NEA and its leaders and members in public schools across the country, have joined with families, communities, school districts, and other key partners, to implement a powerful tool to achieve “the promise of public education to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world.” Community schools provide not only tremendous opportunities for learning and success for students, but also offer hope, opportunity, and transformation to entire communities.
The Community Schools Model is based on the work in Chicago immigrant communities in the late 1800s. In a picture reminiscent of the current reality—there was a lack of resources to support recent immigrant families, and many of their children were living in poverty. Jane Addams, known as the “mother of social work” and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, cofounded a settlement house that provided support for families that was based on her theory that social ills are interconnected and must be approached holistically. John Dewey adapted Addams’ ideas and placed them within the school structure. In his 1902 article titled, “The School as Social Center,” Dewey argued that “ . . .it was the community’s role to organize to attain the services they needed.”
Throughout the Depression and through World War II, communities started supporting wraparound services in schools, and in many places the community began to see the school as a place to interact with art and music. Often the impetus for these programs was poverty. Policymakers (President Johnson’s Great Society initiative—Elementary and Secondary Education Act) began to realize that students who came to school without their basic needs met might not be as successful as their peers who were healthy and fed.
The Six Pillars of Community Schools
The Community Schools Model advanced by NEA includes six pillars of practice. Unlike most public education models, these pillars are adaptable to the needs of an individual school’s students, staff, families, and community and pay particular attention to creating, supporting, and sustaining a culturally relevant and responsive climate. NEA was instrumental in ensuring the inclusion of two pillars—high-quality teaching and learning and inclusive leadership.
Strong and proven culturally relevant curriculum
Educators provide a rich and varied academic program allowing students to acquire both foundational and advanced knowledge and skills in many content areas. Students learn with challenging, culturally relevant materials that address their learning needs and expand their experience. They also learn how to analyze and understand the unique experiences and perspectives of others. The curriculum embraces all content areas including the arts, second languages, and physical education. Teachers and education support professionals (ESP) are engaged in developing effective programs for language instruction for English learners and immigrant students. These schools offer rigorous courses such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate. They provide learning and enrichment activities before and after the regular school day, including sports, the arts, and homework assistance. Schools address the needs of parents and families through programs such as English-as-a-Second-Language classes, GED preparation, and job training programs.
High-quality Teaching and Learning
Teachers are fully licensed, knowledgeable about their content, and skillful in their practice. Instructional time focuses on learning rather than testing. Individual student needs are identified and learning opportunities are designed to address them. Higher-order thinking skills are at the core of instruction so that all students acquire problem solving, critical thinking, and reasoning skills. Educators work collaboratively to plan lessons, analyze student work, and adjust curriculum as required. Experienced educators work closely with novices as mentors, coaches, and “guides on the side,” sharing their knowledge and expertise. ESP members take part in professional learning experiences and are consulted and collaborate when developing plans to improve instruction. Together, educators identify the methods and approaches that work and change those that do not meet student needs.
Leadership teams with educators, the community school coordinator, and other school staff share the responsibility of school operations with the principal. This leadership team ensures that the community school strategy remains central in the decision-making process.
Positive Behavior Practices (including restorative justice)
Community school educators emphasize positive relationships and interactions and model these through their own behavior. Negative behaviors and truancy are acknowledged and addressed in ways that hold students accountable while showing them they are still valued members of the school community. All members of the faculty and staff are responsible for ensuring a climate where all students can learn. Restorative behavior practices such as peer mediation, community service, and post-conflict resolution help students learn from their mistakes and foster positive, healthy school climates where respect and compassion are core principles. Zero-tolerance practices leading to suspension and expulsion are avoided.
Family and Community Partnerships
Families, parents, caregivers, and community members are partners in creating dynamic, flexible community schools. Their engagement is not related to a specific project or program, but is on-going and extends beyond volunteerism to roles in decision making, governance, and advocacy. Both ESP and teachers are part of developing family engagement strategies, and they are supported through professional learning opportunities. Their voices are critical to articulating and achieving the school’s overall mission and goals. When families and educators work together, students are more engaged learners who earn higher grades and enroll in more challenging classes; student attendance and grade and school completion rates improve.
Coordinated and Integrated Wraparound Supports (community support services)
Community school educators recognize that students often come to school with challenges that impact their ability to learn, explore, and develop in the classroom. Because learning does not happen in isolation, community schools provide meals, health care, mental health counseling, and other services before, during, and after school. Staff members support the identification of services that children need. These wraparound services are integrated into the fabric of the school that follows the Whole Child tenets. Connections to the community are critically important, so support services and referrals are available for families and other community members.
Beyond a definition of community schools and the six pillar model, there are four mechanisms that are important to the implementation of the model.
Community School Coordinator: Every community school should have a community school coordinator (CSC) that plays a leadership role at the school, is a member of the school leadership team, and is a full-time staff member. The CSC has training and specialized skills that support building and managing partnerships in diverse communities, creating and coordinating an integrated network of services for students and their families, and optimizing both internal and external resources. The leadership team should consist of administrators, ESP, teachers, and other school staff, along with the CSC. All share the responsibility of school operations with the principal. This leadership team ensures that the community school strategy remains central in the decision-making process. The CSC’s primary role is to facilitate a deep needs and asset assessment in collaboration with students, teachers, ESP, families, and community stakeholders to determine the root causes of problems and to determine school and community assets that can fill needs. The CSC also facilitates teams of stakeholders dedicated to solving root cause problems.
Needs and Assets Assessment: The foundation for the community school model is a school-based needs and asset assessment that assesses needed academic, social, and emotional supports (including staff expertise and community supports of the school and surrounding community). The needs and asset assessment, facilitated by the CSC, is an inclusive process in which families, students, community members, partners, teachers, ESP, administrators, and other school staff define their needs and assets. Problem solving teams are established based on the needs determined in the needs and asset assessment.
School Stakeholder Problem Solving Teams: Every community school should have teams of school and community stakeholders dedicated to solving problems that are identified in the needs and asset assessment, as well as problems identified by stakeholders subsequent to the assessment. The solutions identified by the stakeholder problem-solving teams change the way things are done in and outside of school hours and, at times, involve partnerships with outside organizations and individuals.
Community School Stakeholder/Partner Committee: The community school stakeholder committee (CSSC) coordinates between school staff, partners (organizations, businesses, town and city service providers), and stakeholders to ensure goals are achieved and obstacles are surmounted . The CSSC, which is inclusive of families, community partners, school staff, students, the Association, and other stakeholders from the school’s various constituencies, works in collaboration with the school leadership team and supports coordination across and among community schools within a school district.