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.