Shital Shah is the Manager of Philanthropic Engagement at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). In her prior position at the AFT as an assistant director for educational issues, she focused on expanding community school initiatives and visited numerous community schools across the country.
In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Shital explains what community schools are and how they work, how they benefit school communities, students, families, and partners, and how schools interested in the community schools model can get started.
Learn more about community schools
Learn more about community schools from Shital's publications on the subject and the following resources:
Part I: Community Schools: An Overview
A community school is the heart of the community
So a community school, really the best way to describe it, it's a center of a neighborhood. It's the hub. It is the heart, and what it does, so you can visualize it, it really pulls together partners, public and private partners, in response to the needs of the students and families of that community. They can be, the partners can either be physically inside the school, or often they're linked to the school so that, you know, if there's not space for a school-based health center, for example, there could be a community-based health center right down the street. And so what the school and the community do is figure out how to connect safely the students and families to that school. So they're not missing school too much or they have safe passage to get there.
Community schools address student needs
Very basically, the community school strategy helps the young people in a school by addressing what they need in order to be able to engage and learn in a classroom, whether it's a physical issue they have – their tooth hurts, they can't see the board – or something, they've just had a trauma in the morning on the walk to school, for example.
It really wraps, a community school wraps themselves around a student to really figure out how they can get them ready to learn when they're in the school, but also to be healthy when they walk out of the school doors as well, right? So in some cases you'll have community schools that have food banks, and it's not just for those kids who need it. And it, they offer it to all of the students so there isn't a stigma behind it, right? So it's okay to take a backpack full of food home for the weekend. Everyone else is getting it, right? And so it goes beyond the academics, but ultimately it impacts the academics.
Community schools: A strategy, not a program
So community schools is not a program. It is a strategy, because, as we know, often programs come in and out of schools based on funding, based on relationships.
And what the movement of community schools is trying to do and have folks understand is that it's a process. It's a way of doing business within the school in terms of, how are we going to always have the supports and services needed for our students and families based – whether it's month-to-month or year-to-year?
And so it's an ongoing process of conversations, needs assessments, collaboration, that goes beyond the school building. And so it – the idea is for the programs that are a part of a community school to be sustainable so that, when budgets are cut locally, statewide or federally, those important supports and services don't get cut.
Because the relationships and resources needed to continue the work – they're embedded within the community and not dependent on one stream of funding, for example.
The role of the community school coordinator
Key to a community school is this person that plays the role of resource coordinator or community school site coordinator, and what they do is pull together and organize the partners in a school. So most schools across the country have great partners, public and private, that are providing, whether it's academic programming, enrichment programming, after school, before school, opportunities for students. What doesn't often happen is that, they're not coordinated, so you have a lot of duplicate partners doing the same thing, and maybe only reaching a certain segment of the school population because they need to be targeted or they're high-risk or vulnerable, as they're often labeled.
And so what a coordinator is able to do is say, "Okay, well, we have, there's a need. There's low family engagement. There's high chronic absenteeism. There's low third-grade reading proficiency." So they'll be able to connect the school to partners that can help move the indicator of each of those different sort of goals that school, or areas the school needs to improve. And then also at the same time, ensure that if there are a lot of students who need support or opportunities in a particular area, that they have enough partners to fill the need of that.
For example, there might be a high rate of chronic absenteeism. So it's not as if the student, the kindergartner or the first grader is saying, "I don't want to go to school." There could be other things that are not enabling the student to come to school on time. For example, it could be that the family is homeless at the moment.
And they're spending nights trying to find housing. Or they don't have health care, so they're in the emergency room all night, right? So there's a number of other things that could be impacting student attendance. And so what a community school can do and is equipped to do because of the site coordinator is help that particular family figure out, you know, this is where you can get transition housing for the time being. Or, let's get you into this, you know, children's healthcare program, or whatever they need.
Community schools are not one-size-fits-all
So community schools are not a one-size-fits-all strategy. Even within one school district where you could have 100 schools, each community school is unique, and one of the reasons it becomes unique is a piece of the process of developing and planning a community school is a needs assessment, and it's not just a needs assessment with the teachers and school administrators and students within the school.
A great community school goes out into the community and engages with adults and families who might not be going to that particular school, because the idea of a community school and the philosophy is that it's open from, you know, I'm going to say sunup to sundown, but it's not just that the school administrators or, you know, the people inside of the school that are keeping it open, it's community partners who might be there from when the school closes until 9:00 p.m. with community recreation activities. And so it's extremely important to really create the culture and climate of the surrounding community, right? There could be other partners that we didn't even think of, because often in a school building, we're probably just thinking about the teaching and learning.
But it, when I walk into a community school and there's a variety of partners that are not only addressing the teaching and learning component or the health component but the adult component that creates a strong culture, it's – you can just feel that energy.
How community schools help learning in the classroom
The community school strategy really does support the teaching and learning environment in the school. Often, teachers are, have been and will continue to be called upon to be the social worker, the nurse, the therapist in the classroom.
And in a school that isn't implementing this particular strategy, sometimes that's all the teacher can do. But in a community school, the teacher is able to take the student to the site coordinator or have a conversation with the site coordinator and say, "This student, you know, came to school today having spent the night in the emergency room all night. Seems like her family needs, you know, X, Y and Z."
And the site coordinator can take it from there. The teacher doesn't have to do it. Teachers are just inclined to do – is – you know, help as much as they can, and then often sometimes taking away from their instruction, right? And so they're able to get more time around instruction and planning. And then not push the student out, but really give the student the supports and resources he or she needs in a way that is still within the school building and not taking away from the classroom.
How community schools increase student engagement
In New York City, there is – one of the community schools that I recently visited has a partnership with Lego Corporation, and so they're doing robotics, for example, right? And so these are the things about community schools that I really want folks to understand, is it's not just about the wraparound services or support services. That's what we need in order to get to these – this higher level of engagement of not just the students but the adults, right? So that the teachers have time in their classroom to do what they want to do and what they're there to do, which is have a high quality of instruction for their students.
And once we do tend to these physical and mental health needs, you often do see the student coming to school more regularly. There's a lower rate of suspensions or discipline referrals, for example, and a higher rate of academic engagement. And it isn't – if we fix every student's teeth, for example, we're not going to go from A to Z immediately, right?
It's going to take time in terms of the academic improvement. So it's not a silver bullet. But we really need to be mindful and take time to fully develop this strategy so that folks are owning it and it's not just the principal and the teachers saying, "We need to do this," but it's – the students are coming to school and saying, "Wow, that partner really – it was – that was fun. I want to come to school the next day," you know.
And then the families see the value in it as well and aren't scared to go into the schools, but they go to the school because they're being engaged. They're being asked, "What do you want?" But not only what do you want, but, "How do you want to help?" Right? And so it's this – over time, in places such as Cincinnati or Portland, Oregon, where this work has been taking place – goodness, almost 20 years, you see that level of community ownership, where this collaborative process of identifying needs and assets – because it's not just a deficit-based model. In community schools, you're using your local resources. So there are a ton of assets that, if we ask, they're there, right?
And people do want to be engaged, so while it’s a strategy within a school, it becomes this community development type strategy over time. In Cincinnati and even in – well, Cincinnati's been doing it for the – since 2000. But Houston School District has just taken it – taken it on in the past year, school year.
And in one particular school, they're already seeing enrollment increase. So it becomes an in – students and families want to go to these schools and stay in the community, and mobility decreases. Even in Virginia, in Carlin Springs, which is an elementary school in Virginia, where they speak over 30 languages, and there used to be a high mobility rate, and the site coordinator and the principal, they've recognized, after having conversations – why families weren't staying in the community, and the mobility rate has decreased significantly because families and students were able to find what they needed, whether it was a bank or mental health or physical health needs. They were able to find it within their school and have that relationship and trust.
How community schools increase family engagement
What I see happening in community schools is that there's a recognition of different levels of engagement. These parents oftentimes work two, three jobs and can't come to a parent-teacher conference in the middle of the day, right? And so what they begin to do is create entry points for parents and family members, because sometimes these young people don't live with their biological parents, they begin to engage the families in conversations around hopes and desires and needs, right?
And little by little, you begin to, whether it's engaging them to come and volunteer or provide contributions at the decision-making table for community schools, which is often called the site leadership table, best practice shows that having not just the administrators and some teachers and students, but also having some family members or parents as well as community partners at the table – so you're having conversations around the school's needs and assets, but not in isolation of everyone who you're trying to impact.
Bringing families into leadership roles
Part of the community school strategy is having not just the site resource coordinator but also this – I'm going to call it a site leadership team or table. And represented around that table are students, teachers, school staff, the site administrator, community partners and families.
And you can't have 10 of each, of course, and so you – it's a decision-making body, a decision-making body around what's needed based on what they're hearing from their various constituents or peers, and also what assets exist in the community based on their contacts and what they're heard and what they're seeing.
And so families are extremely important to this, but one of the obstacles I find is you can – okay – it's having a voice at the table, but one is empowering the families to have that voice. What does that actually mean aside from just listening? But being an active participant and us, the school community, giving them the tools to be able to participate in a meaningful way.
And from this, you know, it – it's difficult to have families engage because of the other things on their plate, right? So it's offering them different entry points into ways of engagement, whether it's coming, you know, for an evening class or supporting or organizing or coordinating an evening class. In New York City, I visited a school where a group of parents would come in the evening and teach young people how to make these papier-mâché flowers, for example. You know, different arts and crafts things.
Or it could be a significant – or – you know, in terms of time spent of being at the school all day helping with the drama class, if that's one of their passions, right? So it's figuring out and spending the time in ways that they are able to engage.
It's not that they don't want to. And I feel and I know from what I've heard is that community schools offer that space, first because they're – they begin to build the trust with families. And not all community schools are doing this great, but the trust-building, and once families see that you want to offer them and support them opportunities within the school, that's the first step. And then offering them not just a space at the table, but a voice and a how to have that voice and what to do with it, begins to develop a deeper trust, and other – other families begin to engage more.
How does poverty impact learning?
If poverty to my family is me not having had breakfast that morning or dinner the night before, I'm not going to be able to pay attention in class. It's very basic. And I think often we try to get very intellectual about it, but it's just that. I can't pay attention if my other needs aren't being met. I want to learn, and until my basic needs are met, I'm not going to be prepared to learn.
And so that's from the student and family perspective, and I think poverty in terms of our schools and the adults in the schools, it's the conditions that, you know – whether it's lack of resources, lack of books, lack of air conditioner, lack of heating. All of these components have an impact, on not just the students’ learning but on the adults in the building as well, and their ability. We talk about chronic absenteeism but there is adult absenteeism too. People want a paycheck, they want to able to deliver in their profession, but if the conditions aren’t there, whether physically or even just culturally, where I feel comfortable teaching, and supported, it’s kind of a two-way street.
Poverty impacts the facility as well as the young people and families coming into that school, and, you know, to me it's very basic, you know, in terms of, you need to – I don't care if you take a nap in my classroom, because you didn't have a bed to sleep in the night before. That's important for me. So then maybe later in the afternoon you'll be able to pay attention, right? And hopefully I can give you an environment where you have a comfortable chair that's not breaking or a floor that's flat and not curved like in the Detroit Public Schools, right?
Ithink it's a travesty that we're expecting our young people to learn in these types of environments. That's one thing. But then also I don't want to punish them for not having had breakfast or dinner. And so I – we do believe – we strongly believe, you know, personally as well as AFT, is we need to address these needs before we can do anything else.
Crumbling schools and safety hazards
There are some beautiful public schools, right? But I feel like for just as many of those that I've visited, there's another set where you have lead paint still coming off of the walls or you walk in there on a spring day and it's hot because the heating system is antiquated.
Sometimes the windows are, you know – there's bars on the windows. So even just the building facilities, whether they're, you know, crumbling, it's also the environment that the school is creating just by the very way it's being designed, right?
But sometimes floors are warped, and, you know, it's not just unsafe for the young people. It's unsafe for the families walking into that school. So it's – you have crumbling schools, and, you know, if it means having a partner where I need to – the school needs to link to an after-school program that's outside of the school, then that's what we have to do.
But often that's not accessible either. In some communities, especially rural communities, it's an hour bus ride, and transportation stops at a certain hour, right, so it's – it becomes – sometimes these building conditions also become an impediment to having partners.
The reasons to partner with a community school
One might ask why people want to become partners within a community school, right? There are a number of reasons, not the least of which – especially when you look at after-school providers or those providers who need numbers – need to report numbers of students served or – whether an after-school program or in a school-based health center, they need to report those numbers. And the best place to have an impact and reach the population you need to reach to offer the services is in a school.
Partners are able to reach the students and families that they are either required to reach or want to reach for their services. And also, it becomes – often sometimes, for example, YMCAs or Boys and Girls Clubs or even some private health providers – they can get space in a school.
They become part of the school fabric. So in Montgomery County, for example, they have Linkages to Learning sites, and Linkages to Learning offers essentially – among many things, one of the main things is a suite of health services. And so in their community schools, the ones that they sponsor, if you will, they're the lead agency – they are housed in the school. And so students and families don't see them as separate and apart from the school. They're just, they're not teachers, but they become a part of that school culture. So community schools one could say offer partners a financial benefit, in terms of space as well.
Demonstrating the impact of community schools
Community schools do have an impact on a number of different indicators, and where they begin – once they begin the process of implementation, where schools often begin to see the quickest results are in a decrease in chronic absenteeism, a decrease in behavioral referrals, and, over time, they'll see an increase in academics, right?
The issue that I see that we have in terms of data collection around community schools is, there has yet to date to be implemented a longitudinal study around a number of, you know, different impact areas, right, to go deeper into, what is the actual thing that's having the change on chronic absenteeism or behavior and, over time, academics, you know?
We know it's not just the instructional piece. It could be a particular partner. But we need to tease that out. And we need funding to do that. Currently, there are local evaluations taking place in districts, but again, not as deep as we need to get to really tease out what is having that impact.
And that is something that AFT is still pushing for, along with our national partners. We need to see over time what is the impact, right, around a number of variables. And with the quick fixes that we've been forced to do and noting that it's not just academics, there are these other variables that need to change before you even see any motion in academics, we need time. That's been one thing in addition to funding, to be able to look at this meaningfully in a set number of places. And, you know, until we can come and – we're seeing changes in absenteeism and behavior and in health indicators.
But there's isn't – it's just been – because not every district is looking at the same indicators, aside from academics, it becomes difficult across the board. However, with the new ESSA and the plans, a lot of plans actually – I think it's over 30 or 35 states, have put chronic absenteeism in as a measure.
And so what we'll be able to do in the future is, in those places that are looking at chronic absenteeism, since that is becoming more of a – what – norm in terms of measurement, we'll be able to see. But in the places that have done evaluations, for example in districts or in cities, the two indicators that you always see are chronic absenteeism decreasing and behavior referrals decreasing. So I think it's just really finding what those common data points are.
Looking at the different variables that have an impact on a community school’s success
Another reason that it's been difficult to measure the impact of a community school is because it's, every school is different in terms of, I can't say that this after-school program is why this community school – the data went off the charts. There's so many different variables within it.
And there needs to be some sort of regressive analysis done to see which components had an impact, and that hasn't been done yet. And so the longitudinal study that needs to be done across a number of different districts could get at that in terms of dosage and what, in fact, is having the impact. Because we know ultimately the baked product is having the impact. But what in particular?
Part II: Community Schools: Examples from the Field
Health care services at a community school
Right now in the country, public schools do not have enough school nurses or guidance counselors or mental health counselors. But in some places they're trying to fill that gap. In terms of services offered at a community school, one of the most prevalent is healthcare, right? So it could be by way of having a brick-and-mortar school-based health center in the school or connected to a school, mental health services. They could bring outside providers, public or private, whether it's from the local hospital or a private dentist, for example. You see that happening across the country where private doctors want to reach more of the students and families in their community. So they're working with the schools.
In some cases where there isn't space for a particular school-based health center, the school is able to connect the students and families to a particular community-based health center or a local hospital, and if they don't have the insurance, helping them get signed up for whatever type of insurance they're eligible for.
Mental health supports at a community school
Some types of supports and opportunities that students could receive at their given community school are mental health services that are extra and more targeted. Maybe it's around trauma, right? So the site coordinator is able to bring in specialized care for those – that group of students and families that might have gone through some trauma or are going through some, or the need of grief counseling, for example.
We might have refugees from Somalia coming, and the school has a mental health provider who doesn't necessarily speak the language of those families and students. So they need someone a little bit more specialized. And so the site coordinator is able to see what resources exist at the local or even state level sometimes to bring in those specific providers.
It's also about maybe, you know, the adults in the community want a yoga class. So how does the school provide their space that is a public space, and taxpayers’ money is paying for it, how do we keep those schools open so that the other needs of the community that we know – those things we know that help create healthy communities – that the school can continue or become again that place where everyone goes to.
Educational services at a community school
Not all community schools are only about health services, right? That's, when I speak about community schools, I often hear people react surprised when there's other types of opportunities beyond that, such as adult GED classes, financial literacy classes. So there's a – there can be and should be a huge adult component, since those – the adults are often the first teachers of their students, of their children, for example.
So you might have a partnership with a community college that's down the road that could provide adult GED classes or financial literacy classes in some places.
You have banks who are partnering, local community banks that are partnering with schools to help the students begin to, for example, open savings accounts and then offering financial literacy classes not just to the students but to the families as well. So it just really depends on the need.
Other supports and services could be after-school programming, which most schools receive, but this might be more targeted and also inclusive – we're seeing more and more community schools where the after-school programming is also incorporating the parents or families of the students so that they are more in tune with what their child or grandchild is receiving in the classroom. So they could better support it, perhaps, in the home environment.
Community schools are in urban, rural, and suburban districts
Often when we think about community schools or people who are doing public education reform or strategies, think of the urban school districts, and yes, community schools is happening in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, and there's some great examples of those – of community schools taking place in those cities.
And there's also community schools taking place in places like St. Paul, Minnesota, or Duluth, as well as McDowell County in West Virginia, the southernmost county in West Virginia, which is the eighth-poorest school district in the country. A community school is not just for urban schools. It's for urban, rural and suburban.
And the more – especially when we think about the opioid crisis, right? So where school districts and communities are beginning to realize, ones that may not have been impacted by needs or issues that they needed external support for in the schools – they're beginning to see the value in creating a strong network of partnerships within their schools.
Community gardens in Duluth, MN
Duluth, Minnesota, for example – they have been – there's one community school that's existed for 20 years, and the educators, the students and the families have been involved from the beginning in creating it, and they initially start – I mean, their key issue, if you will, and it's not even an issue, was they wanted to just deepen the engagement of the adults in the school, right?
And they started a community garden. And so now, there's other schools in Duluth that are beginning to take on the strategy and using the community garden as not just a space for a community to come and get vegetables, but also as a teaching tool, right? So you have educators who are engaging with this community garden in their science class or their math class.
And students are tending to the gardens. So there's this whole different sort of – there's an academic component. There's youth taking responsibility for the food that they're growing and learning how to cook it with the adults in their community. And so that's a community school, right? And the kids – so that's in Duluth. But that's also happening in Philadelphia, where they have urban gardens.
Early steps towards becoming a community school
If a school wants to become a community school and they're not, they don't have the financial wherewithal at the moment to have a site resource coordinator – a full-time site coordinator, what they end up doing is creating an – their site leadership team.
That includes the school staff as well as community partners and parents and students that – they become the site coordinator until they're able to find the resources. So in McDowell County, for example, for about a year in the planning and development of their community school, there were 10 to 12 people around that site leadership team who were doing the needs assessments in the communities, in the schools.
Pulling the other community partners together to identify the needs and then prioritize. Because you can't do everything at once. And then after about a year, a year and a half, the district was able to find funding, right? And so sometimes it's the chicken or the egg, right? And the needs and assets will always exist. It's, can you get that critical mass of not just adults but young people to come together to identify the needs and assets and begin moving, right?
Because a community school doesn't become a full-blown community school overnight. You start with the low-hanging fruit. So – and I'll go back to my West Virginia example again. The low-hanging fruit was, the adults wanted nutrition classes. The University of West Virginia extension program was a partner, and they came and began offering these nutrition, cooking and nutrition classes. And that kind of served two purposes: One, it was meeting a desire of the adults in the community, but then it also began to break down the barrier that had been created between the school and the adults. So they began to come into the school building and now are much more engaged than they were three years ago or even before.
Partnering with institutions of higher learning
So one of the key partners in many community schools are institutions of higher education, whether they're community colleges or private, public universities. And in some cases, the university might be offering health services. So students in their graduate programs or those who need to get practicum hours, whether they're school social workers or, you know, dentists or other types of doctors. But they also support the academic component in many cases, whether it's working with the educators in the classroom to develop different curriculum or providing the adults with classes.
And often you see community colleges taking on that role. In Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, for example, the community colleges in Lehigh Valley were one of the first partners in their community schools and became a lead agency.
The benefits of home visits
We also have some schools where teachers are beginning to embark upon the parent-teacher home visit program. So the parent-teacher home visit program is where educators are doing home visits in pairs to students in their classrooms, and it's not targeted, it's whichever families want to volunteer to receive a home visit. And the reason for really beginning these home visits – this particular model is to have the educators better understand their students and families and what they're bringing with them, both the positive, as well as their needs, into the classroom so they – so it better informs their instruction, right? And not all community schools are doing this. There's a variety of home visit programs. But we're finding that this particular program, while it does take time – it's – really does develop a level of trust and relationship where then our teachers are seeing the families more engaged in the academic learning of their students, right?
So I've heard from some of our teachers – you know, yes, the families come in for support, you know, whether it's for the dental services or the other health services, and that's great, but the next level is, we want them to feel empowered and be engaged in the academic component of their student's school life, right?
And so this particular strategy, for the places that are implementing it, does help with that. There are a number of – like I said, there's a number of other ways to do the visits, but this is one in particular which we're promoting for our educators to do.
Focusing on restorative justice
Another way some of our educators in community schools have become engaged and actually the local unions and their community partners have become – begun to advocate for is around restorative justice. And so in Daly City, California, for example, we have been working with educators and partners around bringing the sort of justice practice into school.
And it's a partnership. It's not the – just the educators coming in and doing, you know, restorative circles, but it's a partnership with the school administrators as well. And, you know, you hear – and restorative justice is much more than just a reflective circle but one – even that one simple activity, you hear educators and students saying it makes a difference in the school culture and climate, right?
And so you – we're seeing more of that being incorporated into schools, but on the same side, you know, we need to make sure that the school, you know – the educators are getting the resources they need to be able to support such activities, right? And – meaning in this particular case the circle requires the time and permission to be able to do that, right? So restorative justice is another key component that we're beginning to see develop in community schools across the country.
Community schools strengthen the neighborhood
Neighborhoods or communities which have had community schools over time or for a long period of time – you begin to see a re-creation or a strengthening of the community fabric in that you have adults who might not have kids in the schools begin to engage with the school or see the school as the center.
But also you have local businesses who begin to – want to partner, local chambers of commerce who are in fact becoming partners of community schools in a number of ways. It could be that they're offering their employees the opportunity to volunteer or, in some cases, offering internships or apprenticeships to the students in their community. You also see them engaged in curriculum.
A partnership with the fire department
In one community school, I visited a fifth-grade math class, and the local fire department was the partner. They have an adopt-a-classroom sort of program happening within their community schools. This particular one was the local fire department.
And so the math teacher worked with the fire department over the summer to develop a curriculum that incorporated whatever it is that fire departments do. But she was able to connect it to her math program.
And what the fifth-graders were learning. And so the fire department volunteers – not all firefighters, some were from the HR and personnel departments – would come once a month together to the class and work with – in that whatever the chapter was with all of the students.
But in addition, they were all also a mentor to one person, one young person in the classroom. And they would meet with them also once a month at least. And so it became a different way of building community. I heard one young girl when I was there – or one of the firefighters was speaking with me, and he said this young girl who he was a mentor to – a year or two later she called the fire department. There was an emergency in her family. And she told him, she said, you know, "I felt more comfortable. Before I would never have called because I was scared by anything."
Law or fire – you know, anything that was a public service such – that could be an enforcement-type thing. But she and her family felt more comfortable. So it's the community coming into the school and really just building those relationships as well.
Part III: Community Schools: Engaging ELL/Immigrant Families
Community schools and ELLs
So community schools offer a variety of benefits for immigrant families, as well as families for whom English is the second language, just by the very nature that the community school strategy is set up, it offers them the – they're able to be nimble when there are perhaps new families with new language needs that come in, right?
And again, the site coordinator becomes that glue. In Maryland, for example, right, the University of Maryland is a key partner in many of the community schools, and they're able to connect them to social workers who may speak the same language as the families, or help offer to create a language curriculum that is of the native dialect, not just the general language, but the particular dialect that a group of families who might have moved into a community need – in terms of translation services and access to other services.
So I think, you know, in terms of immigrant families or families whose language – English is a second language, that site coordinator becomes that resource to figure out and pivot in terms of what the opportunities – what opportunities these families need.
Providing legal supports for immigrant families
Another way that community schools are helping immigrant families or other families in need is through legal services, and it's, you know – obviously it's community by community, but often legal services are useful to these families who might be scared to go somewhere else or who don't know how to advocate for themselves, whether it's for healthcare or for, you know, other public services that they may need. And so you do see site coordinators seeking out whoever their local legal service provider might be to come in, and often you also see other sort of public benefits that are delivered through the school.
Whether it's like food stamps, for example, that families might not feel comfortable going to a hospital to get because they might not have insurance. And so that school becomes a safe space for the newly arrived immigrants or other families who may be coming into the community.
Part IV: How AFT Supports Community Schools
How AFT has supported community schools
The American Federation of Teachers has been a strong supporter for close to 15 years around the community school strategy being the solution to supporting our families and communities across the country by way of the public school system.
And we have, over the past decade, created a number of materials that really not just focus on the basics of community schools and how to get it started and what it means, but also how do we more deeply engage our adults in the buildings to understand it but also to utilize it as a resource to drive instruction?
So across the schools where AFT has helped develop community schools or more deeply engage the adults, you'll see teachers who are working with community partners to deepen instruction, whether it's through project-based learning or a stronger after-school program or connecting to a university to help have our young people be prepared for college or a career, right? So some community schools have career and tech ed programs, right? And then others will have a strong – in addition to that, may have a strong coding program that's done in partnership with another outside organization.
AFT has helped support community school policy
In addition to creating, you know, a suite of resources around community schools and the way teachers and school staff can engage, AFT, our local unions as well as our state unions and nationally – we're helping develop and push policy to support this. That's one of our strengths. We're a union. And locally where I'm – more recently we're seeing more traction is in our school board races, right? So we have more educators running for school board. We have more parents running for school board who want to use community schools as their platform, because they know it's the right thing to do in terms of supporting their students and families.
The AFT, back in 2008, took a really public role around community schools in that our president, Randi Weingarten – she created a position, a national position to support the development nationally of the community school strategy and really empower not just our union members but the communities in which they lived and worked to better understand and advocate for this strategy.
And so, you know, part of the national office’s job is to create the resources to lift up the good practice that's happening to the policymakers so that then we can get more public funding to support the site coordinator position in particular.
How local AFT affiliates support community schools
So locally, AFT union leaders are playing a role not just by pushing local policy but also working to convene tables across their municipalities. So that could be pulling the mayor's office to the table to look at the other public agencies and how resources are being distributed.
And how can the distribution of resources, whether it's across the local, the district, the health agencies, the child welfare agencies and any others – the public library system, for example – how can we all come together to meet the needs of these schools that have been identified through the local neighborhood-by-neighborhood assessments that are being done?
So that's one way, is convening those systems-level thinkers and the people who hold the money for these budgets that go into the schools and into the community. But also making stronger connections with community coalitions. So we have these community coalitions that are community-based organizations but also grassroots organizing groups who help support the development of, whether it's a local policy but also in some cases, for example, really not just develop the community schools policy.
In Pittsburgh, for example, the union along with the community coalition, Great Public Schools, was able to be a part of the superintendent's – not just interview process, but selection process in that they made sure that the questions in the interview dealt with community schools so that they were guaranteed that, no matter which superintendent would come next, that they would get one that would support all of this work that they had done and developed a critical mass around – so that they would be supported in the implementation.
Part V: Becoming a Community School
National organizations that support community schools
If a school or a district wants to begin the process of developing a community school strategy, there are a number of national organizations that can support the development by offering needs assessments or readiness surveys or parent surveys, youth surveys, et cetera. The national organization that's essentially the umbrella for all of these resources is the National Coalition for Community Schools.
The American Federation (of Teachers) has been a partner and on the national steering committee for over 20 years, along with a number of other national and state organizations. And what the Coalition does is really pull together the top research and resources that communities should be using in developing this work.
How a school becomes a community school
So schools can become community schools in a number of different ways. In some places, it's through policy. Community members and elected officials, as well as teachers, might come together to create a school board policy.
In other places, it's just happening, right? A principal and teachers and families come together and say, this is – we know that this is what we need to do for our students and families, is bring partners that address the needs and offer those opportunities that have been identified. And so it could be very codified, right?
So in Houston and New York and McDowell County and Duluth, it's been very intentional. In some places, it's just grassroots. At the moment, there is no national policy that's saying, you know, in order to become a community school you need to do X, Y and Z and then you'll be identified as such.
The national movement, there are some standards that we identify as being important for having high-quality community schools, and high quality meaning, you know, you're able to increase family engagement, decrease chronic absenteeism, in – and decrease discipline referrals, for example, right? Some of the basic data points.
And so while we encourage folks to strive towards these standards, the key component is that site coordinator, whether they're part-time or full-time, because in many cases we know in rural communities the – just because of decreasing populations, you often don't have people who can commit to full-time.
Or – and sometimes there's just not the resources to pay someone for a full-time position in a rural community. And so it becomes very dependent on the resources available. But if you think back, over 100 years ago, John Dewey and Jane Addams – they were doing community schools, right?
They – in rural communities, a school was the center of the community and of the democracy, and so it just – we want to go back to that, where there is a community embracing themselves around the students and families who need them the most.
Building upon financial and human capital
As we advocate for community schools at the local, state, and federal levels, two of the main point that partners across the country are pushing for is having a full-time site coordinator, as well as that collaborative decision-making table.
Because we know with both of them we're going to be able to leverage so much more in terms of financial capital but also the human capital and knowledge that exists in those communities to make this strategy successful.
Research and studies have found having the community school coordinator, on average, leverages, for every dollar a school district puts into a community school, three. And that's on average across the country. We're seeing, for example, in Chicago it's one to six dollars were leveraged of one public dollar, leveraging six, you know, more. In Cincinnati, it's one to 16. Right? So it's that one person who can really help make more effective the assets and resources in a school. You get so much more.
It could be grants. It could be in-kind. So often, for example, in Cincinnati, there's one school, that has been a community learning center, as they call them in Ohio, for many years – has about 400 volunteers, and not just volunteers coming in for a one-off, but it's a cadre of volunteers that have been coming, and they're from the community, local businesses who are signing up their employees to come in for an hour a week, for example, to do tutoring.
So that's also calculated. Those volunteer hours are calculated into this one to three number or one to six dollars everage. It could also be the local food bank, right, that's coming in and how much money that food actually equals. So it's not the amount of necessarily hard cash that's being put in.
But it's also that human capital and those connections, so the local hospital is connected, the institutions of higher ed and the hours that their students might be working with a particular school are also counted in on this.
Identifying assets and allies in the community
While community schools are assessing what their needs are, they're also researching what already exists within their community. And often we'll use asset mapping, whether it's resource mapping or even the human mapping, right? Because you also want to identify who your allies can be in moving the work but also those partners who have resources to offer to those to meet the needs that have been identified.
Shital C. Shah serves as the Manager of Philanthropic Engagement in the Educational Issues Department of the American Federation of Teachers. In this role she develops and supports philanthropic partnerships on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), focusing on AFT’s four pillars: promoting children’s well-being, supporting powerful learning, building teacher capacity, and fostering school and community collaboration.
In addition to this portfolio, she oversees AFT’s inter-departmental community school strategy, supporting field and national efforts. She has spent the last ten years working in the field of community schools policy and practice. Through her work with local and national partners, Shital provides support and training to state and local affiliates related to policy, advocacy and school and district implementation of approaches to the community school strategy and extended learning time, including implications for collective bargaining. She currently sits on the National Coalition for Community Schools Steering Committee, where she advises on the Coalition’s strategic priorities.
Previously, as the Manager of Policy & Partnerships with the Coalition for Community Schools, she was responsible for partnership development and management at the local and national levels; federal and state policy coordination; and helping develop federal policy recommendations and briefs.
Shital holds a Master's degree in Nonprofit Management and Social Policy from Milano the New School for Management and Urban Policy, in New York City. She obtained her BS in Environmental Studies and BA in Religion at George Washington University in Washington, DC.
Her recent publications include:
“The Power of Community Schools,” Voices in Urban Education, 2015, No. 40. http://vue.annenberginstitute.org/sites/default/files/issues/VUE40.pdf
“Successful and Sustainable Community Schools: The Union as an Essential Ingredient,” Spring 2017, American Federation of Teachers.