Column: The people who make community schools work
By MICHAEL DIEDRICH, Minnesota 2020
ST. PAUL — Five years ago, I was getting ready to teach at Brooklyn Center High School. Both during my time there and in the years afterward, one of the aspects of the school that has stuck with me the most is its commitment to being a full-service community school.
While it’s easy to use “community school” and “neighborhood school” interchangeably, community schools as described by the Coalition for Community Schools coordinate with community partners to provide a range of services on site that help students and families challenge the various barriers, like health or housing insecurity, that make it harder for students to learn. As more advocates and policy makers investigate consider spreading the community schools approach to more places in Minnesota, here are some of the people who make community schools work.
Community schools coordinator: One of the most critical positions to sustaining full-service community schools is a dedicated staff person whose first priority is supporting the framework. Especially in districts where school leadership can change frequently, having a reliable person to provide continuity to the program and maintain relationships with the many community partners who provide services. Since most other people involved with community schools — students, teachers, families, school leaders, service partners — have other priorities that draw their attention, the concept has the best chance of succeeding when there’s someone else fully committed to it as their job.
School leaders: Co-locating services on the school site is a key component of the full-service community schools framework, so a school leader willing to open up the school to outside partners is invaluable. An uninvolved leader may present an obstacle; a resistant leader can make sustaining the program impossible.
District leaders: Part of ensuring that school leaders are supportive of the framework is district leadership that values full-service community schools and expects school leaders to as well. When districts make support for the concept (or at least openness to it) a hiring priority, and when they encourage training and collaboration, they create an environment more likely to help genuine full-service community schools develop.
Teachers: Teachers often find themselves besieged by new programs and initiatives, especially in districts looking to try anything to improve student performance. It is important for full-service community schools not to become another in a long list of tried-but-abandoned programs. This is where the dedicated community schools coordinator is important, and one of their goals will usually be keeping staff informed and invested in the success of the community schools framework in their schools. In schools where staff turnover is high, this can be difficult, but teachers will generally get on board as they see how the additional services and support help students focus and learn better in their classrooms. As the most frequent point of contact between schools and students, teachers are positioned well to make the first round of referrals to support services.
Families: As I’ve written about in the past, community schools should not just be about the provision of services at the school’s discretion. Instead, they offer an opportunity for engagement between a school and the families it serves. Families become important sources of information about what is most needed in the community, and they can be leaders in setting the direction for the work. This can also be a starting point for empowering families in schools more generally, perhaps creating opportunities for community-driven accountability and better partnerships between teachers and families.
Community partners: Of course, the whole point of the full-service community schools framework is that the school itself is not providing all the services. Instead, it is combining its space and proximity to students and families with services already offered by other providers in the community. Sometimes, for example, the few blocks between a school and a community clinic can greatly reduce the frequency with which students visit the clinic. Putting the health services on site makes it much easier for students to access them. Additionally, as community partners work together with the school, they also work together with each other. This creates opportunities for referrals between community partners as they learn more about individual students’ needs and about the other services available at the school.
Conclusion: All told, full-service community schools require the engagement of many people from many different backgrounds. Instead of seeing this as an obstacle, though, schools can treat this as an evolving goal. By creating the conditions for full-service community schools to thrive—especially staffing a community schools coordinator at each school and ensuring school leaders are invested—schools and districts can use the framework as a means to gather these diverse people together for the benefit of students. Whether it’s policy makers in state government or local activists making requests of their school boards, we should work to see more schools adopt this useful approach that does right by children and families.