The pandemic has led to increased interest from districts in community schools, a model that uses public schools to connect families with community resources and care for the “whole child,” according to education organization leaders.
While the model had already been gaining traction before COVID-19 struck, community schools were uniquely positioned during its onset to support families’ needs for housing security, continued learning and assistance with food and household items, said José Muñoz, director of the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership.
”This is a really pivotal moment for the community schools movement, one that could lead to extraordinary growth and widespread expansion of support for vulnerable students and families,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd at Georgetown University.
“The pandemic made it impossible to ignore the importance of the whole child's needs to their learning and thriving,” said Jeannie Oakes, senior fellow in residence for the Learning Policy Institute.
The building momentum for the community school model overlaps with increased concern for social-emotional learning in and outside of school, according to Jack Lewis, a spokesperson for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.
California, for example, recently announced a $3 billion investment in community schools, outpacing New York and Maryland, which have also prioritized community schools, according to EdSource.
Earlier this month, California’s state board of education adopted a community schools framework, citing COVID-19 as the impetus for districts and schools to “rethink the direct connection between schools and families,” among other things. California’s initiative, the California Community Schools Partnership Program, will begin implementation in February.
“Community school strategies can be an effective approach to mitigate the academic and social impacts of current events, improve school responsiveness to student and family needs, and to organize school and community resources to address barriers to learning,” the framework reads.
The board warned against viewing community schools “as one initiative among many,” instead seeing them as “an equity-enhancing strategy that aligns with and can help coordinate and extend a wide range of state, school, and district initiatives.”
Such connections are often key in equity strategies, agreed Mia Perry, spokesperson for the Institute for Educational Leadership.
“The stressors and dislocations of the pandemic have intensified this reality,” Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, said in an email.
Lewis said he expects the trend for community schools to continue as schools and districts grapple with the impact of the pandemic.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, federal pandemic relief funding can be used to support the model.
Currently, about nine states are using federal relief dollars for that purpose, said Muñoz. However, using community-based staff —for example, from local organizations or other community partners — means schools don’t have to hire staff of their own that they may have to lay off when federal aid dries up, according to Perry.
In addition to California, Maryland and New York, other states supporting community school models are Illinois, Vermont and New Mexico.
“There’s now a consensus in education circles that if we want to educate students to their potential, we need to do more than expose them to academic disciplines,” said Toch. “Community schools could make it easier to get students the health and mental health screening they need in the wake of the pandemic.”