A reality check on the community school dream

Elementary students spread out while playing on the playground. Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.

No shortage of ideas abound about how to address post-pandemic learning loss, mental health problems and low school attendance. But the best-sounding ideas may make demands on schools and other public agencies that they often can’t meet.

Both high-dose tutoring and learning acceleration generated enthusiastic support when schools reopened in 2021. However teachers who were stretched thin by the pandemic were reluctant to put in the extra time required for tutoring, and districts struggled to find both additional staff and reliable tech providers to work with students. Parents may have also been reluctant to take students to school before and after classes and on weekends, especially considering that about 90% of parents believe their children to be performing at grade level in math in reading (this is simply not true according to the latest NEAP data). Districts endorsed the idea of teaching all students at grade level and providing just-in-time help for any child who had missed a gateway idea or skill. But as we have documented, teachers were catching up themselves after the pandemic, and learning acceleration strategies proved difficult to implement

Today, an even more ambitious idea is generating hope. Community schools, now on the collective bargaining agenda of teachers’ unions and gaining support in state legislatures, call for:

  • Integrated student supports, or wraparound services, for all student needs that might affect learning.
  • Expanded learning time, more time in school, and more opportunities for out-of-school learning, including internships and tutoring. 
  • Family and community engagement, including engaging parents in their childrens’ learning as well as opportunities for parents to advance their own education. 
  • Collaborative leadership and practices within schools to ensure teaching motivates and responds to students’ strengths and needs. 

Like high-dose tutoring and learning acceleration, the community schools idea responds to real needs. A new Learning Policy Institute report assesses the effectiveness of the four “pillars” of the community schools idea listed above. The report finds that each of these pillars is associated with positive student outcomes, including higher motivation, more persistence in school, and better test results. The report argues that combining the four pillars will produce schools that work dramatically better than existing ones, especially for low-income and disadvantaged children who have lost the most during the pandemic. 

This argument is based on real experience in individual schools or small networks that have been specially funded and designed for wraparound services and close connections with parents. Advocates are calling for significantly expanding the idea, including to all schools in socially stressed places like Oakland, CA. Considering recent experience with tutoring and learning acceleration, simpler ideas that could not be implemented widely, one must ask whether the aspirations for community schools at scale are realistic. Here are three big questions:

Where will the services come from?

City governments, philanthropies, hospitals, mental health centers, and other social service agencies have teamed up to provide deep support for students in one or a few schools. But the supply of specialists qualified to staff those services is limited, as is the money. In Cincinnati, which demonstrated the concept inspiringly in one school before the pandemic, medical, dental, and social service agencies had reached the limit of their capacity and could offer much less to other schools. students from across the city could access the medical, dental, and eye clinics available at Oyler School, the original exemplar, but that required traveling across town, often during school hours. It is hard to imagine that other cities, regardless of budget, could provide intense, just-in-time services for all needs at all schools, or that every student could have equal access to any service they might need.  

Where do the hours, teachers, and dollars for social services and extended learning time come from?

Perhaps service appointments could happen before and after school and on weekends, but that could put burdens on already-stressed parents. Students could spend a great deal of school time with mental health and medical providers, causing them to miss learning opportunities. Lost time in class is bad for students, whether it’s caused by suspensions or wraparound services. Families might agree to much longer school days, but will teachers? Many have built their childcare arrangements around an early end to the school day and would find it difficult to adjust to a longer day. Unions will understandably demand extra pay for extended time or press for new hires to teach during the extra hours. At a time when teachers are hard to find, expanding the teaching corps will be difficult. States and localities will also find it difficult to come up with the extra money for salaries while simultaneously pressed to fund wraparound services.

How will collaborative leadership and practice emerge within the schools?

As the authors of the Learning Policy Institute report admit, the evidence about the effectiveness of collaborative leadership and practice comes from studies of settings other than community schools, such as research from University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research. It is not clear from the current literature about how these attributes (which Fred Newmann and colleagues call school program coherency) emerge in existing schools that get a community schools overlay. Wraparound services can boost student attendance and reduce behavioral disruptions, but they do not in themselves improve instruction and student learning. 

Making schools more collaborative from the teacher perspective and more coherent for students has been a core aspiration of education scholars and innovators for decades. Many branded movements have sought this result, notably Ted Sizer’s Essential Schools, the New American Schools initiative, the “no excuses” schools, charter management organizations and the Gates Foundation’s investment in personalized instruction. Many have produced some good new schools, but none have had consistent success with existing public schools. The reason: existing district-run schools have too many constraints, including compliance requirements, teacher transfer provisions and work rules, all of which incentivize teachers to close their doors, ignore what others are doing, and take responsibility for only what students experience in their own classrooms. A 2015 CRPE paper on developing coherent high schools tells why Linda Darling-Hammond and other experts urged the then-new Gates Foundation to emphasize creating new schools, which could recruit teachers to a common idea about instruction and student support. It is not clear how new links to social services will promote greater teacher collaboration in existing schools. 

The community schools idea is promising and should be tried. But due to the issues raised above, it could be stalled or fatally watered down if attempted for many schools all at once. As the authors of the Learning Policy Institute report conclude, it needs close analysis of problems and best practices, not mandates and set-and-forget implementation. 

I also fear that unions’ community schools advocacy could create an anti-accountability narrative: “We have told you [taxpayers and public officials] what must be done for students to learn in school, and you have not done it. Thus, we are not responsible for the results.” 

Community schools, like academic acceleration and high-dose tutoring, are more of a noble aspiration than a universally implementable program. Post-pandemic, students and their teachers need help, but there’s no substitute for supportive relationships with teachers. Teachers, union leaders, and their allies can’t realistically hope to do their work exactly as they did before the pandemic, and assume that others will fill in everything else that’s needed. 

Districts, unions, and city leaders should be prepared to try any plausible approach to improve student motivation and well-being, and community schools should be an important part of their repertoire. But capacity limits for medical and social interventions and teachers’ willingness to change the ways they work will limit the number of schools that can match every need with an externally provided service.  

Other approaches that rely less on donated services are also worth trying. These include schools with strong academic and sports programs, schools with more flexible hours for older students, and smaller learning pods for students who dread the regular classroom environment. Public charter schools that offer radical personalization of instruction or rigorous college prep curricula are also worth expanding. 

As we have argued, school districts with performance problems need to try many approaches and keep those that most improve student learning, attendance and persistence. The alternative, so visible since the pandemic, of grabbing onto one idea (e.g., acceleration, tutoring or wraparound services) and riding it until widespread implementation proves impossible, leads to a confidence-destroying cycle of optimism and disappointment. The community schools idea is an important one, but it should be used with eyes open, not in blind hope.  

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