Community Schools Shine in New National Reports

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Two new reports from the Center for American Progress (CAP) throw weight and national attention behind well-structured, effective community schools—an approach that the AFT is working hard to place on the short list of education solutions in school systems around the country.

The first report, "Breaking the Mold: Combining Community Schools with Expanded Learning Time to Help Educationally Disadvantaged Students," profiles three public schools that effectively pair wraparound services with expanded learning time, a combination that can be effective when it comes to removing barriers to learning. All three schools (two elementary schools in Chicago and a charter school in Camden, N.J.) offer extended learning time, healthcare services and enrichment programs. They also incorporate adult learning opportunities and feature expanded professional development for teachers. Keys to success in all three examples, the report emphasizes, are strong, sustained leadership and partnerships that give community schools staying power because they support the broader missions of both the school and the partner organization.

Rural districts also can benefit handsomely from the community schools model, the center stresses in the second report, "The Rural Solution: How Community Schools Can Reinvigorate Rural Education." The study discusses specific challenges that rural areas face when implementing community schools—staff recruitment in remote locations, for example, and effective use of limited facilities. Rural communities can overcome these obstacles, the report argues, but it requires state and federal help through incentives, supports and technical assistance.

The center marked the Sept. 22 release of these reports by hosting a panel discussion on community schools at its Washington, D.C., offices. Panelist Martin Blank, director of the Coalition for Community Schools and president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, said it was "essential" to adopt new public policies built on flexibility, allowing funding streams to be integrated in a way that will "bring more resources to bear" for community schools.

A big opportunity will come with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), said panelist Doris Terry Williams, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust and author of the rural schools study. In particular, ESEA provisions to help turn around struggling schools are one area in the law where community school strategies deserve a greater emphasis, she argued.

Cynthia Brown, the center's vice president for education policy, also spoke at the event and stressed how community schools are strategically placed to help "bridge the gap in this debate" over what matters most in education—high-quality academics or services that address poverty, health and other broad social concerns.

Community schools have factored heavily into a series of AFT events in recent weeks. The union's national officers have crossed the nation, visiting districts where community schools are thriving. These schools are forging strong neighborhood partnerships and combining academic rigor with the types of comprehensive, coordinated services that can make a difference in the lives of students and their families. The model also was a focus at the union's 2010 convention, where delegates adopted a resolution detailing key components of effective community schools. [Joan Devlin, Jessica Sabol, Mike Rose]

September 22, 2010