Building a Community School: How Local Partnerships Bring Success

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

When it comes to how community schools influence the conditions of optimal student wellbeing for optimal learning, the sky is the limit.

Community Schools: Best Practices for Greatest Impact

Community schools can manifest in any number of ways. They are dependent on the unique needs of students and families and how they can be met by the resources available in a community. Aware of their power and potential, more and more states are looking for ways to support community school development. In some cases, this comes with required protocols.

While the specifics of a community school will vary from school to school, city to city, and state to state, there are certain best practices that will increase their success and impact.

In my experience, three best practices are core to the success of community schools:   

1) Appoint or hire a coordinator. A common mistake is for the superintendent or a principal to believe he or she can run a community schools program. Inevitably, this person will confront the reality that doing so is a full-time job. Successfully managing a community schools program demands dedicated focus and coordination.

2) Clarify superintendent and principal roles. A community school’s success is still dependent upon their support. How they will lead the program from a high level, what they will be responsible for, and how they are accountable to its success must be clearly delineated from the outset. As a best practice, every superintendent and principal must know it is their job to increase the visibility of all community school efforts. Additionally, they must constantly make the connection between community schools and traditional school so that teachers understand how it benefits them directly.

3) Identify program goals in advance and track progress and outcomes. Prior to launching a community schools program, a school should do a needs assessment. Community schools that don’t set out to meet specific needs methodically run the risk of operating in a scattershot, disorganized fashion with little impact. Identify needs, identify the goals that will address those needs, and then identify the ways in which you will meet those goals. Track progress throughout; where initiatives are failing to meet goals, they must be revisited and recalibrated accordingly.

If you’re looking for a good example of how a school district leveraged community resources to bring about change, read this blog post about efforts at Maplewood High School in Tennessee, a presenter at last year's Model Schools Conference.

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Join MaryEllen Elia and hundreds of other education leaders at the 2020 Leadership Academy on February 4–6, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana, to learn about proven strategies for enacting change and improving student achievement.

The information in this blog post originated as a white paper from MaryEllen Elia.

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