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Community schools: It takes a village 

Pooled resources and efforts support student success and help close the achievement gap

Picture, if you will, a seventh-grader we’ll call Avery. During the rare days she even bothered to come to class, she sat disinterested, refusing to participate in the lessons. One day her frustrated teacher had finally had enough and sent the girl to the vice principal’s office for some needed discipline.

But as the administrator tried to coax an explanation from the unresponsive youth, she got the feeling that something more significant was troubling Avery.

Patiently, Dickson drew her out, eventually learning that Avery was pregnant and considering suicide, her predicament aggravated by her classmates’ and neighbors’ bullying.

“I was able to quickly connect her with our Safe Schools counselor, made an appointment for her to be seen at a local health clinic that afternoon, set her up with the teen suicide hotline and spoke with the vice principal to address the bullying issue, as well as being able to support the student in sharing all of this with her family,” says Dickson, who diligently followed the girl’s progress. “[Avery] attends school more regularly now and has new friends with whom she spends time. I saw her on campus this week with a smile on her face.”

Few schools have the staff to devote to such intensive follow-through as Dickson provides students. But then, that’s what makes full-service community schools so special.

‘School as the social center’

Lately educators are hearing more about full-service community schools, a strategy that pairs schools with other community resources in pursuit of the long-term goal of improving academic performance. (These full-service schools are differentiated from the community day schools that serve expelled students.) Konocti USD’s community schools started as Healthy Start sites back in the 1990s, when California supported the strategy with special funding.

The concept that schools should support the social, physical and economic needs of children and families is really nothing new; in fact, progressive education reformer John Dewey touted “school as the social center” in 1902. But recent federal grants have put the strategy in the national spotlight, and educators, civic leaders and businesses are recognizing community schools’ potential to address their various concerns in one place, pooling the resources each uses to combat crime, deliver social services and produce an educated work force for a stronger society.

As noble as it is to want to improve children’s lives, for schools the primary reason to provide wrap-around services is to help students do better academically.

“School board members want kids to be healthier, happier, to have opportunities to deal with their problems, to be safe. Everyone wants that,” says CSBA President and San Francisco Unified School District board President Jill Wynns. “But for us—as we direct or focus our schools and our school district on working on those issues with others—it has to be because it helps students do better in school.”

The focus on academics is what makes today’s community schools strategy different from other community-based schools of the past. Jane Quinn of the National Center for Community Schools describes it as “a strategy for organizing the resources of the community around student success.”

“I do think that in response to the dire fiscal situation in a lot of states and a lot of cities, schools and school districts are saying, ‘Gee, maybe we need to organize our resources in our community in a different way.’ And that’s a really good definition of a community school,” Quinn says.

Full-service community schools are partnerships with organizations that offer support services for children and families that traditionally work independently. The community schools simply bring them all together to more efficiently provide what families need, such as mental and physical health services, connections to basic social services, and expanded learning opportunities for the children and their parents, all complementing a strong core instructional program.

“Given the needs of schools and the huge amount that schools are called on to do, it really takes the entire community marshaling its collective will to achieve some effectiveness in these very complicated, broad issues like closing achievement gaps, or providing health care access to low-income families—the kinds of things that support learning and student achievement,” notes Ed Honowitz, a board member in the Pasadena Unified School District. The district is using the community schools strategy at five former Healthy Start sites.

The specific services offered at any one site vary from place to place, and depend on the needs of the families at the school and the available partners.

Centers of community

Neighborhood schools have long been places for such community services as adult education and job training, health services such as vaccinations and routine screening, and recreation and sports activities. But periodically society undergoes significant changes that call on schools to meet residents’ needs in a holistic way.

Industrialization at the turn of the 20th century, for example, drove many from their rural lives to work alongside waves of new immigrants in city factories. Schools were called upon to act as “social centers”—as progressive educator John Dewey called them 110 years ago—to create a framework for solving society’s pressing problems. Schools could teach public hygiene and food safety, keep people entertained, and organize them for civic purposes.

“To businessmen, fuller use of the schools meant dollars and cents economy,” wrote Edward Ward in the 1911 journal Common Good.

By the time of the Great Depression, schools were assigned a role in meeting the needs of the “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished” populace identified by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and schools shouldered the responsibility to teach young people how to act upon local community problems.

The “war on poverty” during the 1960s sparked another resurgence of community schooling. That’s when the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed, including the Head Start program for low-income families.

The latest iteration of community schooling began about 20 years ago with programs like Healthy Start in California and the Children’s Aid Society schools in New York City.

“Reform periods in education are typically times when concerns about the state of the society or economy spill over into demands that the schools set things straight,” observed education historian David Tyack in a 1990 article in Columbia University’s Teachers College Record.

About the same time, Beacon schools—community centers offering a range of activities beyond school hours—also got their start in New York City. They now exist in six cities across the country, including San Francisco.

Addressing inadequacies

Since community schools are clearly nothing new, why do they seem to periodically fall out of favor, only to be rediscovered when conditions cry out for a more holistic approach?

Quinn cites two reasons identified by John S. Rogers, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor who researched the history of community schools for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and reported his findings in a 1999 paper titled “Community Schools: Lessons from the Past and Present.”

“He said the proponents did not have an adequate political strategy,” Quinn explains. “Secondly, the earlier iterations of community schools were not adequately connected to the mission of schools, not adequately connected to the core instructional program.”

Thus, the National Center for Community Schools and the Coalition for Community Schools are working to correct for those two inadequacies, Quinn explains, with the Coalition concentrating on policy while the National Center provides practical assistance to local educational agencies and community partners.

So why the resurgence of interest in full-service community schools now?

“For a couple of reasons,” Quinn continues. “I think one is that the rival hypothesis to this more comprehensive and integrated way of working is really No Child Left Behind, right? It’s a relentless focus on standardized testing, a relentless focus on a narrow definition of what constitutes achievement and it ignores the realities of children’s lives. And it’s not working.”

A strategy for modern times

There are good reasons to maximize a community’s resources around school success, says Pasadena’s Honowitz. “This need to figure out how to build more effective coalitions and align services and link partnerships—this is bubbling up all over the country in unique ways that are very situational to the community.”

Redwood City has now become a national model for community schools. Starting as a consortium of partners in the 1990s, the Redwood City 2020 initiative is supported by the city and county, the school district, universities, private philanthropic foundations, law enforcement agencies, a large health care organization and others who saw the need to address a number of youth and family issues that required a broad group of collaborators to be successful. The consortium now supports five full-service community schools in the Redwood City School District.

Parents are also essential partners, says Sandra Portasio, the school district’s director of school-community partnerships.

“We want families to be able to support their kids. We know the families’ own experiences and perceptions of their value and self worth is a very important element,” she says. To that end the schools provide training and support to help parents forge strong relationships with teachers and to help a largely immigrant population navigate the social and school system to promote children’s academic achievement.

Getting results

Although the return on investment is often difficult to quantify, community school advocates are nonetheless enthusiastic that the strategy works.

Redwood City SD trustee Shelly Masur estimates that her community’s schools enjoy about $3 in services for every $1 invested by the district.

“It’s a great way for us to spend our money effectively on kids,” she concludes, adding that the second clear benefit is the increase in academic achievement seen at the community school sites. In fact, one of the district’s best-developed community schools succeeded in getting out of Program Improvement after five years in 2009, placing it among just nine in the state to accomplish that goal that year.

“By focusing on meeting the basic needs of children and families, it frees up teachers to focus on the curriculum and doing a good job of teaching,” Masur explains.

A study by Communities in Schools, a nationwide network of educators that provides both advocacy and practical support for public schools, found that community school strategies had positive effects on dropout rates, test scores, school attendance, discipline, and student attitudes.

Further, giving attention to student health alleviates chronic absenteeism and promotes a caring atmosphere and positive learning environment that reduces dropout rates and helps boost test scores, the California School Health Centers Association reports.

Studying the Redwood City community schools, Stanford University’s John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities found that English learners become proficient more quickly when parents participated in their children’s education. “Students’ feeling supported had a significant effect on their motivation and confidence,” said the authors of “Positive Student Outcomes in Community Schools.”

CSBA’s focus

To help inform school board members about their role in planning and implementing a full-service community school strategy, CSBA is devoting a full strand to the issue during its Annual Education Conference and Trade Show in San Francisco, Nov. 29–Dec. 1.

With assistance from community school experts, a comprehensive program is being planned that will give school board members an overview of the strategy; their governance and leadership responsibilities; how to finance the services; best practices; where to find technical assistance; and more. A special CSBA Golden Bell Awards category is devoted to exemplary community schools.

CSBA has also been working with its colleagues in the Cities, Counties and Schools Partnership to focus on ways elected officials can join forces to benefit students and communities. In particular, they’ll be looking for ways to overcome such challenges of shared governance as communication between entities, limits on the uses of funding streams, and contractual obligations that may limit the work volunteers can do.

“That’s why it’s important to get the leaders of each entity together to work out a way to collaborate—to give each organization permission to work together,” says Don Saylor, a Yolo County supervisor and member of the CCS Partnership who previously served as a board member in the Davis Joint Unified School District.

“When the community is engaging with the schools, they’re going to be more positive about what’s happening,” says Susan Markarian, a member of the annual conference planning committee, CSBA Region 10 director and a board member in the Pacific Union Elementary School District in Fresno County. “And that’s one of CSBA’s goals—changing public perception of public education. I think this is one of the keys to changing the public perception.”

The board’s role

The primary policy-setting role of school boards can help grease the wheels of community school partnerships, says Quinn from the National Center for Community Schools.

“Once a policy is set and once a set of priorities are established by the district,” she says, “that makes it a whole lot easier for community resources to figure out how they can work [together]—whether they’re really welcome in the schools.”

Joan Reynolds, who directs the Healthy Start program for the Lake County Office of Education, suggests that board members are in the perfect position to approach their peers on regional governing bodies.

“Spend time developing meaningful partnerships with your community agencies and organizations that support families,” she suggests. “Plan in advance what kind of services you really feel your school needs, from counseling to health education to health screenings—all the things that partners are bringing onto your school sites, and then maybe invite those partners to come and talk about, in a coordinated fashion, how they deliver those services.”

Portasio, the community school director in Redwood City, suggests schools look for partners that can supply the skills and expertise the schools lack, such as mental health providers, community sports and athletic leagues, law enforcement, after-school service providers, or the data analysis that a university partner, for example, can provide.

“It’s about looking for the right combination for the needs you have, but also trying to balance in different domains with support you might offer,” Portasio says.

“I think that schools and school districts are really looking for alternate strategies, and [the community school]—because it addresses the needs of the whole child, because it is a research-based strategy, and because it’s producing results in a number of places around the country—is getting a lot more national attention,” says Quinn, pointing out that the National Center for Community Schools offers free resources on its website and can provide individual LEAs with more intensive technical assistance.

And California school board members will receive a wealth of information by attending workshops in the Full-Service Community Schools strand during CSBA’s Annual Conference.

“We’re at a time in history when we don’t have the option to not do this,” says Saylor, the Yolo County supervisor and former school board member. “Our schools depend on all our public assets being mobilized, efficient and coordinated to ensure the community thrives and children reach their potential. It’s essential we move ahead together.”

Kristi Garrett ( ) is a staff writer for California Schools.

Health is an essential component of the whole child

Students in pain from untreated dental decay simply cannot concentrate on their schoolwork as they should. That’s true of other health problems as well.

Many schools, particularly full-service community schools, are making it a priority to bring dental and medical screening and treatment to their students right on campus. The benefits can be dramatic.

Wendy Gattoni, a family advocate for the Healthy Start program in the Middletown Unified School District in Lake County, was helping with a dental screening at a local elementary school when they found a kindergartener with rampant tooth decay that was causing her discomfort and pain. Aware that dental pain can affect speech development and nutrition, Gattoni followed up with the girl’s mother, who was aware of the decay but had been putting off taking the child to the dentist she had been referred to the previous spring. She was intimidated by the process and had no transportation, so she didn’t follow through.

Gattoni arranged to visit the family to answer their questions about getting treatment and help the mother set up an appointment. She also helped arrange for transportation, straightened out confusion with the paperwork and supported the mother as she took her daughter in for eight tooth extractions and 10 crowns.

“The mom was very appreciative of all the help she received,” Gattoni says. “I called her recently and she was the one to remind me that her daughter had a six-month [follow-up] appointment with her local dentist. She is ready now to take care of her child’s dental needs.”

Untreated dental problems is a serious issue, says Mark Cooper, a member of the Lake County Board of Education, past president of the California County Boards of Education and a dentist who regularly does dental screenings in schools in his rural area.

“At the clinic, I’m seeing children under the age of 5 whose teeth are totally abscessed, kids that have the potential of actually dying because of abscesses,” he reports. “Our hospital emergency room is inundated with untreated oral care…costing the taxpayer thousands of dollars.”

In fact, the Pew Center on the States recently estimated that it costs 10 times more to treat dental problems in the ER than it would during routine visits to a dentist’s office.

Lake County is one of the few rural counties to receive a grant under the federal Affordable Care Act, which provided almost $1.7 million to four California school-based health centers in 2012.

Health centers are often among the first partners in a community school. They help improve academic achievement by addressing vision and dental problems, poor nutrition, asthma, ear infections, depression, substance abuse and even dropouts, as attendance problems are often caused by untreated health issues.

“Disproportionate assignment of low-income black children to special education may reflect, in part, a failure to correct their vision,” wrote Richard Rothstein in a 2009 issue of American Educator magazine. “Often, when children seem to have puzzling difficulties learning to read, the explanation is no more complex than that they cannot see.”

The California School Health Centers Association, in a December 2011 fact sheet, attributed physical and mental health services in schools with reducing chronic absenteeism, creating stronger relationships between students and staff, improving students’ commitment to their education, and higher test scores.  —Kristi Garrett

Need a helping hand?

Learn more about full-service community schools and how to collaborate with a variety of partners from the following experts and resources:


The Coalition for Community Schools
Housed at the Institute for Educational Leadership, the Coalition is an alliance of national, state and local organizations from education, youth development, community planning and development, family support, health and human services, and government. Its robust website reviews results, briefs leaders about their role in the strategy, and offers a wealth of planning, policy and advocacy resources.

National Center for Community Schools
As part of the Children’s Aid Society in New York, the center complements the work of the Coalition for Community Schools by helping partners implement their community schools strategies and participating in the Coalition’s national advocacy work. The Center’s clients include individual schools, district administrators, funders, education reform leaders, community organizations, intermediaries, parent associations, policymakers, universities, research centers and others.

Center for Community School Partnerships at the University of California, Davis
The work of the CCSP centers on research, evaluation and technical assistance to support community-school partnerships.

John W. Gardner Center
The Center assists community schools practitioners with information about effective practices and research.

Communities in Schools
A nonpartisan, nonprofit organization devoted to school dropout prevention supported by a variety of private businesses, foundations, individuals, as well as several federal agencies.

California School Health Centers Association
Find information about funding and collaborating in a community school and how to include student health services.

Redwood City 2020–Community Schools
This collaboration of seven public and nonprofit organizations serves children and families located in the Redwood City School District boundaries.


“Community Schools: Partnerships Supporting Students, Families and Communities”
This CSBA Policy Brief identifies the key characteristics of full-service community schools, reviews funding options, and outlines the role of the school board; includes resources for policymakers. 

“Building Community Schools: A Guide for Action”
This guidebook from National Center for Community Schools presents the case for using a community schools strategy, shares case studies, and offers suggestions to help schools build the capacity for implementation.

“Financing Community Schools: Leveraging Resources to Support Student Success”
Available from
This paper from the Coalition for Community Schools is the first in a series published to help policymakers build capacity for community schools and includes recommendations for policymakers.

—Kristi Garrett