The Center for Universal Education at Brookings and the School Superintendents Association on Nov. 14 released a brief, “Starting and sustaining community schools: 10 tips for district leaders,” which focuses on the role superintendents and district leaders can play in successfully implementing the community schools strategy.
Grounded in trusting relationships, collaboration and data-informed, inclusive decision-making, community schools can leverage and coordinate the resources and voices of the whole community in service of a shared vision for student flourishing and a thriving school community, according to the Community Schools Forward Task Force.
“When we talk about a community school strategy, we’re really talking about schools being the hub of young people’s learning and development,” said Rebecca Winthrop, Center for Universal Education director. “That means rigorous and relevant teaching and learning that is connected to the communities they live in but also leans in heavily on partnerships — first and foremost, partnerships with families. Then there are deep partnerships with a range of institutions in the community, from healthcare providers to museums and everything in between.”
The brief details perspectives from conversations with superintendents and district staff with responsibility for community schools across 11 districts and with community school experts who work with superintendents.
An accompanying webinar, “How district leaders start and sustain community schools,” featured a panel discussion with school leaders sharing their experiences creating and sustaining community schools.
Conducting needs assessments
To meet the needs of students and communities, school leaders must first know what those needs are. Beginning with committees and stakeholder feedback collection mechanisms already in place, district leaders on the panel spoke about the importance of connecting directly with community voices to understand what is needed.
In Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut, Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez emphasized the role of needs assessments and continuous monitoring in ensuring that students and families are getting what they need. “Our district and community assessment found several resounding themes. Something that rose to the top was inequal access between schools and communities to community-based resources,” she said. “That became the driver for how we expanded our community school framework to be more systemic and systematic.”
Hartford Public Schools introduced a tiered system of supports for its community schools, which encompass each of the 39 schools in the district. “What that means is that we try to apply our equity lens and tier our community school framework and the resources that we allocate to schools based on their level of need,” she said.
For example, at the foundational level, all schools have a dedicated staff member for supporting family and community engagement, a higher education partnership, attendance strategies, collaborative leadership practices, asset mapping and needs assessments. The next level up brings in intentional community partnerships that are there for a specific need that that school and local community has identified. The highest level implements wraparound and integrated student supports, such as clinics for physical and mental health.
The brief highlights how Oakland Unified School District began its initiative in partnership with local organizations by prioritizing gathering people together, listening to their ideas and jointly building a vision — a collaborative approach that “paid huge dividends” and supported the district’s “ability to sustain the initiative over time,” according to Oakland USD Chief of Staff Curtiss Sarikey. He also noted that the process of engaging the community is ongoing — the district is constantly working to continue and build its engagement practices.
Partnerships and staffing
“I think you learn pretty early in education leadership that you cannot do it by yourself,” said panelist Adrienne Battle, Metro Nashville Public Schools director. “It takes very powerful and impactful community partnerships to make sure we can provide the critical wraparound services and supports that students and families need. It’s not just about a student approach, but about making sure families are thriving and that they are connected to their school community.”
A dedicated district community school coordinator can help ensure that the district’s vision and strategies are implemented in a cohesive way, as well as dedicated support staff at each site. Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public Schools, which has grown from 45 schools in the 2019–20 academic year to 96 schools in 2022–23, has a community school coordinator at each site, in addition to Director of Community Schools Ingrid Williams-Horton and four district staff to support school sites.
While some schools are currently using pandemic relief dollars to build and expand community schools, longer-term funding sources are needed to sustain the programs. Metro Nashville Public Schools used federal funds (Race to the Top and now Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds), the district operating budget, school budgets and community grants to support the development of community schools. Hartford Public Schools received significant start-up support from the Hartford Partnership for Student Success. Now, district funds are leveraged to support operations in their community schools, and lead community partners in each school leverage braided resources to support programming, according to the brief.
The California landscape
The California Department of Education in 2021 launched the California Community Schools Partnership Program (CCSPP), which supports schools’ efforts to partner with community agencies and local government to align community resources to improve student outcomes. These partnerships provide an integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement. In 2021, the California Legislature passed the California Community Schools Partnership Act and this year added additional funding and expanded the program through 2031.
Grants can play an important role in funding community schools and California is ripe with grant funding opportunities. There are three separate funding opportunities through the CCSPP: planning grants, implementation grants and extension grants. For more information, visit www.cde.ca.gov/ci/gs/hs/ccspp.asp