Community Schools Can Make a Difference for LGBTQ Youth

Carver Elementary School students play a welcome beat for U.S. Secretary of Education John King, right, during his visit to their after school tutoring program in Indianola, Mississippi, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.

This column contains corrections.

Community schools leverage partnerships between government agencies and community-based service providers to improve the educational achievement of students by caring for the overall well-being of students and their families. The network of service providers that operate and work with community schools varies depending on the unique needs of each community. Core wraparound services could include health care, culturally specific case management, family engagement, food security programs, and any number of programs that reduce barriers to academic success. Services are centrally located within each school and managed by a site coordinator who integrates the resources available through service providers.

Benefits of community schools

Research on community schools has shown that this model is successful in improving learning outcomes for students. Many schools find their students’ academic performance, graduation rate, and attendance increase after implementing the community school model. In New York City, for example, implementing the community school model in the Harlem Children’s Zone improved student performance. When the Harlem Children’s Zone was created in 2001, 53 percent of 4-year-old children in the school district were “delayed” or “very delayed” in school readiness. By the end of the year, that number was cut in half. By 2009, 100 percent of third-graders were at or above grade level for math. After Lane Middle School in Southeast Portland switched to a community school model, the school improved its reading proficiency rate from 40 percent to 75 percent over six years.

These improvements are due to the reduction of barriers to learning and amplify the impact of great teaching. Community schools can provide health care services that improve attendance and performance in the classroom when students are not absent due to illness. With the addition of mental health services, one school reduced suspensions from 464 to 163 per year. In one district, providing English language classes for parents dramatically increased attendance of parent-teacher conferences. Other forms of parental engagement, such as encouraging volunteering in the classroom, are associated with improvements in student performance.

Support for community schools

Resources for community schools have expanded over the last decade, which has incentivized adoption of the model by localities across the country. The U.S. Department of Education currently allocates $6 million in grants through the Full Service Community School Program. These funds benefit 12 organizations in 10 states across the country. For example, Buffalo, New York’s, Closing the Gap community school system was able to expand services to two more schools with funding from the department.
Additional resources to establish new and strengthen existing community schools are available through nonprofit coalitions and technical assistance providers. Communities in Schools, or CIS, is one example that currently serves 1.5 million students at 2,300 sites. The Children’s Aid Society that is housed in the National Center for Community Schools operates more than 20 community schools in New York City in partnership with the city’s Department of Education. The Coalition for Community Schools is a national umbrella organization consisting of local, state, and national partners who support the community school model.

How community schools can better serve LGBTQ students

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, or LGBTQ, youth experience discrimination that leads to poor education, health, and economic outcomes. Their safety is often at risk due to violence, bullying, and harassment experienced while in school. In many schools, hostile environments push LGBTQ students out of the classroom. LGBTQ students are among the most frequently suspended and expelled groups of students. LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience homelessness and poverty. LGBTQ youth are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system. Additionally, LGB youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide compared to their non-LGBTQ peers, and 45 percent of transgender people ages 18 to 24 have attempted suicide. Providing access to a menu of culturally appropriate services that address these challenges is essential to promoting the long-term well-being and success of LGBTQ students.

Community schools have the potential to help meet the unique challenges of LGBTQ youth in localities across the country. For example, research indicates that gay-straight alliances, or GSAs, are associated with lower rates of bullying of LGBTQ students and improvements in overall school climate. Community Schools and Student Services of the Oakland Unified School District in California organized a second annual GSA Day in 2016 where GSA groups from middle and high schools across the district gathered to make connections and share resources. The New York City Community Schools Initiative strategic plan requires partner organizations to develop strategies to support students who identify as LGBTQ. CIS reports that affiliates in Austin, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Miami, Florida; and southern Nevada are among localities offering services specific to LGBTQ youth.

Case study: Multnomah County, Oregon, Schools Uniting Neighborhoods Community Schools

The Schools Uniting Neighborhoods, or SUN, Community Schools Program of Multnomah County, Oregon, operates more than 80 service sites at schools within the Portland metro area. Its core mission is to leverage community resources to provide strong instructional programs; educational support and skill development for youth and adults; family involvement and support; social, health, and mental health resources; and family and community events. SUN schools partner with numerous culturally specific organizations to provide culturally competent services to diverse students that include those who identify as LGBTQ. SUN school site coordinators are available to all students to either provide or make referrals to all services available within the SUN service system.

SUN schools have contracted with the Sexual & Gender Minority Youth Resource Center, or SMYRC, for more than a decade to provide culturally competent services to students and school personnel. The center, which now operates as a program of New Avenues for Youth, offers case management, counseling, support groups, and community building activities for LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 23. It recently opened Unity House, which provides housing for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. In 2016, SMYRC conducted anti-bullying training for 246 teachers and staff in SUN schools. SMYRC also provides support to the more than 20 GSAs within SUN schools, which allow students to build community and develop programming to make schools more inclusive.*

The community schools model is effective in improving the lives of the most vulnerable youth, particularly LGBTQ students who face discrimination in every dimension of life. Localities that do not currently have a community schools should consider designing initiatives that address the needs of vulnerable youth and their families, and LGBTQ youth in particular. Existing community school programs should partner with LGBTQ community centers and other organizations to support GSAs and ensure LGBTQ youth have access to services that will remove barriers to their ability to thrive.

Aaron Ridings is Associate Director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. Daniel Clark is an Intern for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center.

*Correction, December 20, 2016: This column has been corrected to accurately state the full name of SMYRC and the ages the organization serves. The correct full name is the Sexual & Gender Minority Youth Resource Center, and it serves youth aged 13 to 23. This column has also been updated to clarify that, while SMYRC has been around for more than a decade, it only recently became a program under New Avenues for Youth.