Hardships exacerbated by the pandemic can be addressed through community schools model

Students, their families and educators continue to experience increased physical and mental health concerns, isolation and economic hardship as a result of COVID-19. To best serve their communities, many districts and schools will need to develop stronger systems of support to meet student needs.

In a July 28 webinar hosted by Policy Analysis for California Education, experts pointed to the community school model as a promising approach for coordinating available resources in service of student learning and well-being.

Community schools partner with local agencies and nonprofits to offer resources linked to everything from health and social services, to youth and community development.

That said, these schools are not simply defined by the services they offer, said Hayin Kimner, an independent research and policy consultant. Rather, a successful community school is one that is deeply invested in transforming the core instructional practices and relationships within each classroom.

“When we’re talking about a community school, we’re talking about a whole child/whole family approach to teaching and learning,” Kimner said. And the four things that make an effective community school are the same things that will aid schools in their efforts to support student, teachers and families during this crisis.

The four factors Kimner highlighted include:

  • Integrated teacher and student supports — schools must be proactive and responsive to the social-emotional needs of students and staff
  • Collaborative leadership and practice — there needs to be a dedicated lead to ensure alignment and coordination
  • Student-centered learning — youth voice, choice and leadership is highly beneficial to administrators as they shape and improve their community school
  • Centrality of family and student relationships — understand that families are essential partners, not just “clients” or occasional stakeholders

“When we’re talking about the centrality of family and student relationships, and we think about COVID and the new realities of distance learning, families are widely regarded now as essential partners in continuing their children’s education,” Kimner said. “This means long-term, trusting relationships with families are essential to supporting student learning. And this isn’t just true in times of crisis.”

Technical support and local partnerships are the keys to success

A common question among webinar attendees was “How can my district develop these systems of support and implement the strategies that make for an effective community school with our current budget?”

The answer: with a lot of help.

“One of the fundamental things that we have yet to totally grasp from a policy level is that when we’re talking about schools and we’re talking about whole child education and the achievement gap and the opportunity gap, that cannot rest solely on education budgets. Period,” Kimner said. “When we’re talking about the resources that are available within the public space, this is not just education dollars. This is health and human services dollars, this is Medicaid dollars, this is nutrition.”

Anna Maier, research analyst and policy advisor at the Learning Policy Institute, and lead author of “Leveraging Resources Through Community Schools: The Role of Technical Assistance,” agreed.

Technical assistance — defined as the provision of targeted support to build the capacity of individuals and organizations — has been identified as a key factor in supporting the implementation, expansion and the sustainability of a community school, Maier said.

Whether provided by the state, a county office of education or some other source, technical assistance can promote community school development through professional development and coaching of school staff, strategic planning support, and perhaps most importantly, partnership development.

“In many cases, it’s about finding ways to partner more productively and efficiently, and to pool together existing services in a way that really in centered on the child,” Maier said. “Every county has a variety of departments that are trying to serve children and families, so I think that part of the conversation can be the opportunity around collaboration, and around more effectively leveraging resources.”

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