What Are Community Schools?

How Are They Helping Young People and Families in Baltimore?

Posted September 29, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A Black female teacher with textured hair smiles and engages with one young Black student and one young white student.

Baltimore’s chil­dren and youth are curi­ous and eager to learn. But too many are unable to real­ize their full poten­tial in tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools, which have been chron­i­cal­ly under­fund­ed and often lack the resources to meet stu­dents’ learn­ing and devel­op­men­tal needs.

In 2019, only 70% of high school seniors in Bal­ti­more City grad­u­at­ed, a large major­i­ty of high school stu­dents were not read­ing at grade lev­el and chron­ic absen­teeism remained a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge — one that has only been exac­er­bat­ed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Com­mu­ni­ty schools, which take a more holis­tic approach to edu­cat­ing and sup­port­ing young peo­ple and their fam­i­lies, are try­ing to tack­le these bar­ri­ers and help stu­dents stay healthy, thrive social­ly and suc­ceed academically.

The Com­mu­ni­ty School Model

The con­cept of com­mu­ni­ty schools dates back to the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, with edu­ca­tion reformer John Dewey mak­ing the case for schools to serve as social cen­ters” to help address stu­dents’ com­pre­hen­sive needs. As enthu­si­asm for com­mu­ni­ty schools grew, Con­gress estab­lished the 21st Cen­tu­ry Com­mu­ni­ty Learn­ing Cen­ters ini­tia­tive and the Full-Ser­vice Com­mu­ni­ty Schools Pro­gram to fund wrap­around aca­d­e­m­ic, social and health ser­vices for stu­dents and fam­i­ly mem­bers liv­ing in high-pover­ty neighborhoods.

Today, the com­mu­ni­ty school mod­el is wide­ly accept­ed and pro­vides an evi­dence-based frame­work for sup­port­ing children’s com­plete well-being, both inside and beyond the class­room. Com­mu­ni­ty schools gen­er­al­ly part­ner with an out­side enti­ty — such as a local non­prof­it, uni­ver­si­ty pro­gram or the school dis­trict itself — to lead the strat­e­gy. Usu­al­ly, that part­ner will then hire on-site coor­di­na­tors to work with the school’s lead­er­ship team to imple­ment a plan that is devel­oped based on a com­mu­ni­ty needs assess­ment. These assess­ments look at local fac­tors includ­ing access to phys­i­cal and men­tal health care, as well as the avail­abil­i­ty of tutor­ing and oth­er after-school pro­grams for young people. 

Along with build­ing a strong instruc­tion­al pro­gram for all stu­dents, com­mu­ni­ty schools devel­op part­ner­ships with out­side orga­ni­za­tions to pro­vide in-house resources and ser­vices that sup­port young people’s social and emo­tion­al needs, and pro­vide them with aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly enrich­ing activ­i­ties, both after school and in the summer.

Rec­og­niz­ing that edu­ca­tion­al per­for­mance is heav­i­ly influ­enced by the cir­cum­stances stu­dents face at home, com­mu­ni­ty schools pro­vide wrap­around sup­port to fam­i­lies — includ­ing help meet­ing basic needs, such as hous­ing and food, and job place­ment assis­tance. Com­mu­ni­ty schools also focus on devel­op­ing youth lead­ers and engag­ing with fam­i­lies to help them take part in key deci­sion-mak­ing processes.

Com­mu­ni­ty schools tend to stay open longer hours dur­ing the week, as well as on the week­ends and in the sum­mer, so stu­dents and fam­i­lies can access these ser­vices when they need them.

Step­ping Up Dur­ing the Pandemic

Today, the com­mu­ni­ty school mod­el has been embraced by dis­tricts across the coun­try. In Bal­ti­more City, for exam­ple, the num­ber of com­mu­ni­ty schools has jumped from 50 in 2019 to 128 in 2021. Sev­en­ty-sev­en per­cent of dis­trict schools are now con­sid­ered com­mu­ni­ty schools, includ­ing 28 that serve high school stu­dents. The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion has invest­ed in com­mu­ni­ty school pro­grams for many years, includ­ing the Ben­jamin Franklin High School at Masonville Cove and Elev8 Bal­ti­more, as part of its mis­sion to sup­port youth and fam­i­ly well-being in its hometown.

Baltimore’s com­mu­ni­ty school teams have played an impor­tant role in help­ing staff, stu­dents and fam­i­lies cope with the enor­mous changes brought on by the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. In some cas­es, com­mu­ni­ty school coor­di­na­tors worked close­ly with trained coun­selors to address the social and emo­tion­al needs of stu­dents. Oth­er schools stepped in to help stu­dents gain access to com­put­ers and inter­net so kids could take part in online classes.

Com­mu­ni­ty schools in Bal­ti­more have also pro­vid­ed free meals to fam­i­lies dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and per­formed well­ness checks at stu­dents’ homes to ensure they are able to meet basic needs. One com­mu­ni­ty school estab­lished health mar­kets, where fam­i­lies could pick up food, get infor­ma­tion — in mul­ti­ple lan­guages — about health issues, receive help apply­ing for ben­e­fits such as health insur­ance, and get refer­rals to men­tal health and sub­stance abuse treatment.

What’s Ahead for Com­mu­ni­ty Schools

Bal­ti­more City Pub­lic Schools, with sup­port from the Casey Foun­da­tion, Mary­land Out of School Time Net­work and Fam­i­ly League of Bal­ti­more, has hired a con­sul­tant to help devel­op a strate­gic long-term plan for sus­tain­ing and strength­en­ing its com­mu­ni­ty schools. While the key strate­gies will be joint­ly deter­mined by a diverse group of com­mu­ni­ty school stake­hold­ers, the plan like­ly will include rec­om­men­da­tions for track­ing and sup­port­ing stu­dent achieve­ment and reen­gag­ing stu­dents who have stopped attend­ing school. In Bal­ti­more and across Mary­land, com­mu­ni­ty schools in areas with con­cen­trat­ed pover­ty will also be eli­gi­ble for addi­tion­al state fund­ing through a new­ly enact­ed edu­ca­tion reform plan.

Learn more about the com­mu­ni­ty school site at Ben­jamin Franklin High School

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