Community schools can improve relationships and reduce achievement gaps, research shows

The U.S. Department of Education and the Learning Policy Institute on May 26 hosted a webinar, “Community Schools: An Evidence-based Whole Child Approach to Education,” with practitioners and researchers taking an in-depth look at how community schools can transform student learning and outcomes.

Department of Education Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten opened the webinar by acknowledging the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the role of community schools in supporting students and aiding in learning and social-emotional recovery. “The good news is we know how to structure systems and opportunities, we know what it takes to reach and teach every student and to deliver on equity, giving each student what they need when they need it, in the way that they need it,” she said. “The findings from the science of learning and development are crystal clear and they show us that students achieve better outcomes when they have strong relationships with caring adults and peers … and when they are in environments that are supportive. Community schools do exactly what the research says — they put schools at the center of their communities.”

Moderator Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education and the Learning Policy Institute, reviewed the four evidence-based pillars of community schools:

  • Integrated student supports
  • Enriched and expanded learning
  • Active family and community engagement
  • Collaborative leadership that includes a culture of professional learning

LPI research has found students benefit in many ways from community schools, including increased attendance and well-being, improved academic achievement and reduced achievement gaps, higher graduation rates, and improved relationships and attitudes toward school.

Curt Adams, associate dean for research at University of Oklahoma, Tulsa, said community schools provide more optimal learning environments. “Based on our evidence, full-service community schools in Tulsa are simply better places to teach and learn,” he said. “These are schools that aren’t just implementing a program, they’re restructuring the organization of teaching and learning. They are creating the conditions that optimize student learning.”

Adams said his team’s research has found one of the specific benefits of community schools for students is an increase in trusting relationships, which go both ways. When students feel they are trusted and they also trust their teachers, they are more willing to take risks, ask questions and be more open to getting things wrong and learning from them. “Deeper learning is stronger in full-service community schools,” Adams continued. His research found that economically disadvantaged students attending community schools outperformed their economically disadvantaged peers attending the highest-performing schools in the district by large margins in reading and math achievement.

Closing achievement gaps

Community schools in other areas of the country have seen similar success in closing achievement gaps. Mark Gaither, principal at Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, said community schools empower students to achieve at their highest levels through key supports including for mental and physical health and housing security — what Gaither calls “fundamental characteristics that would lead to success.”

Prior to transforming into a community school 16 years ago, Wolfe Street Academy was the 77th-highest performing elementary school in Baltimore City Public Schools. Now it is the second highest performing — all while the school’s demographics continued to include more low-income children and English learners. “The right tools, implemented consistently over time, empowers us to do the right thing by these kids. We’ve simply come to the conclusion that you aren’t going to provide a good education without community schools.”

Collaboration is key

Panelists agreed that a key element to implementing community schools are partnerships. Mike Hogg, vice president for Place-Based Partnerships and former superintendent of Berea Independent Schools in rural Appalachian Kentucky, spoke about the many basic needs children in the area have: dental, social-emotional and physical health. “Partnerships are absolutely critical,” he said. “Schools, especially in rural areas, are the center of the community. Students are in the middle of that, and we figure out how to best support them.”

Through community partnerships with a local healthcare agency, Berea IS was able to open three clinics to address students’ dental, physical and mental health. While that type of foundational support is necessary to ensure students are ready to learn, “the high-quality instructional program has to be in place.”

Mavis Sanders, senior research scholar of Black children and families at Child Trends, has studied community schools in high-poverty settings and found that the shared vision and role clarity of the site coordinator and principal are paramount. Other traits of successful community schools are an intentional focus on relationship-building and creating the opportunity for meaningful and multidirectional communication, sustained professional development and “sociopolitical clarity.”

“In schools where we really see a transformation for families and children in poverty, we see that people are focused on equity,” Sanders said. “It’s about changing what happens in schools but also about understanding the systems that promote economic inequity to begin with and mobilizing resources to address those inequities both inside and outside of school.”

Each community school is unique

Panelists emphasized that even within districts, neighborhoods are varied and their residents have different needs. A community school coordinator who knows these specific needs is key. “You have to be in it for the long haul — consistent and constant. I saw some questions come up about ‘how would it work in this situation and that situation?’ The fact that it is a strategy, not a program; the fact that it is based on a community schools site coordinator who is in the community and can identify the hyperlocal needs of that building … allows it to work in all different places,” said Gaither of Wolfe Street Academy.

Deputy Secretary Marten said the disruptions of the past two years have given schools a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset, re-envision, reimagine what an equitable, excellent education system can look like.”