Collaborative leadership in community schools

As more districts look to adopt a community-schools model on campuses throughout the country to mitigate the numerous challenges faced by children and their families in the wake of the pandemic, a new brief from the UCLA Center for Community Schooling suggests leadership that includes educators can help to better integrate programs and services in support of students, families and the community.

A community school differs from a more traditional school — even those with school-based health clinics that provide medical and dental care, as well as mental or behavioral health care — in that it combines academics with a wide range of vital in-house services, supports and opportunities to students and their families that are integral to promoting learning and overall development. Partnerships between the schools and local organizations, nonprofits and county offices, among others, are necessary to ensure children and their families have access to comprehensive resources that districts can’t provide alone.

Community schools often offer family support, such as connections to housing and meal services, preparation courses for GED or citizenship exams, English language acquisition classes or other targeted skill-development opportunities. Because each community school’s operations and offerings reflect local needs, assets and priorities, no two are identical.

Collaborative Leadership as the Cornerstone of Community Schools: Policy, Structures, and Practice” focuses on UCLA Community School, a K-12 educator-run community school located in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

Authors of the brief note that in contrast to a top-down hierarchical model, UCLA Community School’s democratic governance structure aims to engage all stakeholders in decision-making and allows teachers to more deeply collaborate with the school’s community partners.

“While much has been written regarding the importance of raising the profile of teachers in school governance and decision-making, the interplay between the formal empowerment of teachers through policy and structural systems and educator decision-making roles in everyday practice is poorly understood,” researchers wrote. “Community schools, wherein teachers take on a range of roles including as school leaders in collaboration with families and community members, provide an important forum for understanding how collaborative leadership is supported by policy and organizational structures, and brought to life through critical practices that uphold democratic problem-solving.”

Collaboration leads to better student outcomes

Efforts to foster collaborative leadership models are yielding positive outcomes among students at UCLA Community School, according to the brief. Part of this stems from the school’s high retention rate, which has remained between 80 and 96 percent over the school’s 10-year history.

Researchers found that maintaining high retention rates has been critical both in providing students with a stable learning environment and in establishing a culture where teachers feel they can safely revisit and improve practices that tap into students’ strengths and talents and meets comprehensive needs.

“The school’s deliberate focus on workplace conditions — including teachers’ sense of leadership and decision-making power — contributes to this steadiness,” according to the brief. “Educators’ understanding that they are valued and that their insights are important contribute to a stable workplace environment.”

For students, this has led to positive long-term outcomes. For instance, of the students in UCLA Community School’s first graduating in 2014, approximately 75 percent attended a two- to four-year college in the fall immediately after graduation. Just two years later, the rate of immediate college attendance among new UCLA Community School graduates increased to 81 percent. By 2017, 86 percent of students were enrolling in college.

Professors and researchers from UCLA partnered with teachers, counselors and administrators to study college attendance rates, the school’s college-going culture and practices and to establish next steps, according to the brief.

Among the changes made, school staff and leadership worked to developing high school graduation requirements that aligned with the state’s public four-year university eligibility requirement, hired a college counselor and developed college-going events.

“Collaborative leadership enables educators, students and families to work together to define and co-create learning environments that allow everyone to learn, grow, and thrive,” authors wrote.