about service referrals, internet access, and follow-up from school staff.
This quick and collaborative response was made possible by the structures and relationships developed through a community schools pilot launched by the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) in September 2019. The initiative involves schools in 15 districts in Los Angeles County, including Pasadena and Duarte High Schools. After laying important groundwork in the 2019–20 school year—hiring staff, developing community school committees, and engaging families and community partners—the county expects the sites to be well on their way to offering a full array of on-site services to students and families by fall 2020. (See box, “What Is a Community School?”) As LACOE Superintendent Debra Duardo explains, “County offices of education are uniquely positioned to develop the partnership network required for the community schools approach.”
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LACOE leveraged its reach and relationships to partner with county agencies, school districts, and nonprofits to start the pilot. Support from county leadership, which has been codified through a series of memorandums of understanding (MOUs), has played a key role in advancing the effort. Initial funding was provided by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (DMH) and the County Board of Supervisors. Through strategic countywide partnerships, the initiative will be able to connect participating schools to essential services for students and families. These include:
- Preventive mental health services for students and families through DMH. In addition to providing on-site mental health services and direct funding for community school staff, DMH is planning a variety of supports that will benefit all students and staff, such as presenting at school resource fairs and offering professional development for staff.
- School-site availability of information and enrollment options for Medi-Cal health coverage, CalFresh nutrition support, In-Home Supportive Services, and CalWORKs housing services through the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services (DPSS). DPSS is also supporting students and families who don’t qualify for Medi-Cal to sign up for other health care options. This is key to ensuring that all students are able to access mental and physical health care as needed. Community school staff will support the enrollment process and follow up as needed to ensure that students and families get the care they need.
- On-site wellness services, including Promotores community health workshops, offered through the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH). In addition, five of the community schools have on-site “wellbeing centers” as part of a broader DPH initiative to establish 50 of these centers at schools throughout Los Angeles County, with a focus on providing students with resources and services to promote mental health and wellness issues. Centers are planned at two additional LACOE community schools. Wellbeing centers, all of which will be open by the end of the 2020–21 school year, will offer health education awareness, mental health support, substance abuse prevention, peer advocacy (opportunities for students to learn from and with their peers about how to advocate for themselves) and leadership courses, reproductive education and health care, and basic health services such as vaccinations.
Prior to the COVID-19 closures, participating school and district staff met with representatives from 12 Los Angeles County agencies for a series of “World Café” networking meetings. Additional county-level partnership opportunities were identified in those meetings, including with Consumer and Business Affairs; the County Library; County Probation; the Department of Children and Family Services; the Law Office of the Public Defender; Parks and Recreation; and Workforce Development, Aging, and Community Services.
These agencies plan to offer a range of services, from financial literacy and immigrant rights workshops to mobile STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) programming and on-site skate parks. Nonprofit partners, including 211 LA County, which refers residents to county and nonprofit service providers; the California Emerging Technology Fund; the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; and the Joe Torre Safe At Home Foundation, are also playing an important role in the pilot. For example, the Joe Torre Safe At Home Foundation, which supports youth who have been exposed to violence, plans to have “Margaret’s Place” centers at five of the pilot sites. These centers provide drop-in group and individual therapy and case management services, as well as schoolwide awareness campaigns and staff professional development.
The pilot is led by Jose Gonzalez, the Director of Community Schools Development for LACOE. Two additional county office staff provide coaching and support for 30 school-based staff (15 full-time community school coordinators, like John and Nathalie, as well as 15 full-time parent engagement coordinators), who are employed by the county. As the pilot continues during the 2020–21 school year, countywide and school-based staff will oversee the implementation of the services described above, as well as the development of new partnerships to engage local assets and respond to the needs of participating school communities. Doing so will help the pilot sites transform into fully functioning community schools that are designed to meet the academic, physical, mental, and social-emotional needs of students and families. This process may be particularly important as schools are faced with the prospect of repeatedly reopening and closing in response to COVID-19.
Superintendent Duardo notes, “Even though campuses are physically closed, schools can still provide connections to health and mental health, nutrition, academic enrichment, and other essential services. The [community schools] hub approach can help prevent students and families from falling through the cracks during this time of remote learning.”
What Is a Community School?
A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between the education system, the nonprofit sector, and local government agencies. Community schools are grounded in an evidence base showing improvement in student outcomes, including attendance, academic achievement, high school graduation rates, and reduced racial and economic achievement gaps. This research also shows that implementation matters, with longer-operating and better-implemented programs yielding more positive results.
While the specific programs and services vary according to local context, there are four key pillars of the community school strategy. These pillars have been used in designing the LACOE community schools pilot to help connect implementation to the existing evidence base.
- Integrated student supports. Includes mental and physical health care, nutrition support, housing assistance, and other wraparound services.
- Expanded and enriched learning time and opportunities. Includes lengthening the school day and year, as well as enriching the curriculum through real-world learning opportunities.
- Active family and community engagement. Includes both service provision and meaningful partnership with parents and family members to support children’s learning.
- Collaborative leadership and practices. Includes coordination of community school services as well as site-based leadership teams and teacher learning communities.