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Lessons for the Community Schools Revolution

Transforming Schools blog series: Community Schools Transforming Education Nationwide by Jane Quinn and Martin Blank

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.

John Dewey’s vision of our schools as vibrant centers of community has seen a resurgence in the past 3 decades with the expansion of the community schools strategy across the country. Building on this local community schools development, a growing number of states, along with the federal government, are investing in community schools: Maryland has woven the strategy into its school funding formula, California is investing $4.1 billion, and at least 10 other states are offering incentives for the growth of community schools. Federal support reached $150 million this year, lifting the visibility and reach of implementation efforts nationwide.

Now is the time to consolidate and enhance the gains of the community schools movement and ensure high-quality implementation of every community school. That is a major reason we and our colleagues wrote The Community Schools Revolution: Building Partnerships, Transforming Lives, Advancing Democracy. Our book tells the story of established community school initiatives in Albuquerque, Cincinnati, Florida, Los Angeles, New York City, and Oakland, and shares key lessons that others interested in community schools implementation can learn from. Here are highlights of our analysis:

Community schools are a long-term, results-oriented strategy.

They seek to improve results on multiple fronts, including, but not limited to, academic achievement. The leaders in our Florida case study (the University of Central Florida and the Children’s Home Society of Florida) demonstrated their understanding of the long-term nature of the enterprise by making an initial 25-year commitment to the work of their Community Partnership Schools when they launched the initiative in 2010. Their long-term involvement with community schools helped students thrive—the schools significantly increased graduation and attendance rates and lowered discipline referrals.  

The New York City community schools initiative invested in a rigorous evaluation that has been a key contributor to its growth and sustainability. The evaluation found that attendance was higher, more students advanced to the next grade, credit accumulation grew, and high school graduation increased in community schools compared to other New York City schools. The evaluation also found improvements in school climate and culture for elementary and middle schools, which included a positive effect on students’ sense of connectedness to adults and peers.

Partnerships are essential to community schools.

Partnerships with community agencies and institutions constitute a vital ingredient of successful community school initiatives. Our case studies offer rich examples of the kinds of partnerships that have been forged, from health and social services to institutions of higher education to youth development organizations to cultural groups and beyond. These partnerships enable schools to address the holistic needs of their students by putting more caring, competent adults in their lives and bringing varying skills and perspectives to bear on multiple aspects of young people’s development. Moreover, community partners can also bring a more diverse group of adults into students’ lives. 

In the Florida initiative, for example, organizers extended partnerships to stakeholders at every level, from students and their families to state legislators, resulting in a sustained initiative that has continued to expand and have a broad impact across the state.

Finally, one unique aspect of partnerships in community schools is that most partners are engaged for the long haul, not just for a year or two. These long-term alliances represent a cornerstone for sustainability.

Now is the time to consolidate and enhance the gains of the community schools movement and ensure high-quality implementation of every community school.

Community schools benefit from both outside-in and inside-out leadership.

Leaders from outside the school districts played a pivotal role in driving the development of community schools across our six diverse areas. Only one of the six exemplars (Oakland) drew its initial vision and impetus from the school district—and even then, the superintendent immediately mobilized trusted community partners who could test and strengthen the idea of every school a community school.

In Albuquerque, the city, county, and school district formed a joint powers agreement that provided both a mandate and the infrastructure to facilitate community schools development. In Los Angeles, a shared vision of social justice led a major university to combine its rich resources with a like-minded principal, school staff, and community.

As community school funding opportunities increase, superintendents and school board members can reach across boundaries to build mutually beneficial relationships with local governmental entities, community-based organizations like the United Way, higher education institutions, and other potential partners invested in improving the lives of their community members.

Community voice is essential.

Our stories illustrate the importance of listening and responding to the issues and concerns voiced by students, parents, and community residents. Their wisdom and experience are essential to creating the collaborative culture that undergirds community schools.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Oakland High School committed to prioritizing issues brought forward by students. At the UCLA Community Schools, students and teachers have directly influenced the curricula.

Grassroots community organizing focused on schools enabled the Coalition for Educational Justice and the Alliance for Quality Education in New York to successfully advocate for community schools and enlist the support of political leaders so that these high-impact efforts were and are sustained and expanded.

The struggles of people from low-income communities and people of color to have their voices heard is a historical and present-day problem. It is part of the reason why they have less access to the resources and educational opportunities they need. Many community schools are addressing the problem by listening to what parents and students want and orchestrating resources in response. Community school leaders are demonstrating how listening to their concerns can generate success for everyone.

Equity is at the core of community schools.

As a strategy for organizing school and community resources around student success, community schools seek to ensure that all students have access to the key developmental assets known to promote learning and thriving. Centered on one of the few remaining public institutions that reaches all students and families, community schools are also catalysts for community change—a vehicle for pursuing a broader equity agenda that must also address income inequality, affordable housing, decent jobs, and access to quality child care and early learning opportunities.

It’s time to stop looking for quick fixes to difficult problems and grow sustainable solutions that draw on all the assets of our communities. Now, more than ever, as our nation struggles to overcome the multiple challenges brought about by an unexpected and devastating pandemic, the community schools strategy represents an effective long-term approach to improving educational and developmental outcomes for our students and the families and communities in which they grow up. Our book demonstrates that community schools are both doable and worth doing.

This blog is drawn from the research reported in the book The Community Schools Revolution: Building Partnerships, Transforming Lives, Advancing Democracy (Collaborative Communications Group Inc., 2023) by Martin J. Blank, Ira Harkavy, Jane Quinn, Lisa Villarreal, and David Goodman. The book may be downloaded free or purchased at

Jane Quinn is the former Director of the National Center for Community Schools; Martin Blank was the founding director of the Coalition for Community Schools and former President of the Institute for Educational Leadership.