Why Community Schools Are The Key To Our Future

We’ve got the whole world in our school.

By: Kyle Serrette

Illustrations by Julianna Brion.

John H. Reagan High School is located in northeast Austin. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Reagan’s student body became increasingly poor as middle-class families left the area. In 2003, a student was stabbed to death by her former boyfriend in a school hallway. The incident made headlines and scared away neighborhood families. Students left Reagan in droves. Enrollment dropped from more than 2,000 students to a new low of 600, and the graduation rate hovered just below 50 percent. In 2008, the district threatened to close Reagan.

In reaction, a committee of parents, teachers, and students, brought together by Austin Voices for Education and Youth, formulated a plan to turn Reagan into a community school. The district accepted their plan.

Today, five years after adopting the community school strategy, Reagan is graduating 85 percent of its students, enrollment has more than doubled, and a new early college program has made it possible for Reagan’s students to earn two years of college credits from a nearby community college while still attending high school.

Reagan High School, or any community school for that matter, doesn’t immediately look different than any other school — that is, until you spend some time there.

At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is a big place, with almost 50 million primary and secondary students attending more than 98,000 public schools in 14,000 school districts. Many things unite our vastly different 50 states, but our approach to education is not one of them.

It is fair to say that the United States does not have one approach to education. Rather, it has thousands of pedagogical approaches that fit into roughly the same structure (elementary, middle, high school).

If the universe of poorly funded public schools in the United States were the night sky on a clear night, you would find some really bright stars and a lot of jarring empty space. The problem with a scattershot approach to education in such a vast country is that there’s no effective way to share successful practices.

Thousands of schools in poor neighborhoods fail generation after generation, while other schools with the same demographics and challenges have found ways to succeed and break the cycle of failure. Today, if you are a business, nonprofit, or any type of entity, it is quite hard to figure out if a school wants help or what kind of help it needs. Most schools lack a clear analysis of what they need to help improve outcomes, and if they do have a clear understanding of needs, most lack a point person to manage partnerships.

Unfortunately, there is also no sound system for sharing successful strategies from schools that are getting it right. This is analogous to a heart surgeon developing a revolutionary life-saving approach and only telling people she bumped into about it. Yet that’s basically how our education system works in the United States.


While poor schools have taken many paths to transform themselves into successful schools, one particular path has worked again and again. There are 5.1 million children enrolled in approximately 5,000 community schools in the United States, and those numbers are growing quickly. In New York, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio promised to create 100 community schools. As mayor, he has fulfilled that campaign promise and recently announced a plan to grow that number to 200 by 2017.

Philadelphia mayoral candidate Jim Kenney announced a plan to open 25 new community schools during his first term. This past December, Ras Baraka, mayor of Newark, announced a plan to scale up community schools with a tentative commitment of $12.5 million from the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the organization created to manage the $100 million that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated to the city in 2010 to reform the city’s floundering school system.

Community schools are not a new concept. John Rogers, community schools historian at UCLA, tells us they have existed at least since the turn of the 20th century in many forms, but always with the same objective of addressing inequities at both the school and community levels. Jane Addams’s Hull House in the 1890s is an early example:

“There were kindergarten classes in the morning, club meetings for older children in the afternoon, and for adults in the evening more clubs or courses in what became virtually a night school. The first facility added to Hull House was an art gallery, the second a public kitchen; then came a coffee house, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a cooperative boarding club for girls, a book bindery, an art studio, a music school, a drama group, a circulating library, an employment bureau, and a labor museum.


Long before Reagan became a community school, it housed a daycare for the babies of student mothers so they could continue their education. That daycare still exists today with approximately 20 babies enrolled, but there’s more. When school social workers noticed that student moms at Reagan were missing classes to take their babies to doctor appointments, the social workers applied for and won a grant to have a mobile clinic visit the campus once a week. Now student moms can make appointments for their babies to receive checkups without leaving school. Reagan also allows parents to eat lunch with their babies in the daycare and attend parenting classes. Students in Reagan’s Pregnant and Parenting Teen Program now have a remarkable 100 percent graduation rate.

Discipline problems historically have plagued Reagan. Students were frequently suspended, and chronic attendance issues landed students and families in court, which then imposed fines that families could not afford. Dropout rates were high.

Today, a full-time bilingual social worker works to diagnose chronic attendance problems and connects students and their families with supports, with service referrals rather than fines. A student-led youth court has been developed in partnership with the University of Texas–Austin Law School. The youth court and a restorative justice program together have dramatically reduced discipline issues. Today, Reagan is a top Title I high school in Austin.

While there is a fair amount of variability within schools that have implemented this strategy, thousands of schools have gotten it just right. We wanted to understand what distinguished them from the others.

Here’s what we found those schools shared in their strategic plans: 1) culturally relevant and engaging curricula; 2) an emphasis on high-quality teaching, not high-stakes testing; 3) wraparound supports, such as health care and social and emotional services; 4) positive discipline practices, such as restorative justice; 5) parent and community engagement; and 6) inclusive school leadership committed to making the transformational community school strategy integral to the school’s mandate and functioning.

It all seems intuitive. Schools that form strategic partnerships with businesses, nonprofits, local and federal governments, universities, hospitals, and other organizations to meet core unmet needs are usually successful over time. In most strapped schools, a principal doesn’t have time to find the appropriate partners, let alone conduct an analysis of needs. This leaves schools with a random partner strategy, which is no strategy at all. The community school strategy puts one person in charge of determining the school’s ever-evolving needs. The cost incurred to create this position and the work it supports — around $150,000 — pays for itself and then some.


Nine years ago, when Baltimore’s Wolfe Street Academy elementary school became a community school, 90 percent of its students were living in poverty, 60 percent spoke a language other than English at home, and its mobility rate was high at 46.6 (less than half of its students attended for more than three years). Wolfe Street Academy ranked 77th in the district in academic measures, and only half its children reached reading proficiency by fifth grade. It had no library and only sporadic parent or community engagement.

Today, Wolfe Street ranks second in the city academically, its mobility rate has dropped to 8.8 percent, 95 percent of fifth-grade students are reading proficient, and its average daily attendance rate is 95 percent. It has a library, a book club, and volunteer help from a retired librarian. Forty parents attend a morning meeting every day before school while the students eat breakfast. They share school and community news, both good and bad. This transformation at Wolfe Street has taken place even as more students living in poverty have arrived and as the number of students speaking a language other than English in the home has grown.

During one of Wolfe Street’s annual needs assessments, it determined that its curriculum was not dynamic enough to give the school a chance to achieve its academic goals. In response, Wolfe Street formed a partnership with the Baltimore Curriculum Project, which now provides staff with professional development and supports the school with teacher recruitment and retention.

When the assessment revealed that many of its students had never visited a dentist the school partnered with the University of Maryland Dental School to hold free oral health screenings for all the students. A partnership was formed as well with the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work as a way to respond to what the assessment revealed about the daily impact of trauma on their students’ lives. Now licensed social workers and multiple social work interns are available and offer case management and referrals.

We are in the enviable position of knowing what works. And now, with the recent passage of the federal education legislation Every Student Succeeds Act, funds are explicitly available for the essential elements of community schools, such as community school coordinators, needs assessments, and after-school programming.


A United States where every public school is a community school would be a very different place — it would be a school with the community inside it. Your bank, local architect, grocery store, hospital, and other institutions we associate with being part of the broader community outside our schools would be deeply integrated into them. The tax code could be designed to accelerate and incentivize partnerships with schools. The lines between the inside and outside of schools would blur.

And if you imagine a United States in 2050 where all 98,000 schools have a clear sense of their individual needs and are able to communicate these needs effectively to potential partners, this might be a game changer.

With a new granular understanding of every school’s needs, we could scale partnerships and connect schools with similar needs or pair schools that could benefit from each other’s strengths. We could analyze needs and assess intervention strategies between schools and across districts, cities, states, and the nation.

If you can imagine the world back when it wasn’t connected by the internet and experience again how everything changed when we finally were connected, that is the level shift our schools would experience if every school were a community school. A networked school system would exist, and our atomized system of disparate schools would fade away as a relic of the past.

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