Community Schools: As Unique as the Children They Serve

Imagine a school that not only provides rich classes and challenging opportunities for students, but also builds the skills of parents who need help learning English or preparing for the GED. A school that has an inviting, cozy resource center where families who need clothing, emergency housing, or even immigration lawyers get help. A school with a health clinic where you can get a flu shot or an eye exam.

We don’t have to simply imagine; these “community schools” already exist. But we need many more of them.

No two community schools are exactly alike, and that’s the beauty of the concept. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach that treats all neighborhoods—and all students—the same, community schools are as unique as the children they serve.

This is not a brand new idea. It dates back to the turn of the century—the 20th century. Education reformers such as John Dewey were arguing for a curriculum that was relevant to the lives of students. They made the case for the school as the center of neighborhood life. These “progressive reformers” wanted the building open and accessible well beyond the school day. They also believed the school should play a central role in acclimating immigrants from distant lands to America.

The concept fell in and out of favor over the passing decades. At some points, federal grants supported the creation of community schools. But the emergence of No Child Left Behind put testing and top-down notions of reform in the driver’s seat. Now educators—the ones who know students, parents, and neighborhoods best—have the opportunity to advocate for what we know works.

The word “community” is not an add-on in these schools. It is fleshed out through partnerships with doctors, social service providers, mentors, and more.

Today’s community schools recognize that meeting our students’ needs inside the classroom means recognizing that the unmet needs they have outside the classroom affect their ability and desire to learn.


Successful community schools are built on six pillars. They provide a rich curriculum that includes culturally relevant, robust, and challenging course offerings. They emphasize high-quality teaching instead of testing, including time for educators to collaborate. They provide support services before, during, and after school.

They rely on extensive parent and community engagement. They focus on positive discipline practices, resulting in fewer school suspensions and harsh punishments. And they feature inclusive leadership in which responsibility is shared by the school principal, the Community School Coordinator, and a Community School Committee that includes parents, partners, school staff, youth, and other stakeholders.

John Dewey wrote in 1897 that school should be a place that brings together everything that children experience “in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.” More than 100 years later, the elements of a great school—a community school—remain the same.

8 Responses to “Community Schools: As Unique as the Children They Serve”

  1. tommy

    this notion in theory is great….however, practically and pragmatically speaking is nonsense and untenable.. yes, its great to gather together the community and share ideas,
    interests and goals for education….however, in today urban environment this is
    never going to happen (i’m teaching 16 yrs and parents are NONEXISTENT in our
    schools (we even offer great buffet dinner to all that show) and few show up!!!
    Secondly, when Dewey spoke about schools being all-inclusive ” in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground” his world was far different than today’s. In todays, kids bring violence, guns, alcohol, pornography, knives, drugs into the schools
    and have little regard and respect for the NOTION and importance of education !!!\!

    • Ruth

      I understand your skepticism, but isn’t it worth a try? Maybe, the notion of the community school and an implementation of a school that reflects the neighborhood that surrounds it will bring those parents to school. Many parents stay away out of fear, intimidation, and feeling of inadequacy in the face of today’s educators. Some educators outweigh the parent in education so much that parents feel that the educators are above them, instead of their equals. This stems from the centuries old belief that “experts” are valued higher than the common day man. We need to come together again and I feel that the community school can do this!

  2. Deb

    I know that I will be criticized for this but I think that the difference is whether the school system is urban, suburban or rural. I have worked in both urban and suburban schools. This concept would work well in most suburban schools but not so well in urban areas where parents often struggle just to get through the day. I noted the same results as Tommy in my 2 urban experiences. It isn’t that the urban parents don’t care, it is that their lives are very burdened and many just can’t see beyond meeting daily needs to take interest in school activities. In suburban areas, however, the parents are very involved and would welcome and embrace this partnership. I have never had experience with a rural district so I can’t speak to it. In spote of the problems, the few urban parents who do get involved should have a voice.

    • Tracy Martin

      Maybe I am missing something, but isn’t the idea to provide a place that will make parent’s lives less hectic? Providing services that they are already using? Providing services that will make their family life simpler to manage?

  3. andrea

    Take a look at Cincinnati schools — Cincinnati Public School’s Community Learning Centers are quickly becoming a model in education reform, rising from an education system in crisis to the top rated urban school district in the state. Other states and districts have visited Cincinnati schools for inspiration in their own community school efforts. Cincinnati CLC has also been a focal point major media attention, being featured on NBC News’ Education Nation program, American Public Radio, and many other major newspapers. The Coalition for Community Schools has been proud to work with Cincinnati’s community school since its founding in 2000. It is not easy, but at least 5000 schools (many in urban neighborhoods) have found this to be a strategy that works.

  4. Ingrid

    I disagree. I teach in an urban school that has a 99% free lunch (not reduced, free) population. Before the Community School model we had very minimal parent engagement. Through work with a parent coordinator and offering parenting courses, courses that benefit the family overall like financial literacy our parent attendance and engagement has increased. The parent formed their own parent club. They asked the principal for a space to meet. They volunteer in the building. They have made it a point to begin to ask for things for their children. Community Schools work, but it takes time and work.

  5. Mary

    As the bilingual coordinator, I found that when I polled the parents and gave them what they requested, they showed up. For instance, they wanted English classes and quite a few attended. They asked for a workshop on standardized testing and we had a good turn-out. However, they wouldn’t come to the ELAC meetings. They saw no point in it. When I offered Family Math, I had only a few families, but when we offered Around the World Night, 300 people showed up. This was in a low-income, Title 1 School. As far as Community Schools, they may take many forms. My district has just implemented such. The health clinics are successful. Also, each school has a Support Service Provider and I have found ours to be very useful, such as getting support services for a father whose daughter was in the hospital. One can only try and keep adapting until you hit the right buttons.

  6. Benji Rowan

    I guess we’re trying some convoluted version of that here in the Tucson Unified School District. I can tell you first hand that this is a discipline disaster. I’m all for helping the community as a whole, and I want my students parents to receive the health care they need, but less consequences for bad behavior is not the answer. It’s not fair to the students who are behaving and who deserve more of the teachers attention.


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