Almost all educators want their students to succeed in school and beyond, but simply do not have the adequate time or resources to best support their students in every way possible. As a former high school teacher in a low-income area, I was frustrated and exhausted trying to be teacher, mental health counselor, confidant, bringer of food, donor of clothes, and a ride home (with guardian permission) all at once. I felt powerless in not being able to provide them with all the things they needed to thrive (and for some survive). I wanted to do more for my students. They deserved to have good food, clean clothes, a safe and stable place to sleep at night, and be free from abuse…but I couldn’t do it all by myself.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I knew the harsh realities of my students’ everyday lives were going to get more severe. Alone, educators and traditional public schools are capable of only doing so much for the young people they serve. However, community school models show us that solutions to address inequities and learning gaps deepened by the pandemic do not have to fall squarely on the shoulders of school staff, nor should they.
Community schools served as a lifeline for students before COVID-19, and now they have become even more vital as they connect students and families to community resources amid the pandemic. A community school is a “public school—the hub of its neighborhood, uniting families, educators and community partners as an evidence-based strategy to promote equity and educational excellence for each and every child, and an approach that strengthens families and communities.” The pillars of community schools include:
“1. Integrated student supports for academic needs, mental and physical health, nutrition, and social services.
2. Expanded and enriched learning time and opportunities, including after-school and summer learning opportunities and through internships and project-based learning.
3. Active family and community engagement through meaningful partnerships, as well as classes, services, and events.
4. Collaborative leadership and practices, including shared decision-making structures, such as site-based leadership teams, and professional learning communities for educators.”
They are designed to serve the whole child by not only addressing students’ academic needs, but their overall well-being.
In 2020, the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx capitalized on their pre-existing strong relationships and connections to community resources to better prepare students and staff for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school quickly disseminated Chromebooks and coordinated virtual tutoring, college coaching, and mental health services for students during virtual learning. Students and their families were able to access the pre-existing in-school food pantry, as well as housing and immigration assistance services as a result of community collaboration.
In New Mexico, Cuba Independent Schools, a school district located in an isolated and rural area, provides clothes for students and community members who live far from retailers. The community school also helped facilitate the installation of solar panels on the homes of several families who didn’t have power lines because the area is so remote. During virtual learning, their bus drivers still drove their usual routes and delivered food, water, schoolwork, clothing, and cleaning supplies to students and their families.
Some states are using their increase in federal funding to create more community schools, particularly because of the urgency of the pandemic and evidence of their efficacy. Vermont used $3.4 million of its federal aid to hire community school coordinators in high-poverty schools, while California used $45 million in COVID-19 relief funds to start a competitive community school grant program. Furthermore, California is investing almost $3 billion in its fiscal 2022 spending bill to expand community schooling, with the goal of transforming every school with 80% or more of its students living in poverty into a community school over the next five years.
Young people are multi-faceted, complex individuals who have a variety of needs that go beyond academics and deserve more than “one size fits all” solutions. Instead of working in isolation, schools must leverage the power and care of the community to better support students, who have experienced many challenges during the pandemic. Community schools provide opportunities to transform our educational systems into ones that heal, empower, and uplift students alongside communities, during the pandemic and beyond.