June 14, 2024

Community schools and a critical moment in the fight against education inequality

In President Biden’s State of the Union speech last week, he highlighted the importance of addressing the lasting impact of COVID-19 on our nation’s children in part through the elevation of the community schools strategy. The long-standing community schools movement has never had such high-level national attention. In fact, the president’s proposed budget would increase funding for the community schools’ strategy by over 10 times the current level from $30 million to over $400 million. 

At the heart of the community schools movement is the belief that every family and community member are assets that can build on students’ strengths, engage them as learners, and enable them to reach their full potential. The community schools movement in the U.S. has its historical roots in the early 1900s with John Dewey’s vision of schools as social centers and Jane Addams’ focus on social work and providing a range of resources for those in need. For the last several decades, children- and family-serving organizations across the country haveschool by schoollooked to community school strategies to fully support, engage, and empower students through partnerships with educators, families, and community partners such as health departments, social welfare organizations, universities, and employers. 

Today, the devastating and prolonged impacts from COVID-19 have put the community schools strategy on the map for national, state, and district leaders as a potential systemwide approach to address students’ comprehensive needs. Lost instructional time means that the gaps have widened between students, with recent estimates showing students that attend majority-Black schools are a full 12 months behind their peers in majority-white schools, further highlighting persistent structural racial disparities in access to high quality learning, supports, and enrichment. Young people’s mental health and well-being are such a concern that recently the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency on children’s mental health.     

As students across the country struggle with returning to the classroom while dealing with schools’ shifting COVID-19 policies, declining mental health, and a rising tension between parents and schools staff, it is more important than ever to reimagine the way in which our education systems can better support children’s development and well-being. 

Last year the Brookings Task Force on Next Generation Community Schools called out community schools as a strategy that meets the needs for this current moment. In its February 2021 report “Addressing education inequality with a next generation of community schools: A blueprint for mayors, states, and the federal government,” the task force showcased seven reasons why well-implemented community school strategies address the holistic needs of students and close equity gaps. The task force also argued that even before COVID-19, there was strong evidence that schools and communities needed to address the inextricable links between student and family well-being and effective teaching and learning.

The growing interest in community schools presents both significant opportunities and challenges. Given the importance of the momentand increased interest in the strategy by new playersit is imperative that there is consistency and clarity on what a community school is, what it takes to be successful, and how to evaluate impact. This is why four national organizations have teamed up on the Community Schools Forward project: the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, Learning Policy Institute, the Coalition for Community Schools, and the National Center for Community Schools. One of the central pillars of the project is to co-convene a second community schools task force focused on implementation guidance to education systems and their partners.  

A pivotal moment for community schools

The task force aims to capitalize on the expanding interest, new scaling opportunities, and new entrants to the field. It has identified three policy windows through the U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED) that are important to implementation and scaling of community schools strategies:  

1. Expanded funding to support community school strategies.

The influx of federal COVID-19 recovery dollars to states, districts, and communities provides an opportunity to scale community school approaches nationally. These include over $207 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding for K-12 education through the CARES Act (March 2020), omnibus bill (December 2020), and the American Rescue Plan (March 2021). These recovery funds can further leverage existing “whole child and “whole community” investments that are represented throughout existing federal education and child/family-serving funding streams (e.g., 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Promise Neighborhoods, Title IV-A Student Support and Academic Enrichment, Children’s Health Insurance Program, Corporation for National & Community Service, Community Services Block Grants).

2. New legislation to fund and scale community schools.

The Full Service Community School (FSCS) grant program has been funded since fiscal year 2010 and has been an explicit, bipartisan initiative sustained across administrations. The proposed Full-Service Community Schools Expansion Act of 2021 and as mentioned above the $435 million expansion for fiscal year 2023 ($413.25 million for granting) would be the largest investment in community school strategies in the history of the grant program.  

3. Large-scale federal evaluations to assess the impact of community schools.

The heightened attention to community schools includes discussion of how to evaluate the impact of community school strategies. The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the independent research arm of the U.S. ED, will be refining methods and metrics to assess the efficacy of FSCS grantees. Community schools practitioners and experts are valuable assets to inform IES, as well as other research and evaluation efforts focused on implementation fidelity and impact.   

Aligning guidance

One of the major goals for the task force is to elevate areas of alignment and consensus across various community school approaches to inform a shared framework that defines what a community school is and does. This builds on and validates past work and will be helpful for jurisdiction leaders and their partners who are embracing community school strategies for the first time. Both new entrants and existing community schools will benefit from guidance on budget. To that end, the task force will develop a series of resources and content, including: a costing tool to guide leaders on understanding, budgeting, and financing community schools that can be adapted to reflect diverse fiscal contexts;  an analysis of specific capacity-building needs of practitioners to ensure effective and sustainable implementation informed by practitioners; a map of capacity-building organizations for community schools and the types of technical assistance support they offer. 

Education inequality continues to be one of the foremost challenges of our time. As students across the country struggle with returning to the classroom while dealing with schools’ shifting COVID-19 policies, declining mental health, and a rising tension between parents and schools staff, it is more important than ever to reimagine the way in which our education systems can better support children’s development and well-being. Community schools and the heightened attention on the community schools strategy may be one of the best tools we have to meet the moment and make a lasting and transformative impact that will benefit all students.  

We are grateful to our task force members, listed below, for their time, commitment, and expertise to meeting this pivotal moment: 

Name Title Organization
Robert Balfanz Director Everyone Graduates Center, Johns Hopkins University 
Jennifer Blatz President and CEO Strive Together
Cory Bowman Associate Director Netter Center for Community Partnershps, University of Pennsylvania
Jitu Brown  National Director
Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J)
Dia Bryant  Executive Director The Education Trust – New York
Dr. Pamela Cantor Founder and Senior Science Advisor
Turnaround for Children
Hedy Chang  Executive Director Attendance Works
Leslie Cornfeld President and CEO National Education Equity Lab
Linda Darling-Hammond Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus; President  Stanford University; Learning Policy Institute (LPI)
Dena Donaldson Community Schools Organizer Texas American Federation of Teachers
Cyrus Driver Senior Director National Public Education Support Fund
Dr. Debra Duardo Superintendent Los Angeles County Office of Education
Dr. Amy Ellis Director, UCF Center for Community Schools University of Central Florida
Abe Fernández Vice President of Collective Impact; Director National Center for Community Schools; Children’s Aid
Denise Forte Interim CEO The Education Trust
Dreama Gentry Executive Director Partners for Education at Berea College (Kentucky)
Jodi Grant Executive Director After School Alliance
Jim Grim Indiana – State Coalitions Network, Coalition for Community Schools Co-chair; Director of Community Schools IEL; Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
Donnie Hale Florida – Leadership Network, Coalition for Community Schools Co-chair; Executive Director for Outreach and Academic Programs/Professor in Education IEL; Florida Memorial University
Zaretta Hammond Owner and Chief Instructional Strategist Transformative Learning Solutions
Kristen Harper Vice President for Public Policy and Engagement Child Trends
Ashley Harris Jumping Hoops LLC Jumping Hoops, LLC
Dr. Michael Hester Superintendent Batesville School District, AR
Tracy Hill Executive Director of the Family and Community Engagement Department Cleveland Metropolitan School District
Reuben Jacobson Senior Professorial Lecturer and Director of the Education Policy and Leadership Program American University
Sarah Jonas Senior Executive Director, Office of Community Schools New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE)
Taylor Kahn-Perry Strategy Director Student Voice
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg Newhouse Director Center of Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts (CIRCLE)
Greg Landsman City Councilman Cincinatti City Council
Carissa Moffat Miller Chief Executive Officer CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers)
Jose Muñoz Director Coalition for Community Schools, Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL)
Jeannie Oakes Presidential Professor Emeritus in Educational Equity; Senior Fellow in Residence University of California, Los Angeles; Learning Policy Institute (LPI)
Andre Perry Senior Fellow Brookings Institution
Sarah Peterson Senior Director of Attendance, Research and Innovation, Office of Community Schools New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE)
Gema Quetzal Next Generation Coalition Co-Chair, Coalition for Community School Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL)
Jane Quinn Director 2000-2018 National Center for Community Schools, Children’s Aid
Todd Rogers Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Student Social Support R&D Lab Harvard University
Rey Saldaña President and CEO Communities in Schools
Dr. Karen Sanchez-Griego Superintendent Cuba Independent School District, New Mexico
Katarina Sandoval Deputy Secretary of Academic Engagement and Student Success New Mexico Public Education Department
Kyle Serrette Senior Policy Analyst National Education Association (NEA)
Jim Shelton Chief Investment & Impact Officer Blue Meridian Group 
Tony Smith Founder and CEO Whyspeople
Tony Thurmond State Superintendent of Public Instruction California Department of Education
Helen Westmoreland Director of Family Engagement National PTA
Rebecca Winthrop Senior Fellow and Co-Director, Center for Universal Education Brookings Institution
Brian Woods Superintendent Northside School District, Texas