For 10 years, I served as superintendent for the Hillsborough County Public Schools district in Tampa, Florida. As the eighth largest school district in the United States, it matriculates approximately 214,000 students each year, 57 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch and live at or below the poverty line. During my tenure, we conceived and operationalized a community schools program; that is, an initiative to find and make use of resources available within the larger community that could help us better meet our students’ academic, physical health, and mental health needs, as well as support family engagement.
We achieved this through a breadth of partnerships and programs. For example, we were aware that all of our students needed stronger literacy skills. Internally, we were developing a mindset that all teachers are literacy teachers (particularly at the elementary level), and we were training every last one of them in literacy instruction. As a community school, our focus did not stop with the classroom. We considered who else could support our students’ literacy development beyond our doors. Many of our students participated in after-school programs, such as the Boys Club or YMCA, so we trained their staffs with literacy instructional skills and provided reading materials. A large percentage of our students lived in government housing, which were regulated to have a computer lab and a social worker available during certain hours. We trained the social workers with literacy instruction skills and downloaded specific literacy software on all the computers in the labs. As a result, multiple adults who interacted with students at various hours were all united in a common goal: help the children of our community develop the literacy skills they deserve and need to thrive.
Defining the Community School Model
While the particulars of a community program will differ from school to school, there is a certain kinetic and exhilarating energy consistent in each. In some cities and states, the community schools program is called “Community Schools.” In other cities and states, a formal program might have another name (“Hub Schools” is also common), but its essence and goals are in line with the term community schools.
The goal of a community school is to expand or create services that support students’ academic achievement, address students’ physical and mental health, and offer broader and more convenient ways for families to interact with the school. The strategy is to discover and leverage untapped or underutilized resources within the community, such as those available through local and state government agencies and services, non-profit service providers, higher education institutions, philanthropic organizations, and businesses.
For community schools to operate at their best, the school must be the hub and the participating community stakeholders the spokes for three primary reasons.
- The success of a community school is largely a function of not only knowledge but also the centralization of it. Community schools are about connecting dots. The more “dots” you know and the more centralized this knowledge is, the more you can connect to create new solutions. The most robust community schools are those where the program team is highly knowledgeable about the various resources within a community and that knowledge is concentrated so that it can be leveraged most holistically.
- Schools operating as the hub just makes good sense. Relative to other institutions or services for children, children spend most of their time at school. It is the adults at school who get the broader and most whole-child view of students’ needs. The school, then, can coalesce all the adults that students interact with around meeting student needs more holistically and productively. Educators also have—we hope—close and trusting relationships with students and their families.
- The program that develops will naturally be customized to their students’ specific needs. Herein lies what is most powerful about community schools—it is not an off-the-shelf program. It is an idea, an approach, a creative solution. When a community school has strong, coherent organizational leadership support and certain best practices are followed, community schools are organically tailored to the needs of the students in the school.
Benefits of Community Involvement in Schools
When a community school is at its most creative and resourceful, it can contribute to a student’s overall wellbeing and broaden her access to ongoing learning and support. That is, it can influence, to varying degrees, all the inputs on a student’s total health and, thereby, capacity to engage fully in her learning: balanced nutrition; access to medical care; access to mental health care; access to rigorous and relevant academic opportunities during and after school hours; clean clothes; and supports for parents such that they can, in turn, engage more in their children’s learning.