How community schools can help combat the opioid crisis

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With the opioid crisis raging in communities across the country, many people believe that community schools can help students and families face the challenges brought on by addiction. That’s why advocates for community schools, including the AFT, and members of Congress gathered in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 12, to talk about how we can spread the community schools model to address the needs of students.

“Any time there is a natural disaster, there is an operating system that is deployed to mobilize the will, the wisdom and the wealth of the community to address that crisis—and that’s what community schools are about,” said José Muñoz, director of the Coalition for Community Schools, during the opening of a congressional briefing titled “Community Schools: Combating the Opioid Crisis for Students, Families and Communities.”

There are thousands of examples of how community schools offer hope for turning this crisis around, and “we want you to share them with your elected officials and other partners, so we can revolutionize the reputation of public schools,” said Munoz.

The AFT has been a champion of the community schools model, funding the launch of new schools, working closely with educators, schools administrators and parents to make the shift, and disseminating replicable best practices widely online.

Reconnecting McDowell in McDowell County, W.Va., is an example of how the community’s partnership with the AFT and other organizations is working to provide access to healthcare, social and emotional services, role models for students, modern technology in schools and at home, jobs and other economic development opportunities. “The partnership with the union helps our students get the necessary resources to ensure they come to school ready to learn,” said Ingrida Barker, who is McDowell County’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Neil Stewart, a member of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, and music teacher at Academy of World Languages Elementary School in Cincinnati was on hand to share his story. Community schools in Cincinnati connect students and their families to healthcare, early learning opportunities, after-school programs and much more. Stewart has taught for nearly 20 years and has seen how the model transformed his school, where 60 percent of the students are immigrants and where families face many challenges, including substance abuse.

“As teachers, we’re not always privy to knowing what students are dealing with, but we can tell when there may be a need,” said Stewart. When he suspects a problem, he can use referral forms to have someone look into a situation and make sure the student can get resources to help. “It takes the situation out of my hands. Things get resolved much quicker.” Being part of a community school “has made all the difference in the world,” he added.

“Community schools are important in the effort to address the opioid crisis,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has introduced legislation to support schools hard-hit by substance abuse. The Full-Service Community Schools in Distressed Communities Act provides grants to communities affected by substance use disorder to help them implement full-service community schools.

Brown said community schools help fill the gap left by families dealing with addiction. “The schools are not a substitute for parents, but they are our best hope when those situations happen,” said Brown. The senator pointed to Cincinnati as a great example of why he supports community schools. “Community schools are so attractive to people because they work. We need to replicate their mission. That’s why it’s so important for you to tell your stories—because they move members of Congress to action.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) agreed. “Stories provide a window into the challenges that students are facing,” he said. “We have to think about the environment students are coming from. It’s not just about providing education in the classroom, but also making sure the needs of students are addressed so that teachers can focus on education.” Van Hollen said community schools are growing because of their success, which is why he teamed with Sen. Brown to introduce the legislation.

[Adrienne Coles]