According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ August 2023 pulse panel, 60% of public schools were utilizing a “community school” or “wraparound services model” at the start of this school year—up from 45% last year. This survey builds on a trend of education policy leaders across the country increasing their focus on the place-based, whole child approach called community schools. Experts note no two community schools are the same, but they do build on the Science of Learning and Development to offer at least four common practices—student and family engagement; collaborative leadership; expanded, enriched learning opportunities, and integrated systems of support. These common community school practices or pillars have an expanding evidence base and growing consensus of support, which are well suited to meet the multifaceted needs of our students coming out of the pandemic. As we transition our education systems to a post pandemic world, policymakers should make community schools an increasing part of America’s future.
Need for a Community School Approach
Recent headlines show that the effects of the pandemic are not going away even though federal-relief funds are. Young people are living with continued anxiety and depression, over 1 million continue to experience homelessness, learning loss remains a persistent issue, and students need more enrichment opportunities to stay on track to graduate. These impacts can be seen in rising chronic absenteeism rates, climbing reports of disruptive discipline incidents, increasing numbers of dropouts, and declining graduation rates. Finding a cohesive way to respond to all of these challenges is daunting.
Expanding Evidence-Base for Community Schools
Luckily, recent stories and evaluations show community schools are a promising way to respond to the negative educational impacts from COVID and broader systemic inequalities. First-hand accounts show community schools are providing mental health care, housing support, educational enrichment, and expanded learning opportunities to help students succeed. A national evaluation and a review of 143 studies indicate these stories are more than anecdotal, showing community schools can reduce chronic absenteeism, decrease suspensions, improve school climate, and improve graduation rates. Even more promising news is documented in a new book about the community schools movement, which details how extended implementation has resulted in increased enrollment, and sustained improvements in academic achievement.
Growing Nationwide Support for Community Schools
Given the positive impacts of community schools, it is unsurprising support for community schools is growing in different areas and at multiple levels. Urban cities (e.g., Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, D.C., Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia,) and rural communities (e.g., Deer River, MN, Kern County, CA, Taos, NM, Quitman County, MS) have all launched or expanded their implementation of community schools since 2020. During the same time, red states and blue states—including Georgia, California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, and Vermont also increased funding or built capacity in their own versions of community schools. Even at the federal level, funding for the Full-Service Community School program doubled under President Trump and President Biden.
The Future of Community Schools
With the momentum of money and focus behind community schools, expansion might seem inevitable, however, policymakers can do more. In September 2024, states and districts will be required by law to allocate the remainder of the almost $200 billion in COVID-relief funding they received to help address the disruptions to education caused by the pandemic.
Investing any remaining relief funding in key community school infrastructure would be fiscally responsible and socially beneficial. This is because every dollar invested in community school coordinators can provide $7 in return, and the same investment in the common practices or pillars of community schools mentioned above, can return $15 of social and economic value.
More importantly, policymakers should set up systems and structures to make new or keep current investments in community schools going after ARP funds run out. For instance, policymakers can:
- Provide Robust Federal Funding for Education. Congress should provide additional federal funding, especially for funding streams that target historically underserved students (e.g., ESEA Title’s I, Impact Aid, Full-Service Community Schools, and Homeless Children and Youth). Increased funding could prevent schools and students from losing essential services, including an estimated 136,000 educators, while they continue to recover from the impacts of the pandemic. Policymakers should note that without ARP funds, annual Department of Education funding is more than $12 billion below what it was in 2011 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
- Establish state funding for Community Schools. States can create lasting grant programs or sustainable funding mechanisms to ensure students furthest from opportunity have access to community schools. For example, California has invested over $4 billion in competitive planning, implementation, and extension grants for community schools; Maryland provides state funding for community school coordinators in high need schools; and Kentucky uses its funding formula to support family resource centers in low-income areas.
- Leverage existing federal funding for Community Schools. States, school districts, and non-profits can use existing funds or blend and braid funding from a variety of federal programs to support community schools. The White House and Learning Policy Institute both published toolkits this year collectively highlighting over 100 programs across federal agencies with approximately $366 billion available for community-school related activities.
- Improve inter-agency coordination of student-centered services. Even without additional funding, districts and county leaders can help schools streamline student resources by creating agreements that formalize partner obligations, roles, and responsibilities. For example, Alameda, County in California, signed an agreement with Oakland Unified Schools that ensures qualifying students receive free or reduced-price lunch and social services such as Medicaid.
A review of influential moments in American education history shows continued efforts to help all students access high-quality learning opportunities (e.g., offering reduced-priced meals, special education services, and subsidies for low-income schools.) Ensuring all students have access to community schools can continue this trend and mark the next milestone for U.S. education.
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