Transforming Schools to Serve Our Children Well
This blog is part of the Transforming Schools series, which shares effective practices and foundational research for educators, students, families, and policymakers who are reimagining schools as places where students are safe and can thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.
"Kasserian ingera”—the traditional greeting of Masai warriors—asks: "And how are the children?" It is still a greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value they place on their children's well-being. The traditional answer, "All the children are well,” means that the safety and welfare of the young are protected by their communities.
Unfortunately, in the United States, we know that all of our children are not well. Indeed, by any measure, children and youth in the United States are struggling. The aftermath of the pandemic has brought with it an epidemic of mental health issues, from anxiety and depression to suicidal ideation. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from 2022 found that 44% of adolescents said they felt sad or hopeless most of the time during the spring of 2021, and 20% seriously considered suicide. During that time, 29% had an adult in their household lose a job and 24% went hungry; 55% said they were exposed to harsh verbal or physical treatment at home.
Many report continuing to feel disconnected from school. Among high school students from 95 districts surveyed by Youth Truth in 2021–22, a minority (40%) reported feeling like part of their school community or enjoying coming to school, and just 39% reported having an adult at school they could talk with when they feel “upset, stressed, or having problems.” (See figure below.) These proportions are even lower for students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students in large schools.
It is in this context that a diverse and growing chorus of educators, students, families, and policymakers are calling for a reimagining of our schools. They are highlighting the need to center relationships, belonging, and community; to create structures and practices to support relevant and engaging learning; and to organize resources, supports, and opportunities in ways that mitigate the pernicious effects of structural racism and decades of disinvestment in low-income communities of color.
As Learning Policy Institute Senior Fellow in Residence Jeannie Oakes noted recently, “We need to have schools really change the way they operate to compensate for deficiencies, not in the kids, but in our social safety net.”
Renewed Interest in Time-Tested Strategy
Responding to the uniquely challenging moment we’re in, many districts and states are making big bets on community schools—both to address the tattered social safety net Oakes refers to, as well as to provide a catalyst for the deeper cultural and practice changes needed to better serve students and adults alike.
These initiatives are underway in large urban districts like Albuquerque, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and Oakland, as well as in smaller rural communities in California, Kentucky, New Mexico, New York, and Vermont. A number of states have also established funding and supports for community schools. Maryland established the Concentration of Poverty grant program to provide annual community school personnel grants to eligible schools, along with additional per-pupil grant funding for each eligible student. New York created a community schools set-aside in its school funding formula for high-need districts and funded three regional technical assistance centers for community schools. California, for its part, has leveraged multiyear budget surpluses in 2021 and 2022 to make a historic $4.1 billion investment in planning, implementation, and coordination grants—as well as technical assistance—for the state-funded California Community Schools Partnership Program. This investment is intended to provide sufficient resources for every high-poverty school in California to become a community school within the next 5 to 7 years.
Community schools are a place-based strategy deeply rooted in their local context—the needs, assets, hopes, and dreams of students, families, educators, and community partners. They leverage a complex web of partnerships and relationships, like those at Mendez High School in East Los Angeles, to support and engage students and families. By integrating access to services—from medical care to housing and other supports—and making them available to students and families on school campuses, community schools provide a much-needed alternative to the fragmented and bureaucratic social services gauntlet that families in need are typically required to navigate. As we have seen time and again during the COVID-19 pandemic, these services and supports—provided in the context of trusting and caring relationships—can be life changing and can mean the difference between academic success and struggling students and families.
At Mendez, because of the infrastructure created through its community schools approach, the school and its partners were able to provide vital services to students and families as soon as schools shut down in 2020. A mobile clinic that already served the school began COVID-19 testing for the community; mental health providers already in place conducted regular mental health check-ins with students via devices or at a safe physical distance. Other partners created care packages with food, toilet paper, electronic benefit transfer cards, and other essentials, and teachers organized to provide Wi-Fi hot spots to families before the district had the capacity to do so.
But to achieve the transformation our students need and the times demand, community schools must be about much more than providing an efficient structure for integrated student supports (or wraparound services, as they are sometimes called). Transformation requires that we also address the structural barriers to student well-being and academic success that are encompassed by the other foundational elements of community schools: a culture of belonging, safety, and care; community-connected classroom instruction; expanded and enriched learning opportunities; empowered student and family engagement; and collaborative leadership. Foundational to all of this is a grounding in whole child education.
We need to have schools really change the way they operate to compensate for deficiencies, not in the kids, but in our social safety net.Jeannie Oakes, LPI Senior Fellow in Residence
Start With a Whole Child Framework
When implemented well, community schools are guided by principles for equitable whole child practices that are grounded in the science of learning and development. This whole child framework is at the center of the community schools initiative in California, where the State Board of Education has thus far approved $1.5 billion in planning and implementation grants from a larger initiative that is intended to reach one third of the state’s schools in high-need communities.
The key elements of a whole child framework should be foundational to our vision of transformational community schools:
- Structures and practices to foster positive developmental relationships and ensure that students are known and supported. Examples include looping in the elementary grades, where a teacher stays with the class for more than one year, and utilizing advisory systems in middle and high school, which create small family units that offer personal attention, space for sharing needs and feelings, and family connections that support each student.
- Supportive and caring school communities where students feel a strong sense of belonging and are safe to bring their full selves, without fear of being bullied by peers or stereotyped or negatively judged by students or adults at school.
- Culturally affirming social and emotional learning that is infused throughout the school day and includes skill-building, as well as educative and restorative approaches to classroom management and discipline, so that children and young people learn responsibility for themselves and their community.
- Rich learning experiences that support inquiry, motivation, competence, self-efficacy, and self-directed learning.
- Integrated student supports that remove academic and non-academic barriers to learning by providing health and social services as needed, tutoring and other academic supports, and a focus on children’s individual talents and needs.
Move at the “Speed of Trust”
Just as we need to rethink how students are engaged and supported in schools, we also need to reimagine adult interactions—among families and educators, as well as among school staff. That means treating families as trusted partners in their students’ well-being and academic success and intentionally supporting their capacity building and leadership development.
As importantly, it also means investing in educators and school staff, so they have the necessary tools, agency, and support—including support for their mental health and emotional well-being—to shift practices in ways that expand the capacities of students and adults alike. This includes enabling new teachers’ success with strong induction and mentoring, while providing leadership opportunities for more experienced teachers. It means providing the collaboration time essential to advancing meaningful and engaging instruction and supporting teacher-led professional development. And, just as with students and families, it means nurturing trust and collaborative leadership among staff and with school and district leaders.
Let’s be clear—this is hard work. It takes practice, humility, and a shared commitment to eliminating structures and practices that perpetuate inequalities, rather than move us closer to equitable and racially just school systems. The investment in community schools—fueled by a growing awareness that we must reinvent school to better serve students, educators, and families—creates the opportunity for change. It does not guarantee change, however. The recent federal and state investments in community schools provide resources that aim to transform education at the systems level, rather than one school at a time. These supports for networks of community schools, including technical assistance, help to create the conditions needed for success.
To tap the energy and excitement—and elevate examples of schools and communities that are leaning into a transformative vision—we’re launching a new blog series, Transforming Schools, for which this is the first installation. We’ll hear from educators, policymakers, practitioners, community partners, researchers, students, families, and organizers—in short, representatives of the full ecosystem of people and roles that such momentous work requires. We’ll highlight examples of promising and innovative practices, elevate what research and practitioner experience point to as best practices, and explore the role of community schools in helping to develop the young leaders we need today—and tomorrow. I hope you’ll join us on this journey, and I invite you to share your thoughts and ideas in the weeks and months ahead.