A Renewed Push for Community Schools

The State of California was once the nation’s leading investor in community schools. Unfortunately that all changed in the early 2000’s when budget cuts gutted the key state program funding this innovative approach to school reform.

Today though, given the passage of Proposition 30, which will raise upwards of $6 billion annually for California’s education system, and the improvement in the state’s budget outlook, the state is primed to renew its leadership role in the expansion of community schools.

Community schools, or full-service schools, are schools that partner with local community-based organizations and service providers to offer health, mental health, academic and social services to students and families, using the school as the hub. While models can vary from site to site, many are supported by a community school coordinator working to align and integrate the work of service providers with each other and with the work of the on-site educators.

In creating a central location where families can access programs, this model increases the likelihood that those who need and qualify for services will utilize them. Additionally students with unique academic, health and mental health needs, such as foster children, can benefit by having services available at school, increasing access and reducing disruptions to their academic schedules.

Research has demonstrated that community schools improve student academic performance, attendance, graduation and discipline. Studies have also revealed that community schools in California produced greater parent involvement and reduced unmet basic good and health needs. Ultimately, improving these conditions for vulnerable families can help reduce child maltreatment and neglect.

Through the 1991 Healthy Start Support Services for Children Act, the
California Department of Education (CDE) has provided grants to almost 1,500 communities across the state. These funds have helped more than

3,000 schools partner with community-based organizations in providing services to more than two million children and family members.

Unfortunately, although independent research showed extensive benefits to the program, Healthy Start was gutted in the early 2000’s and California has since failed to devote meaningful funding to community schools.

Currently schools and districts interested in building community schools must rely largely on federal or private money. The San Francisco Unified School District, (SF USD), for example, utilized a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) to fund new initiatives at a number of schools in low-income neighborhoods. However, with SIG funds expiring at the end of this year, schools are searching for ways to continue supporting this work.

Last year the Mission Promise Neighborhood, a collaboration between SF USD and the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), was awarded a five-year, $30 million grant through the federal Promise Neighborhoods program to continue to implement the community schools model previously funded through the SIG grant in this heavily Latino neighborhood.

While this is a tremendous success story for the Mission, the Promise Neighborhoods program is limited and will only support a small number of initiatives around the country. Most California schools will find it difficult keep their community school investments funded over the long-term without state funding.

Other organizations have had to utilize private funding. Para Los Niños (PLN), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, operates three charter schools and six early education centers in L.A. As part of their “whole child” concept of development, PLN provides a range of support services for children and families at school sites including mental health, family preservation, and a parent advocate program that helps families navigate the system and access benefits for which they may qualify.

Among the innovative approaches employed by PLN to improve a child’s academic outcomes are a unique education model targeted to children who have experienced trauma and reading interventions engaging the entire family in devising and implementing strategies to improve a child’s reading ability.

While public programs may fund some of these individual services, they do not support the crux of the community school model: service coordination at the school. Para Los Niños received state tobacco tax funding from First 5 L.A. to develop their parent engagement program in a nearby community, but it took a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant to allow them to replicate it at their school sites.

So PLN is very much an outlier in both its ability to access private funding to integrate its programs and in the child development, child welfare, and mental health practice expertise it possesses in-house. Without renewed state financial support, very few schools will be able to follow their lead.

Word out of Sacramento is that a few key state legislators, including Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Carol Liu, are beginning to lay the groundwork for a push for increased state support for community schools. Let’s hope they are successful, because it is long overdue for the state to reengage in this approach to school reform that shows so much promise for vulnerable children and families.

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About Waln Brown, Ph.D. 22 Articles
Dr. Waln Brown spent his adolescence in an orphanage, detention center, state hospital and juvenile reformatory and is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation. Dr. John Seita experienced 15 foster care placements and is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University.