California ready to launch $3 billion, multiyear transition to community schools

January 31, 2022

Students in a combined fourth- and fifth-grade at the UCLA Community School work on a poster about the Lunar New Year in a photo taken before Covid-19.

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In coming weeks, California will embark on a massive undertaking to convert several thousand schools in low-income neighborhoods into centers of community life and providers of vital services for families as well as students.

Known as community schools, they will be established over the next seven years. New York and Maryland are among states that are investing in community schools, but California’s $3 billion effort, which the Legislature funded in the current budget, will by far be the nation’s most ambitious effort. Advocates say that the California Community Schools Partnership Program will position schools to comprehensively meet students’ needs, engage families as partners, empower teachers and create a web of relationships and contracts with outside health and social service agencies.

“It’s about creating a school with a caring environment in every respect, one that is connected to families,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, an adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom and a strong advocate of community schools as president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute.

Broadly defined, community schools take an integrated approach to students’ academic, health and social-emotional needs by making connections with an array of government and community services and by building trusting relationships with students and families. They’ve been around for decades on a small scale, funded sporadically by foundations and the federal government, through the 21st Century Learning Centers program.

“Some of them do fabulous work, and they are exactly what we would aspire for in this new program. But in general, it has not been systemic,” Darling-Hammond said. “Community schools are all trying to do it one by one without a lot of help, trying to orchestrate mental health services and find a health care van to come to their school.”

Oakland has funded community schools for a decade, and Los Angeles Unified is establishing cohorts of community schools, but there’s no accurate estimate of their number statewide. Some schools that have adopted elements of the concept, like neighborhood partnerships, are community schools in name only, while others don’t use the label but could be considered community schools, said Hayin Kimner, project director of the California Community Schools Learning Exchange.

In placing a big bet on community schools, Newsom and the Legislature are intending to create a coherent system tied to commitments and common elements. They wrote into the enabling legislation the central “pillars” required of a community school. They included $142 million for regional technical assistance centers to ensure that staff know how to manage logistics, like how to set up Medi-Cal contracts and survey a neighborhood to identify assets and strengths as well as gaps in services.

Earlier this month, the state board adopted a community schools framework outlining what makes a successful community school, based on research and on advice from multiple forums. The framework fleshed out the educational strategies, “cornerstone commitments” and important practices, and outlined the roles that school districts, county offices of education, the California Department of Education and the technical assistance centers will have in developing community schools.

The board also reviewed the timeline for rolling out the system. That will begin in February when the department issues the first round of requests for applications. There will be planning grants of $200,000 for up to 1,437 districts, charter schools and county offices of education without community schools and implementation grants of as much as $500,000 annually for five years for new and existing community schools to continue and expand the work they’ve been doing.

The size of the grants, tied to schools’ enrollment numbers, will determine how many schools will be funded, but it could be between 3,000 and 4,000 schools — the majority of federal Title 1 low-income schools in California, according to the state board. Applications will likely require that all grantees spend a portion of funding to hire a full-time coordinator to oversee programs and partnerships. Districts, charter schools and county offices of education must provide funding equal to a third of the grant award ($66,000 for planning grants and $166,000 for implementation grants).

A third grant, for the lead technical assistance center, will be used to guide the regional centers. That application process will begin next month.

The state board will announce the grantees in May, in time for districts to build the funds into next year’s budgets. There will be a second round of planning grants a year from now and subsequent rounds for the implementation grants.

Is the timing right?

The initiative’s launch couldn’t come at a better — or worse — time for districts reeling from Covid, board members noted. “The opportunity is huge; the timing right now is challenging,” said board member Ilene Straus. School districts, she said, are “trying to hold on and just keep schools open with the huge pandemic surge.”

In addition to money for community schools, the Legislature used a huge budget surplus and federal Covid aid to pass billions of dollars in new programs that school districts are trying to absorb amid staffing shortages. These include:

Several board members cautioned that school districts might view community schools as one more layer of programs saddling districts with more new paperwork and more addendums to their annual Local Control and Accountability Plans. Straus urged “going slow to go fast” — to think through a streamlined system with a clarity of roles and responsibilities now to avoid confusion later.

Carrie Hahnel, senior director of policy and strategy at the nonprofit Opportunity Institute in Berkeley, expressed a similar view.

“Community schools are a tremendous opportunity, but they take a tremendous amount of planning and capacity to do well,” she said. “Principals and districts are feeling inundated by the number of new programs — all good — that they are faced with planning for at one time.”

Citing ongoing disruptions caused by the pandemic, uncertainty over enrollments, and other constraints, the Legislative Analyst’s Office also warned about district overload in an overview of Newsom’s 2022-23 budget.

At the same time, these programs are the essence of the “whole child” approach that underlies community schools. The bonanza in funding will jumpstart services that otherwise might take years, if not decades, to provide.

“Right now, it’s really important that the country is waking up and saying, ‘Oh my God, we have a huge amount of poverty,” Darling-Hammond said. “We have a huge amount of inequality. We’ve got a lot of mental health and other needs. Between the federal funding and the state funding, there’s a lot of money coming at schools in a lot of different programs,” she said, then adding, “but much of it will be unusable if not coordinated.” Someone to orchestrate and apply for various sources of funding and manage the details and implementation — an on-site coordinator whose job isn’t part of a typical school — is critical to the success of a community school, she said.

Relationships, not just services

Kimner said what distinguishes community schools is more of an intangible quality.

“Community schools are more than just a collation of services that do not really address the major barriers to learning,” she said. “You can have MOUs and contracts, but teaching and learning and services at community schools are all about relationships.”

In well-functioning community schools, teachers will take the lead, and parents will be involved in planning; before- and after-school enrichment and tutoring programs will mesh with in-school learning. Health and family services will be treated as integral, not as discrete add-ons, for children’s well-being, said Karen Hunter Quartz, director of the UCLA Center for Community Schooling.

“Shared governance structures and collaborative partnerships with families are foundational,” she said.

Collaborative leadership that includes “professional development to transform school culture and climate” is one of the four required “pillars” of community schooling spelled out in statute and the framework. The other three are:

A 2017 review of the research into community schools by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center concluded that well-implemented community schools combining all four of the pillars are an effective school improvement strategy. “Generally speaking, the longer and more effectively a community school has been operating, and the more services a student receives, the better the outcome,” it said.

What would a school look like that follows the pillars and practices in the framework? Hunter Quartz points to the UCLA Community School, a TK-12 school in Los Angeles Unified with about 970 students in Koreatown that opened in 2009; a quarter of the students are English learners and 95% are low-income. UCLA, which runs the after-school program, has been a partner from the start.

What you’d notice walking in the door, said Principal Leyda Garcia, is that the school is a “cozy, welcoming environment, like a small town. Students have trust in adults; the office people know our families; you can see that right away. You can see the ease that students go to see the psychiatric social worker; there’s no stigma attached.”

“We’ve known some students since kindergarten; we have a history with their family and siblings,” Garcia said. “When they when hit a bump in the road, we respond differently.”

Koreatown is populated by many first-generation families. The UCLA School of Law operates a law clinic for immigrants. There are dual language programs in Spanish and Korean. On early release days before the pandemic, the school ran an intergenerational art program, inviting parents and grandparents into the school.

“There is a collective energy” in the school, Garcia said.

Districts will be assured of seven years of planning and implementation funding after which they will be expected to provide their own funding. The measure of building a successful community school isn’t time, however, Kimner said. “It happens at the rate of trust.”

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