About 100 school districts have taken on the community schools strategy at scale. This section highlights evolving initiatives in three urban schools districts and describes in detail how these districts adopted a community schools strategy. These districts reflect the size, student demographics, and fiscal and enrollment challenges that confront many midsize and large urban school systems. The section looks at the following three case studies: Union Public Schools in southeast Tulsa, Oklahoma; Oakland Community Schools; and Hartford, Connecticut, Community Schools
1. Union Public Schools: 100 percent graduation-, college-, and/or career-ready. Union Public Schools in Oklahoma, which serves 15,847 students in southeast Tulsa and a portion of Broken Arrow considers itself a community schools district.44 The district’s eight elementary schools—which all receive federal Title I funding—have a community schools coordinator on staff, and two schools have full-service medical clinics on-site. These are available to the community as well.45 In addition, mental health providers see students throughout all district schools, and families have access to districtwide clothing support.46 The Tulsa City-County Health Department also offers nutrition programs and health and wellness programs for students, as well as demonstrations for parents. The Oklahoma Caring Foundation offers free immunizations for all students. Additionally, community schools in the district offer a range of early childhood programming and adult education.47
Union’s after-school programming has evolved from simply a safe place for students to be in the afternoon to one where students take part in meaningful learning opportunities that their families may not be able to easily provide.48 At the elementary school level, community school coordinators have brokered partnerships with a wide range of after-school program providers, with support from the school district. At Union, after-school programs have five main areas of focus: science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); health and wellness; youth development and service learning; fine arts; and academic enrichment. The local zoo, for example, operates a program that brings small animals to schools for a STEM-based curriculum. Microsoft offers coding programs, and the Woody Guthrie Center provides programming in social justice, local history, and music. Other partners include the Tulsa Glassblowing School, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa Symphony, and Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance.49 There are a total of 211 after-school programs across Union’s eight Title I-eligible schools. Based on standardized test scores, an external evaluation that controlled for individual student poverty and the diffusion of the strategy in a school concluded that Union’s community schools have narrowed the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers.50
2. Oakland Community Schools: A holistic approach to educating children by eliminating educational inequity. In Oakland, a community schools strategy emerged from a substantial public engagement campaign after California released the district from state receivership. Today, all Oakland schools are considered community schools, and five common community school systems are in place across the district. First, all schools have a coordination of services team that responds to students’ behavioral and academic needs; they also have attendance teams and the resources necessary to operate them. Second, the district has established processes to assist schools in developing partnerships with community organizations and to help schools secure security clearances for partners and make sure a partner’s focus is well-aligned with a school’s goals. The district also manages transition programs and initiatives to support students and families as they progress between Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) school buildings.51
Finally, there are 16 school-based health centers throughout the school district. Lead agencies, most of which are federally qualified health centers, staff and operate the centers, and they provide medical, dental, and mental health services as well as health education classes.52 A range of staff members at all schools can refer students for health services.
3. Hartford Community Schools: Partnerships for excellence. Education and civic leaders in Hartford, Connecticut, turned to community schools to build equity in the city’s school system. Today, Hartford has six community schools, comprising roughly 14 percent of the total district schools.53 Hartford Community Schools currently use the lead agency model, in which each school partners with a community-based organization that provides and coordinates other services. The initiative currently works with four lead agencies.54
Hartford’s community schools initiative is informed by an extensive theory of change rooted in a holistic framework. The ultimate goal of the initiative is to develop a “sustainable and thriving community” in Hartford, and student success in academic, social, emotional, and health domains are the preconditions for this ultimate goal.55 Across Hartford’s community schools, students and families have access to after-school programming; academic support in reading and math; tutoring programs; mental health services for both students and families; GED and English as a second language (ESL) classes; food assistance; case management services; and home visit supports.56 Hartford Community Schools have raised student achievement, decreased chronic absenteeism, and strengthened parent and family engagement.57
Adopting a community schools strategy
Educators in the three school districts discussed above turned to a community schools strategy in order to address the range of obstacles to student success. After individual sites demonstrated evidence of success, district leadership built system-level structures to support the strategy and developed policies to define and maintain these structures.
Union Public Schools
Educators in Union Public Schools adopted a community schools strategy in response to persistent challenges that arose while serving an increasingly disadvantaged community. Traditionally, Union was a predominantly white, affluent district, but it saw rapid demographic changes throughout the 1990s.58 The share of students in the district eligible for free or reduced-price lunch rose from roughly 10 percent in the 1990s to current levels of around 60 percent.59 In the early 2000s, as the student population continued to change, staff at Roy Clark Elementary School noticed higher rates of students moving away as well as general low academic performance among students and widening gaps between different subgroups.60 Many teachers at the school were requesting transfers to different buildings since students began to require more support than a traditional school or teacher could provide.61 In 2004, teachers and administrators at Clark Elementary met to identify students’ unmet needs and figure out what they as a school community could do to address them.
After talking to parents and looking at student data—including behavior, attendance, test scores, and mobility rates—as well as neighborhood crime rates, school staff identified persistent unmet needs in the areas of health care, after school programming for supervision, and mental health services.62 Shortly after, school staff partnered with the University of Oklahoma to convert the teachers’ lounge into a medical clinic.63 The school also engaged a local behavioral health provider to provide mental health services during the school day.64 The Community Service Council—a research, planning, and action-based organization—was interested in supporting public schools. After attending a conference hosted by the Coalition for Community Schools, it started the Tulsa Area Community School Initiative (TACSI) and began fundraising to hire a coordinator to implement the community schools strategy and manage after-school program offerings.65 School staff, district administrators, and community members saw the impact that the strategy was having as staff at Clark Elementary and other schools began to implement the model. In 2013, the board of education adopted the strategy as part of the district’s strategic plan.66
The community schools strategy informs how the Union Public Schools district functions, and several collaborative leadership structures support this aspect of the district’s work. The district’s mission is for 100 percent of its students to graduate from high school prepared to attend college and/or secure a living-wage job, and it has identified early childhood education, STEM access, college- and career-related programming, and community schools as the strategies to reach this goal.67 As former Union Public Schools Associate Superintendent Kathy Dodd explains, the district’s “mental bandwidth and personnel [are] invested into these strands.”68 At the district level, the associate superintendent and the executive director of elementary education oversee the community schools work, as the schools that have coordinators are elementary schools.69 There is also a district-level community schools coordinator whose efforts are focused primarily on developing and engaging community partners and resource development for the community schools strategy. At the eight Title I schools, coordinators work in partnership with building principals, school staff, and parents to identify families’ needs and secure resources to meet them. Principals understand and value the community schools strategy because it is part of Union’s administrative training and preparation process: All prospective principals must have served as an assistant principal at one of the community schools that has a coordinator.70 Because of the range of services provided, all of the district’s major departments—including transportation, payroll, maintenance, and child nutrition—are involved in the community schools strategy and have adjusted their functioning to support the strategy.71 Sandi Calvin, the district’s executive director of elementary education, says “Here at Union, [a community schools approach] is embedded in the culture of everything we do.”72
Oakland Community Schools
District leaders in Oakland understood that in order for students to thrive academically, the school system would have to address the structural inequities that confront students and their families. OUSD serves a racially and ethnically diverse community with many identified needs. OUSD’s student population is 25.4 percent African American, 13.3 percent Asian, 41.8 percent Latino, 11.4 percent white, and 4 percent multiethnic. More than half of the district’s students—50.3 percent—live in households where English is not the first language, and roughly 1 in 3 are English language learners.73
Over the past century, discriminatory practices, coupled with government policies and practices, fostered the growth of surrounding suburban communities at the expense of cities, disadvantaged nonwhite residents, and these residents’ neighborhoods. Today, the technology economy is reinvigorating Oakland’s economy, but it is also creating challenges with displacement and affordable housing for the very residents that have long suffered intentional disinvestment.74 These unequal patterns of investment in OUSD’s metropolitan area created real challenges for its families, including joblessness, underemployment, and food or housing insecurity. All of these things affect a child’s ability to come to school every day ready to learn.
OUSD began its transition to a full-service community schools district in 2011, when the state returned the district to local control. Then-Superintendent Tony Smith led a community engagement process that consisted of 13 different task forces across multiple domains, involving over 5,000 community members.75 OUSD had already joined other urban districts in California to create an accountability system that measured school performance by indicators beyond test scores, and this work and holistic focus laid the groundwork for a community schools strategy.
As with Union, the community schools strategy strongly informs OUSD’s mission, vision, and operations at nearly all levels of the school system. OUSD’s current strategic plan says that the district seeks to “build a Full Service Community District focused on high academic achievement while serving the whole child, eliminating inequity, and providing each child with excellent teachers, every day.”76 District leaders believe that this will require them to “transform a public education system that reinforces race and class-based fault lines into one that breaks down barriers to achievement.”77
The district created the role of a community schools manager to support the community schools initiative at the school level. Community schools managers are senior administrators that coordinate, oversee, and lead efforts to support school and student needs.78 During the 2017-18 school year, 35 schools had a community schools manager, and the district is planning to have a manager at 39 schools for the 2018-19 year.79
Schools are complex organizations, and the additional functions that a community schools strategy requires complicates operations even further. Distributive leadership—a model in which school leaders share responsibility across several levels of administration, organize work through teams, and foster a sense of collective responsibility—supports the community schools strategy across OUSD.80 In line with this approach, some OUSD principals incorporate culture and climate staff, community schools managers, and even essential outside partners onto leadership teams. Some principals have even built intentional processes or structures, such as parent action teams or parent councils, in an attempt to involve parents in decision-making at the school level.81
At the district level, the Department of Community Schools and Student Services (CSSS) organizes the community schools initiative. District leaders built on what the partnership workgroup from the strategic planning process developed to engage partners at the district level, and a district-level partnership coordinator helps community school managers identify and build relationships with partners in order to fill specific school-level needs.82
District-level administrators support the work happening at the school level by setting minimum expectations for practices and then working collaboratively to build schools’ capacity to adopt them. For instance, the district’s central office scaled a system of behavioral supports rooted in restorative practices districtwide. The district developed the model of trauma-informed, culturally responsive positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS) that it expected to be used systemwide. It then provided schools with training in the models, as well as resources—in the form of full- or part-time restorative coordinators—to help begin its implementation. The district central office also built a leadership framework to teach principals how to lead in the distributive leadership model, provided professional development to train leaders in the framework, and aligned it with the principal evaluation process.83 In addition, the central office offers professional development for community school managers and works with managers and their principals to structure the manager’s work and ensure it is aligned with the school’s goals.84 OUSD also provides schools with resources such as standard memoranda of understanding templates, rubrics to assess relationships with site-level partners, and support hiring community school managers in order to build schools’ capacity to operate in line with a community schools strategy.85
Hartford Community Schools
Education and civic leaders in Hartford, Connecticut, came together around a community schools strategy in order to create more equitable schools. Then-Superintendent of Hartford Public Schools Steven Adamowski saw the value of a community schools strategy and was open to innovation. The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving had already made investments in after-school programming in the area, through its after-school initiative, and the community schools work was built on this foundation. In 2008, leaders from Hartford Public Schools, the city of Hartford, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut formed the School-Community Partnership (SCP) and launched Hartford’s community schools initiative.* In 2012, the SCP assumed a broader agenda and re-named itself the Hartford Partnership for Student Success (HPSS). It has created an infrastructure that includes staff capacities, a shared budget, a governance structure, a memorandum of understanding, Hartford Public Schools board policy, a comprehensive theory of change, a common funding application process, and policies and procedures that ensure continuous improvement. The Children’s Aid National Center for Community Schools supported these stakeholders in developing the initiative.86 Recently the partnership has expanded to include other funders and stakeholders, including The Fund for Greater Hartford.
The theory of change behind Hartford Community Schools is designed to promote a holistic understanding of student success. It outlines the pathways of intermediary conditions that students, parents, schools, the school district, and community members must experience for students to be successful academically, socially, and emotionally—and to be healthy. Schools are tasked with, one, respectfully and appropriately engaging parents and families in student learning; two, ensuring students attend school and understand what they are learning; three, training staff in best behavior management practices; four, maintaining a physical environment conducive to learning; and five, supporting students’ holistic needs. To support schools in performing these five functions, the HPSS supports family engagement work, allocates and leverages resources for community schools, facilitates community-school partnerships, and collects, analyzes, and appropriately shares data.87
The lead agencies funded by HPSS to implement the model support school-level community schools directors who integrate services with the school’s core instructional programs. Community schools directors and the school principal apply to the partnership for funding using a common funding application that is aligned with the community schools initiative’s theory of change and the school district’s strategic plan. The funding application then serves as a basis for a work plan, which describes how the funded work will be executed and is also aligned with a school’s improvement plan.88 Community schools directors are embedded in a school’s leadership team and work closely with school principals.89
The institutions that make up the Hartford Partnership for Student Success collaborate to manage Hartford’s community schools at the systems level. The leadership team—which includes the district superintendent, the mayor, and the presidents of the Hartford Foundation, The Fund for Greater Hartford, and United Way—meet several times per year as champions of the work.90 Senior leaders from each supporting institution also meet on a monthly basis to provide governance, strategic direction and resource development to support the partnership’s infrastructure and the network of schools. The Hartford Foundation supports a director of HPSS, who manages the strategic planning, policy, and governance work to sustain the initiative, and a community schools coordinator, who provides technical assistance and implementation support to the Hartford Community Schools Network—which includes the lead agencies, school administrators, and other partners. The HPSS also convenes the network on a monthly basis to discuss the initiative’s progression and troubleshoot common issues that may arise.91 HPSS facilitates the relationship among schools and their lead agencies, and, through monthly outcomes reports, it monitors the progress of the lead agency’s work plans.92 The work plans are developed based on the needs and goals outlined in each school’s improvement plan.93
Hartford Public Schools supports the community schools initiative. Cabinet-level district staff work in partnership with HPSS, and this helps to align school leadership with the community schools model because these designates oversee district and school-level administrators and may also supervise school principals.94 The district’s current strategic plan, the District Model for Excellence, has family and community partnerships as key priorities.95
Sustaining the work
After leaders in these districts committed to a community schools strategy at the systems level, they developed models to sustain the strategy financially, and policymakers took steps to codify and establish the strategy. This systems-level commitment and leadership supports schools by garnering and maintaining the financial resources they need to sustain the strategy.
Union Public Schools
Union pulls together multiple funding sources to sustain its community schools approach. Initially, the Tulsa Area Community Schools Initiative (TACSI) raised money from corporate partners to fund the coordinator position. After seeing the impact, the district decided to use its ESSA Title I funding to pay for coordinators at its Title I elementary schools.96 Currently, coordinators take on the responsibility for raising money or securing in-kind donations to support partnerships and programming, and the district-level community schools coordinator assists with this.97 Often, community providers are willing to offer programming as long as they have space and a ready audience.98 At the district and school levels, community school coordinators also secure various grants on their own. TACSI, now the Center for Community Schools Strategies, serves as the fiduciary agent and manages grants to support Union’s community schools.99 During the 2017-18 school year, grant awards, corporate donations, and coordinator-driven fundraising amounted to a total of $299,457 to support the OST programming at the Title I eligible sites. In addition to diverse funding sources, strong relationships and partnerships, combined with the strategy included in school board policy, help to sustain Union’s community schools.
Oakland Community Schools
OUSD uses multiple funding sources to support its community schools. The district has successfully applied for and secured a range of government grants—including the Full Service Community Schools and School Climate Transformation grants administered by the U.S. Department of Education; HIV prevention funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and state community school and OST program grants.100 Local private foundations also help finance community schools work, including the San Francisco Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, Atlantic Philanthropies, and Oakland Fund for Children and Youth.101
The collaborative governance between the school and district levels helps sustain the community schools initiative. The arrangement in which the central office garners funding, establishes base-level expectations for programs and practices, and builds schools’ capacity to meet them both allows for innovation at the school level and fits well with Oakland’s culture and tradition of school-level autonomy.102 The district’s general budget supports central office staff who lead and coordinate community schools work.103 Initially, the district is using the various funding sources to support programming and personnel costs for schools, but school leaders are expected to gradually build community schools costs into their budgets over time.104 Oakland’s community schools work has continued through five superintendents over eight years.
Hartford Community Schools
The collaborative governance model of Hartford’s community schools helps sustain the initiative. The institutions that comprise the HPSS contribute toward infrastructure costs to support the initiative, including staffing, evaluation, training, and technical assistance. In 2017-18, the HPSS’ total investment—which includes both the infrastructure budget and grants to lead agencies in support of their designated schools—was approximately $2.5 million. This is not inclusive of other in-kind supports or funds that are leveraged by lead agencies from other grants or partners.105
To support school-level costs, lead agencies both provide and broker services and often leverage additional support through other federal, city, or private funding streams. Medical and mental health services are eligible for third-party reimbursement. Lead agencies also provide in-kind supports—which take into account the time that senior leadership has to attend meetings and spend time on community schools work—and existing agency services, such as financial services or parent trainings.106
The success of the partnership’s initial cohort of community schools is proof of the concept’s potential.107 Now, Hartford Public Schools would like to work toward creating community schools at every school site by 2022 as a part of its strategic plan, the District Model for Excellence.108 Through a tiered approach to partnership practices, the plan to scale the community schools model districtwide is a major accomplishment for Hartford
Evaluating and continuously improving
Data drive the community schools strategy by giving leaders and stakeholders information about initiative strengths and areas for improvement. District officials established systems to collect data to gauge progress on short-term outputs aligned to their theory of change or their district strategic plan. Leaders of the initiatives also partner with outside evaluators to gauge progress toward more long term intended outcomes.
Union Public Schools
In Union Public Schools, data from several sources inform how the various parts of the community schools strategy are working toward goals outlined in the district’s strategic plan. The plan identifies Union’s overall goal as graduating 100 percent of its students college- and career-ready. To that end, principals and coordinators look at student achievement scores in reading and math, as well as improvement in student behavior, participation in STEM programming, surveys to solicit feedback from students and families, and participation rates in the various health services.109 Because each nonprofit or public agency that acts as a provider collects its own data, there are some challenges in creating centralized data repositories. However, because community schools coordinators are school district employees, they can access a range of student data points across the district.110
In addition to these internal metrics, Union partners with researchers from the University of Oklahoma to conduct a culture and climate survey every year. The researchers distribute the survey to students across one grade level—fourth grade—at each elementary school in order to measure students’ opinions on the services provided and the perceived levels of trust between students and school staff.111
An external evaluation of Union’s community schools shows that the strategy is closing the opportunity gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers. In 2010, researchers at the University of Oklahoma compared data for students in community schools supported by TACSI with that of students in non-community schools. First, researchers determined the extent to which a school had fully adopted the strategy by noting evidence of observable structures and norms to support the strategy’s pillars. They then categorized a school’s diffusion of the model as “inquiring,” “emerging,” “mentoring,” or sustaining.”112 Students in “mentoring” and “sustaining” schools had an average math achievement score of 734.7, compared with an average score of 701 for students in non-community schools. Meanwhile, the average reading achievement for students in non-community schools was 701, whereas students in the “mentoring” and “sustaining” community schools had a mean average reading score of 719.82.
The diffusion level of a school’s community schools strategy was a stronger predictor of student achievement than a school’s average poverty level. Low-income students in the most developed community schools had an average math score of 730.42, compared with an average score of 728.08 for non-low-income students in more affluent, non-community schools and an average score of 695.42 for low-income students who attended the more affluent schools. For reading achievement, low-income students in the most developed community schools had an average score of 717.46, compared with an average score of 723.88 for non-low-income students in non-community schools and 694.02 for low-income students in non-community schools. The evaluation concluded, “the evidence suggests that bringing the community school model to scale in TACSI schools has the potential to enhance student achievement and to narrow the achievement gap attributed to poverty.”113
Oakland Community Schools
District leaders measure the performance of the community schools initiative in relation to the broad goals outlined in the strategic plan. OUSD partnered with the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities to develop a strategy map that outlines a logic model connecting community schools work to the strategic plan. The ultimate goals are for students across the city to come to school ready to learn, attend a school with a healthy and supportive environment, and receive effective instruction so that they can graduate “college, career, and community ready.”114 The district-level activities—for example, providing student supports, facilitating partnerships, and supporting collaborative leadership—are intended to realign resources so that schools can offer the support students need to come to school ready to learn and so that teachers can provide high-quality instruction in a climate conducive to learning.115
District leaders use a range of indicators to gauge the success of these processes toward the district’s larger goals. The district-level Department of Research, Assessments, and Data developed more than 50 interactive data dashboards that centralize student, school, and community information in one place. Community members can access facility-planning maps, teacher credential information, and school-level student achievement plans. School district employees have access to even more student-level data points, ranging from a student’s grades, suspensions, or referrals to their preschool experience.116 The district also maintains on-track warning systems and a universal system of student discipline data that shows every instance in which students across the system are removed from their classrooms for disciplinary reasons.117
Initial evaluations show that community schools services are already reaching the students most in need and improving student attendance. In 2016, the Gardner Center evaluated OUSD’s community schools implementation and early impacts on students. The study showed that the district has successfully adopted community schools as a strategy to promote equity, with the district’s most disadvantaged students attending these schools. In 2014, 68 percent of English language learners, 57 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 54 percent of students who were living in foster care, and 68 percent Latino students attended a community school. Nearly 3 in 4 students at community schools—73 percent—participated in some type of OST programming, compared with 31 percent of students in traditional, non-community schools. Participation in OST programming was associated with a one-day increase in a student’s overall attendance rate and a 4 percent decrease in the likelihood of being chronically absent.118
Hartford Community Schools
The Hartford Partnership for Student Success measures the success of the community schools programming—and whether the outputs identified in the initiative’s theory of change are being met—in several ways. The monthly outcomes reports provide school- and systems-level staff with a range of site-specific indicators to gauge the success of programming at school sites, as outlined in the work plans.119 In addition, the monthly provider meetings create an opportunity to share qualitative data about program performance in a more informal setting.120
An independent evaluation shows that Hartford’s initiative has raised student achievement, decreased chronic absenteeism, and improved school climate. In 2016, students who spent three or four consecutive years in community schools after-school programs notably improved their scores on the Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP) test, which measures what students know and informs what they are ready to learn. In reading, students who spent three years in the program improved their scores from 183 in spring 2013 to 200 in spring 2016, while those who spent four years in the program saw their scores increase from 189 to 207.4 during the same period. In math, scores increased from 184 to 203.97 and 191 to 208.29 for each respective group.121 During the same time period, academically at-risk students in 14 of 17 targeted community schools intervention programs improved their MAP scores by 10 points in reading and 12 points in math. Students who were enrolled in these support programs for two and three years improved by 20 points and 15 points in reading, respectively, and 19 points and 16 points in math, respectively, during the same time period.122 Between spring 2015 and spring 2016, MAP scores for English language learners who received targeted community schools services improved 4 raw points at one school and 7 points at another.123 The rates of chronic absenteeism went down in the five community schools that previously had the highest rates of chronic absenteeism. According to survey data, students across Hartford’s community schools more positively perceived their school’s peer climate in 2016 than in 2013.124 Finally, between 2014 and 2016, at four of the seven schools, the number of parents or family members who reported feeling welcomed by the school increased.125