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Community Schools: People and Places Transforming Education and Communities

“It’s nearly impossible for any one person to meet the needs of all children by themselves.” This straightforward observation comes from a new book about a collaborative and effective education reform strategy that has gained ground in recent years: community schools.

Community schools purposefully partner with social service agencies, food banks, higher education institutions, health clinics, youth organizations, and businesses to meet the academic and nonacademic needs of students and families. By meeting such needs, community schools make it possible for teachers to do what they do best, which is to teach, and for students to feel supported enough to focus on what they need to do in school, which is to learn.

Few understand the point of such schools better than JoAnne Ferrara and Reuben Jacobson, the editors of Community Schools: People and Places Transforming Education and Communities (Rowman & Littlefield). Ferrara is the associate dean of undergraduate programs and a professor at Manhattanville College specializing in community schools and university partnerships. Jacobson is the director of the Education Policy and Leadership program at American University and previously served as the deputy director of the Coalition for Community Schools. Together, they solicited chapters from people with direct experience working in the more than 5,000 estimated community schools across the country or researching the various roles that make community schools successful.

One such role is the community school coordinator, who coordinates resources and partnerships and shares leadership with the school’s principal, and also works closely with teachers, students, and families. Thanks to Chapter 5 by Lissette Gomez, readers come away with a sense of all that coordinators do. A day-in-the-life “snapshot” of her job as director of a Children’s Aid community school in New York City includes meeting with families to discuss their needs, working with the principal to ensure that the afterschool program aligns with the school day, and visiting officials from a local shelter to learn how the school can support homeless students, among her other myriad responsibilities.

At the heart of Gomez’s work—and the work of community schools in general—is building relationships. As a result, those interested in establishing community schools must understand the roles that everyone in such schools must play. “If we believe in the idea of the African proverb that ‘it takes a village,’ ” Ferrara and Jacobson write, “then this is the book that answers, ‘who are the village people?’ ”

Where Teachers Thrive: Organizing Schools for Success

Throughout her 40-year career in education, Susan Moore Johnson has learned that workplace conditions and school environments play crucial roles in ensuring that teachers and their students succeed. But too often, she contends, such roles have been overlooked. In Where Teachers Thrive: Organizing Schools for Success (Harvard Education Press), Johnson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes that education reform’s focus on recruiting highly qualified individuals to the teaching profession, rewarding them to ensure they stay in the classroom, and firing those deemed ineffective has been misplaced.

Instead, educators must be provided with resources and supports to improve their instruction and student learning—yet rarely are they given what they need. That’s because reformers have ignored a simple truth: that a teacher’s success depends very much on the school environment where he or she works. “It is as if the features of schools that teachers regularly report matter to them—for example, the knowledge and skills of the principal, the effectiveness of schoolwide order and discipline, how time is used, whether they have a curriculum and what it is—have no influence on teachers’ practice or their ability to successfully educate their students,” she writes.

Johnson bolsters her point with case studies of 14 schools she and her graduate students included in three major studies of public schools in Massachusetts. Instead of interviewing one or two teachers about their working conditions, Johnson and her team visited schools themselves and spoke with diverse groups of teachers, administrators, and other staff members who work there.

In chapters devoted to hiring practices, teacher leadership, decisions on curriculum and instruction, teacher evaluation, and teacher pay, among other topics, the book provides a comprehensive analysis of how the elements of teacher working conditions ultimately influence student learning conditions. It also includes several lessons for administrators and policymakers seeking to improve schools. Among them are that collaboration among teachers is vital and that “educators must have sufficient autonomy as a group to make key decisions about staffing, budgeting, curriculum, and the schedule.”

Another of Johnson’s compelling points is that strengthening schools “can’t be done on the cheap.” The years of disinvestment in public education have especially hurt disadvantaged students, not to mention those who teach despite the notoriously low pay. As Johnson writes, “Only when our society acknowledges and funds the costs of a first-class education system will our schools and teachers succeed in providing it.” 

American Educator, Fall 2019