Community schools improve outcomes of the most vulnerable children and families and are a key reform strategy in the New Haven and Hartford schools, according to a new brief from Connecticut Voices for Children. Many other districts are also implementing pieces of the community school model, but in light of the major budget deficits and shrinking education funding, we see an opportunity to refocus reform efforts on leveraging existing community assets to produce better outcomes for children and families. The brief provides a status update on Connecticut community schools and outlines key policy recommendations.
Community schools involve a partnership between the neighborhood school and community organizations to reduce the opportunity gap, strengthen children and families, and increase learning. Mayors of big cities like New York, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia have pushed to increase the number of community schools as a key strategy to increase academic achievement among their most high-need students. Legislators in several states are also leading efforts to promote community schools as a key educational reform strategy. For example, the Connecticut General Assembly demonstrated its commitment to the community school model in 2013 with the passage of “An Act Concerning Community Schools.”
Community schools share four common features: 1) extended learning; 2) in-school mental and physical health services; 3) family engagement; and 4) family support and connection to social services. Several large-scale evaluations of national community school models show beneficial effects, improving student learning, and strengthening families and communities. Evaluations of Connecticut community school models in Hartford and New Haven also demonstrate positive outcomes for students, parents, and communities.
Implementation of community school models is not without challenges. Primary challenges include the need for better coordination of services, the commitment of state and district leadership, and the complications bridging school and community cultures. Although there is a perception that community schools are expensive to implement, community schools are cost-effective because they build on existing services at the local level. No new community school has been created since the 2013 legislation, but components of community schools exist in nearly every Alliance district. Nonetheless, greater coordination of services is necessary.
Our review indicates that the components of community school models can improve outcomes for children and families in under-resourced schools. We recommend that school and district leaders consider the following:
- Maintain state funding that supports community schools, including grants to Alliance districts and funding for Family Resource Centers. The budget climate is dire, and preservation of funding for existing supports for vulnerable children and their families is of the utmost importance.
- Provide supports for conducting a needs assessment at the school and district level, especially in an Alliance district, to determine which resources are currently available in the school and in the community.
- Identify a full-time coordinator at the school and/or district level who conducts a needs assessment, establishes partnerships between school and community partners, and coordinates the key components of community schools.
Ensuring success in school and in life increasingly depends on establishing crucial links between what happens in and outside of the classroom. Community schools are one educational model that bridges schools and communities to create more equitable educational experiences for all children. The legislation on community schools already exists, and the resources in many districts are in place to make this happen. These resources remain at serious risk in the current fiscal climate, and it is unlikely that the state of education funding will improve in the near future. School and municipal leaders, state legislators and families must seize this opportunity to make connections, linking the classroom to the community, to prepare all of our state’s children, especially the most vulnerable, for academic and economic success and active participation in civic life.