As 2022 begins, educators, students, families and communities continue to navigate a state of prolonged and volatile crisis. The persistent spread of Covid-19 has compounded the challenge of ensuring safe and healthy learning environments. Meanwhile, too many students continue to suffer from the ongoing effects of the pandemic — academically, socially, emotionally and mentally.
Community schools may provide a promising strategy for addressing these challenges because they emphasize the holistic nature of both student needs and effective school improvement efforts. During the pandemic, many districts were in essence implementing a community schools approach when they and their partners worked to facilitate widespread and equitable access to meals, child care, computing devices, broadband connections and Covid-19 testing and vaccination while also creating learning opportunities that transcended school walls.
These actions recognize that students learn best when they feel safe and valued; that learning happens everywhere, not just in school settings; that families are instrumental to student success; and that organizations throughout the community play key roles in helping students to maximize their potential. At a time when educators are overwhelmed by personal and professional pressures, it is clearer than ever that school systems cannot do this alone.
For this reason, California’s $3 billion investment to promote community schools is a welcome development, as are other additional resources available to support student learning.
However, these new resources are arriving at a time when school districts are strained to the very limits of their capacity by the resurging demands of community health needs, staffing shortages, lost instructional time and exhaustion from two years of working through the uncertainty and complexities of the pandemic. Planning and preparing multiple funding applications under these conditions make it difficult for local administrators to ensure that efforts to support students are aligned and mutually reinforcing.
For the past 15 years, we have worked with a diverse collection of district leaders, researchers, policymakers, support providers, advocates and funders to better understand and support improvement in school systems across the state.
A November 2021 meeting of the California Collaborative on District Reform emphasized two key factors as vital to the effective implementation of any state policy effort, including community schools:
- Coherence and responsiveness: The work of a school system should be built around a clear vision that reflects the priorities and realities of the district and its community. For example, if the district’s vision for student learning emphasizes social and emotional development alongside academics, then this integrated focus should be evident in curriculum and pedagogy, interaction patterns in classrooms and extracurricular activities, and in community partnerships.
- Sustainability: Improvement requires sustained and focused attention over time. This implies consistency of available funding to support the work, structures and processes to embed it into the daily activities of staff and students, and — most important — avoiding the temptation to abandon a promising approach in favor of a newer, shinier program when student test scores do not skyrocket overnight.
The meeting also identified several aspects of the current environment that could undercut the potential for achieving these conditions. A wave of separate one-time funding streams, for example, each with short timelines and specific requirements for achieving siloed programmatic goals, can lead to fragmentation, compliance-oriented responses and short-sighted resource allocation decisions.
In light of these concerns, we offer the following considerations for finalizing the details of the California Community Schools Partnership Program:
- Develop a request for applications process that encourages and rewards focus, coherence and alignment with existing efforts. Grant requirements, scoring rubrics and metrics for evaluation should align with existing expectations for the Local Control Accountability Plan, as well as emerging planning requirements for other funding streams in the state’s pre-K-12 education system.
- Align technical assistance efforts for community schools with other support systems. Any supports provided for community schools through the five regional technical assistance centers should connect to the technical assistance provided through the statewide system of support, reinforcing the alignment of community school approaches with other improvement strategies. At the same time, the state should be expansive in the sources of expertise to which school leaders can turn — including community-based organizations, higher education and other districts — to best leverage a range of perspectives and experiences.
- Remove barriers likely to prevent community schools from working effectively. Successful collaboration across youth-serving organizations often requires data sharing, joint facility use and fluid access to financial resources, yet bureaucratic obstacles frequently complicate district efforts to partner with others. For example, finding ways to facilitate data access between local housing authorities and districts can help ensure that student- and family-serving organizations have access to the information that will enable them to respond effectively to student needs.
Eight years ago, the Local Control Funding Formula ushered in a new educational paradigm. LCFF was a direct response to years of categorical proliferation in which improvement efforts were fragmented by funding stream instead of being coordinated around student learning goals. The community schools model has the potential to facilitate a coherent and aligned approach that is responsive to and tailored to the assets and needs of a local community — the very best of “local control.”
We urge the state to approach its community schools commitment in a way that honors and creates the conditions for it to succeed.
Joel Knudson is a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research and the incoming chair of the California Collaborative on District Reform. Jennifer O’Day is an institute fellow at the American Institutes for Research and is the founder and outgoing chair of the California Collaborative on District Reform.
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