Community schools can help break the cycle of poverty

Ed Center

Ed Center

We’ve known for some time that children from low-income families are less likely to succeed in school relative to their higher-income peers. Many solutions to address this achievement gap have been explored, such as greater funding, more accountability for teachers or a longer school day. Yet as of 2012, 70 percent of the students who did not graduate from high school were living in poverty. Without a high school diploma, those students’ chance at future success is small.

So, is our public education system incapable of serving our low-income kids? No, but we must rethink the relationship between education and poverty.

The Local Control Funding Formula is a step in the right direction, aiming to improve academic outcomes by providing greater funding to schools with high-needs students. It’s also intended to give local school districts more control over the way they distribute their education dollars.

But as Professor Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education suggests, we need to take this work one step further. While flexibility of funding is critical, what we do with those funds is even more so. Investment in top-notch educators is essential when serving our highest-need students, but we must also invest in solutions that address the complex challenges that our low-income students bring to school.

Enter community schools, which are revolutionizing the way we solve educational and poverty-related challenges. Community schools bring fragmented services found in the community – such as food assistance, health clinics and after-school programs – onto school campuses, integrating them into the core educational strategy. The challenges that students bring with them each day – hunger, homelessness, health issues, a parent in jail – are addressed by professionals offering specialized community-based services. That way children can focus on school, rather than an empty stomach or a nagging toothache, and teachers can focus on teaching, instead of serving as a caseworker for their students.

Today, community schools can be found across the country, and while there is no specific formula or set of requirements, they are all founded on the understanding that poverty creates barriers to learning that schools cannot ignore if all students are to have the same chance at success. The services provided by community schools vary depending on the needs and assets of the specific community. Many community schools have at least one health program (such as dental care), one after-school program and one parent engagement program (such as ESL courses). The ideal community school has a lead nonprofit agency with a community liaison who makes it easy for families to access all of the needed services that are available.

Over the last decade, the community schools model has been gaining traction in low-income communities, especially as more and more data revealing their powerful impact emerges. For example, 13 years after the launch of Cincinnati’s Community Learning Centers, citywide high school graduation rates have skyrocketed from 51% to 80% and the achievement gap between white and African American students has shrunk from 14.5% to 4%.

And superintendents looking for examples of success don’t have to look far. In the Bay Area alone we count 63 thriving community schools, each incorporating its own unique blend of services required for its students and families. At Hillcrest Elementary School in San Francisco, a local community school, California Standardized Test scores rose across all grades from 2010-2013, jumping from 31% to 45% proficiency in English, 37% to 53% proficiency in math and 22% to 44% proficiency in science.

The Bay Area is rich in expertise in the community schools space, as well as funders looking to support this innovative work. As principals, superintendents and district administrators determine how to allocate their Local Control Funding Formula dollars in the coming months, I encourage them to consider investing in the community schools agenda. Through this work, we’re able to navigate the complex needs of our low-income students by providing services like after-school programs, mental health services, food banks and more.

Low-income children will only get a fair chance at success if the connection between education and poverty is fully grasped and used as a launching point for change. By simultaneously confronting these issues, community schools create opportunities for students to break free from the cycle of poverty and create a better life, for themselves and for generations to come.


Ed Center is Vice President of Education at United Way of the Bay Area and co-author of the report Leveling the Playing Field: Community Schools Confront Poverty to Improve Student Success.

Filed under: Commentary, Local Control Funding Formula, Reforms



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment Policy

EdSource encourages a robust debate on education issues and welcomes comments from our readers.

  • To preserve a civil dialogue, writers should avoid personal, gratuitous attacks and invective.
  • Comments should be relevant to the subject of the article responded to.
  • EdSource retains the right not to publish inappropriate and offensive comments.
  • EdSource encourages commenters to use their real names. Commenters who do decide to use a pseudonym should use it consistently.
  • Please limit comments to 250 words to prevent comment clutter; if you intend to say more please link out to a place that contains your full comment.
  • Comments with more than one link automatically enter moderation. Comments from new commenters are automatically moderated.
  • Repeated violation of this comment policy will lead to a warning. Continued violations will lead to a ban.

7 Responses to “Community schools can help break the cycle of poverty”

EdSource does not track who "likes or dislikes" a comment. We only track the number of likes and dislikes.

  1. Floyd Thursby on Mar 19, 2014 at 1:20 pm03/19/2014 1:20 pm

    • 000

    Very true, all that money and no results. Spending it better might work, but I doubt it because it’s still taboo to talk about the real reason these kids are doing so poorly. The kids aren’t motivated and aren’t trying, and have terrible parents. DC spends $30,000 a kid and ges terrible results. I suspect you could triple funding for LAUSD and get very little in the way of results. You’d create a lot of jobs, but not get much in terms of test scores. If the test scores don’t go up, spend the money on something else. You have to make the money conditional and revocable, not permanent.

  2. Don on Feb 21, 2014 at 5:26 pm02/21/2014 5:26 pm

    • 000

    Poverty and low achievement are correlated, but, as is often said, correlation is not causation. Asians in poverty far outperform other demographics for several “taboo” reasons, which to name would take us off on a tangent. Point being, and I’m not trying to parse words, that funding in itself is not an achievement gap solution. For example, San Francisco Unified received a $45M School Improvement Grant to spread out over three years at 9 schools – quite a windfall – yet, a majority of these schools did little to no better than average and some did worse. This is important in the context of community schools because the grants served to create something along the lines of community schools. That said, I can’t help but think a continuum of services that are integrated and well managed would be it’s a good idea. The variances between community schools might be such that some are successful and others not. Obtaining useful data could be a challenge when these community schools are not as much a school model as a concept.

  3. Replies

  4. Richard Moore on Feb 19, 2014 at 1:14 pm02/19/2014 1:14 pm

    • 000

    Wouldn’t it be fun to actually do some research and find out if there are programs out there that work? Programs out there that are research based, with proven track records? One might even run into the name Krashen. Talking about a central location on campus where a student can choose something that appeals to him, that he can check out and bring back and talk to the person running the center and get ideas for further possibilities. Of course you might not know what to call this place because 90% of California schools don’t have fully functioning ones. But why not try . . and see what you come up with.

  5. navigio on Feb 19, 2014 at 10:07 am02/19/2014 10:07 am

    • 000

    Do you have a list of the community schools in the bay area and when they were founded? (Or in the state in general?)


    • Ed Center on Feb 19, 2014 at 10:47 am02/19/2014 10:47 am

      • 000

      We maintain a community schools map that tracks the progress of this movement. Across seven Bay Area counties.

      If you know of schools that should be here but aren’t, please let us know!


Template last modified: