Blurring the lines between supportive schools and thriving communities
As a teenager walking the halls of her suburban, middle-class high school, Julia Daniel witnessed injustices and unequal access to educational programs despite her school’s outstanding college-readiness reputation.
“There was an emphasis on critical thinking and a lot of opportunities for high-level classes,” said Daniel, a doctoral candidate in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program in the School of Education.
“We also had a program in which Black, low-income students from Boston were bused into our school, but they tended to be tracked into lower-level classes. I started seeing racial disparities in how students in my own school were treated.”
As a community organizer, such disparities troubled her once more while working with youth in Miami, where local schools’ leaky ceilings and tattered, outdated textbooks served as unraveling reminders of the lack of resources and support for schools serving largely low-income families and students of color.
The community schools model
These experiences steered Daniel toward graduate studies in education, where she became interested in scholarly ideas, such as the “education debt” and “opportunity gap,” documenting the ways in which “white and wealthy communities have been systemically robbing communities of color for generations,” she said. Simultaneously, a grassroots movement was underway calling for a new model of thriving schools that acknowledges and addresses the inequities historically affecting particular communities.
“National organizations led by Black parents and Black youth were saying, ‘What we want is a sustainable community school in every neighborhood,’” she said. “That just resonated with me. It felt like a big visionary demand.”
Daniel now studies community schools, a promising model of education that broadens access to learning opportunities and strengthens communities. The Coalition for Community Schools defines a community school as “both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources.”
These schools incorporate academics with health and social services, youth and community development, and family engagement. Community schools defy the notion that schools serve only as a place for teachers to provide an education to students. Instead, these schools serve a community hub offering an array of built-in social supports that attend to the students’ and their families’ educational needs as well as their health and well-being.
Daniel co-wrote a guide for educators, policymakers and community groups called the Community Schools Playbook, which was published by the Partnership for the Future of Learning, including the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) based at CU Boulder. The playbook is grounded in research by Daniel, with Jeannie Oakes and Anna Maier. Together, the scholars compiled the research findings from more than 140 studies demonstrating the positive impact of community schools on student outcomes and defining four pillars that make an effective community school.
The most comprehensive community schools are academic and social centers, where educators, families and neighbors come together to support innovative learning and to address the effect of out-of-school factors, such as poverty, racism and violence, which can undermine the effectiveness of in-school opportunities."
“The most comprehensive community schools are academic and social centers, where educators, families and neighbors come together to support innovative learning and to address the effect of out-of-school factors, such as poverty, racism and violence, which can undermine the effectiveness of in-school opportunities,” the playbook explains.
Readiness to respond
All successful community schools take time to build relationships and partnerships. Daniel believes those well-established community connections meant many community schools were better equipped to respond as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, causing significant ripple effects for schools and education.
One of the schools Daniel works with, Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx borough of New York, was able to quickly mobilize to distribute Chromebooks to students and set up daily grab-and-go breakfast and lunch for about 500 families a day. The school helped families access food through an existing in-school food pantry, established by a student, as well as housing and immigration assistance partnerships.
In addition, the community school director, family engagement coordinator, social worker and other staff quickly coordinated virtual tutoring, college coaching and mental health services to attend to the diverse student population from a distance.
“I think the school was able to have a quicker, more thorough response because of having both the relationships with students and families as well as community resources,” Daniel said.
Anchoring services at school
On the opposite coast, another community school, Oakland International High School, was also able to tap into existing partnerships to support its students and families throughout the changing crisis. The school quickly altered legal, mental health and food insecurity services to address barriers the students and families were facing.
“We had to fine-tune our systems,” said Lauren Markham, community school coordinator for the school, which serves emergent bilingual students and newly arrived immigrant families.
“We didn’t have to create them from scratch.”
Oakland International is a public school in the Oakland Unified School District, which has a districtwide commitment to community schools. The schools are always adapting wraparound services in response to what students and families say they need, Markham said.
“Too often services are siloed—we have education happening here, health and mental health happening here, and food insecurity support happening here,” she said. “In the perfect incarnation, students are going to school every day, so schools really are the place that those services should be anchored.”
Teachers at Oakland International are accustomed to focusing on their students’ and their families’ social and emotional well-being, and they readily adjusted their work to suit community needs during the pandemic. For example, several teachers were trained to help with unemployment processes.
“I think our teachers were more ready to make the pivot because, like all of us, they see education as a tool of social justice,” Markham said. “When one part of the system was shutting down, they were ready to shift their day-to-day roles to figure out computer connectivity or make weekly food deliveries, because that was their role as a teacher in the moment.”
Community schools like Oakland International and Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom have also been recognized as Schools of Opportunity, an honor designated by NEPC. Kevin Welner, NEPC director and CU Boulder professor of educational foundations, policy and practices, and Carol
Burris, then a principal of the celebrated South Side High School in New York, launched the Schools of Opportunity project in 2015. The recognition program is an alternative to national rankings that primarily measure school quality by test scores, therefore favoring schools serving predominantly affl uent students and leaving out deserving schools that serve disadvantaged communities.
“We should hold up examples of schools engaging in research-based practices to close opportunity gaps,” said Welner, who co-wrote with Prudence Carter the book Closing the Opportunity Gap outlining how policy decisions and life circumstances create opportunity gaps that lead to highly publicized achievement gaps. Carter is the dean of the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Education.
Too often services are siloed—we have education happening here, health and mental health happening here, and food insecurity support happening here. In the perfect incarnation, students are going to school every day, so schools really are the place that those services should be anchored."
Schools of Opportunity form a national network of more than 50 schools recognized for demonstrating exemplary practices that offer all students access to rich opportunities to learn and that address the unique needs of their communities by centering the well-being and the humanity of their students, families and teachers.
Many of these schools identify as community schools, while others incorporate elements often seen in community schools. Urbana High School in Illinois offers on-site health clinics for routine examinations and vision and dental care, while Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Denver provides full-time mental health professionals.
Often these schools integrate local and culturally relevant curricula such as Indigenous studies, storytelling, and native languages and literature courses offered at Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque. Schools like Rainier Beach High School in Seattle invite parents into the curriculum by hosting “community cafés” in libraries, churches, mosques and local businesses, where parents learn about ways to help their students be successful in challenging curricula.
Keeping it local
These exemplary schools are as unique as the communities they serve. While we have a lot to learn from the practices that each school employs, local leadership is essential, said Daniel, who is now interim assistant director for Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national movement working to undermine white supremacy.
“There’s a saying that if you have been to one community school then you have been to one community school,” she said. “As the community school model is built out, we need to make sure that implementation stays grounded in what’s happening in that community and to continue seeing community knowledge as a fundamental resource.”
Local organizers and researchers continue to call for policy changes that ensure schools and communities are afforded necessary autonomy while also demanding all schools address historic barriers to education.
“We understand that schools cannot address all of the inequality in society,” Daniel said. “The community school model is an attempt to have schools do what they can to help redress the educational debt that has accumulated such that students of color have been historically denied resources.”