Health services in community schools

What is a community school?

The community school model puts schools at the center of the community. It focuses on academic, health and social support services; youth and community development; and community engagement to improve student learning, strengthen families and build healthier communities. Through strong partnerships, community schools bring together different service providers, educators and families. These coordinated efforts ensure students have access to the supports needed for school success. Community school services are unique to each school and community, changing over time as the needs of students and families change.

Community schools serve the whole child

The whole-child approach is focused on the belief that every child in every school and every community deserves to be healthy, safe, engaged and challenged.1   In community schools, students receive the services most attuned to their needs. Community schools use results-focused goals, ensuring students are:

  • Ready to enter school, with up-to-date immunizations, and connected to support services;
  • Attending school consistently, reducing chronic absenteeism;
  • Actively involved in learning and their community;
  • Healthy (physically, socially and emotionally);
  • Living and learning in safe, supportive and stable environments; and
  • In communities that are desirable places to live.

Health disparities in schools

A student’s motivation and ability to learn are directly related to his or her health. In fact, research shows that socioeconomic status accounts for 50-60 percent of overall achievement, while other school and home factors account for as much as 10-20 percent. These factors include challenges related to housing, nutrition, violence and gang-related activity, and transportation.2

Today, 1 in 3 children in the United States is obese or overweight. Meanwhile, 1 in 5 children shows symptoms of mental health illness, 80 percent of whom do not receive the needed services for treatment.3   In fact, many of our members see firsthand how vulnerable student groups experience greater health and academic risks. In a survey distributed to AFT members, 66 percent reported working with a significant population of low-income students, and 48 percent reported working with students with special education needs.

Community schools bring community health agencies, nurses, dentists and mental health professionals into the school community to eliminate health-related obstacles to learning that cost students instructional time. In New York, for example, community schools have formed community partnerships with 128 school-based health centers to provide meaningful healthcare to students.4   For students across the country, including the 8 million uninsured children who live without access to healthcare services, community schools can help fill a service gap critical to student academic achievement.

Community school services

Some of the services that community schools can provide include:

  • Medical services (primary, vision, dental and nutritional services);
  • Mental health services (counseling and psychiatric services);
  • Access to social workers and other related social supports;
  • Academic services (tutoring, community-based learning and other enrichment activities); and
  • Adult education classes.

Positive outcomes from community schools

Community schools provide a multitude of benefits to their students, faculty and neighborhoods, including:

  • Improvements in reading and math test scores;
  • Better attendance, including teacher attendance, which indicates improved job satisfaction;
  • Better access to healthcare, reducing the number of uninsured families and children;
  • More full-time school nurses, improving immunization rates and dental screening;
  • Improved student behavior, including a drop in substance abuse, teen pregnancy and disruptive behavior in the classroom;
  • Lower violence and suspension rates in schools and safer communities; and
  • Districts with community schools leverage three dollars from community partners for every dollar they allocate.5

How to start a community school

Since every community is different and has different needs, each community school operates differently. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Schools are encouraged to start by developing goals and action plans based on conditions and indicators for learning. The process to scale up your school’s partnerships will depend on how ready your school is to implement community school strategies; you can use this Indicators of Capacity guide to evaluate your school. For more information, visit the AFT’s community schools resources page.