Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Districts Embrace the Community to Benefit All Students: Moving from a Traditional School District to One That Embraces a Community Schools Model Requires Fundamental Shifts in Organizational Structure and Practices

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Districts Embrace the Community to Benefit All Students: Moving from a Traditional School District to One That Embraces a Community Schools Model Requires Fundamental Shifts in Organizational Structure and Practices

Article excerpt

It makes sense: If schools can make sure students are healthy, well-nourished, and live in safe neighborhoods, then they'll be ready to learn and able to achieve.

Sounds so simple, right?

But most school districts are not in the food bank business, they don't operate health clinics, and they aren't experts at neighborhood revitalization.

However, school districts are increasingly stepping up to the challenge of taking a whole-child approach to learning by embracing a community schools model in which public schools are the hubs of their neighborhoods--places where families, educators, and community partners come together to provide all students with quality instruction, opportunities for enrichment, and access to health and social services.

Transforming themselves from a traditional school district to this new model requires fundamental shifts in organizational structure and practices within the school district. But it also requires that the entire community is committed to a shared vision and a desire to put "us" and "ours" before "me" and "mine."

District leaders who have done this work say it is not an overnight fix but a process that takes time. Although each district's model may be unique, the district transformation process is not.

#1. Let data lead the change.

Vancouver Public Schools (VPS) in Vancouver, Wash., adopted a community schools initiative as part of its strategic plan 10 years ago. Vancouver is a suburban community facing rapid urbanization. In the past decade, the number of students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals increased from 39% to a peak of 57%; last year, 80% of students in the core urban schools were eligible. At the same time, the English language learner population has doubled, and affordable housing has not kept up with population growth overall; roughly 1,100 of the district's 24,000 children were homeless at one point last year.

Looking at the trends and the data, Vancouver Supt. Steve Webb said the school system clearly needed to change. "Our school board and district leadership team recognized that poverty is not a learning disability, but poverty can make it more difficult for students to experience success in school and become future-ready graduates," he said.

Citing the correlation between student achievement and poverty, VPS began to work with community leaders and local funders to transform schools into hubs of their neighborhoods. In 1999, the district established its first Community Learning Center that served as a preK-5 elementary school and offered wraparound community school supports.

Through a strategic planning process, the district and community partners identified an Opportunity Zone comprising schools with the highest concentrations of poverty, and ultimately they established 18 Family-Community Resource Centers (FCRC) in those schools and a mobile FCRC to serve all other district schools (with plans to add an additional FCRC by 2020).

In Evansville, Ind., the approach was similar. The Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation's (EVSC) community school journey began more than 20 years ago in response to a local United Way report. That report lifted up the need for a one-stop shop of community partners and resources to help and support families facing the conditions and consequences of poverty. The United Way partnered with Cedar Hall Elementary School to launch that initiative.

"We didn't set out to create a community school model. We just wanted to bring in a few partners at one school to meet the basic needs of students and families," said Cathlin Gray, who was principal of Cedar Hall at the time and is now associate superintendent for family, school, and community partnerships. "As we started doing that, it just seemed to grow from there, with more and more partners coming to the table. Eventually, we found other schools across the nation doing this same work, and we realized it had a name. …

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