Two kinds of community schools
By James H. Lytle on Jul 9, 2015 11:30 AM
During their primary campaigns, Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kenney and City Council President Darrell Clarke both said community schools were part of their vision for improving public schooling. Their frequent allusions to this school model suggest that community schools will gain more attention as the November election nears and might even become a key part of Clarke’s and presumptive Mayor Kenney's education agenda in 2016.
For Kenney, "community schools" are educational facilities that house schools but also offer things like medical care, social services, and community educational resources. They create a single point of contact that can keep students from missing school for things like doctor’s appointments and can reach families where they are.
Clarke shares that view. He sees schools as community centers, where kids and families can receive health care, psychological counseling, employment training, and referrals to other public assistance. These centers could be in or near schools and would host a multidisciplinary team of service providers, including social workers, alcohol and drug counselors, and other health professionals. They would also provide other services like tax education, GED preparation and college-readiness programs.
The concept of a community school, however, has a range of interpretations in both policy and practice. More broadly, community schools typically fall under two types of approaches: “communities in schools” and “communities and schools.” Understanding the differences can help clarify and extend Kenney and Clarke's vision for how this approach might play out in Philadelphia.
Communities in schools
One well-known coordinating organization for community schools is Communities In Schools. The model they support puts site coordinators inside schools to assess student needs and provide them with support in and out of the classroom.
"We partner with local businesses, social service agencies, health care providers and volunteers. Communities In Schools surrounds students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life,” states their website.
The Philadelphia affiliate of Communities In Schools expands on this approach. Its goal is to “create communities within our schools to address the whole child ... by having a positive impact on their values, self-esteem, job skills, and life focus."
Communities and schools
A somewhat different way to approach the school-and-community relationship emphasizes a school's role in connecting with its surrounding community. Here, a school can serve its community by developing learning opportunities for students. That could mean creating an organic garden in a vacant lot, volunteering at a hospital, or taking courses at a local college. The intent is to help students develop a sense of responsibility, learn self-management, and engage in learning activities beyond school walls.
In Philadelphia, several charter school organizations -- including ASPIRA, Esperanza, and Universal Companies -- consider community involvement as a key part of their educational programs. Universal’s stated goal is to “create a comprehensive educational model that attempts to address the achievement gap, time gap, and build a family of schools who serve as the 'hub' of their communities.”
Similarly, major universities have the resources and motive to do community development and to offer both in-school and on-campus services and opportunities to students and families. Recognizing that, Clarke and Kenney have consulted with the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships to learn about Penn’s role in West Philadelphia, particularly its longstanding relationship with several schools in its community.
In their view, Penn and other universities like Drexel and Temple have a rich range of resources. Undergraduates can tutor, student nurses can provide health care, faculty members can assist with research projects, and so on. That can mean providing curriculum and professional development, student academic support and enrichment, school-based health clinics, and afterschool, recess, and summer programs, and a multitude of other possibilities. It can also mean engaging university students and faculty in learning with and from their communities.
The costs and benefits of community schools
For a resource-poor school district like Philadelphia, the community schools approach would benefit the schools by using the extraordinary higher-education, health care, corporate, and cultural resources the city has as supplements to students' schooling. To be clear, the goal is to supplement school staff and resources, not supplant them or weaken arguments for more school funding.
The community school concept may be attractive, but making it happen requires careful planning and coordination. At one level are procedural considerations: background checks for volunteers, insurance, coordination, scheduling, off-site supervision, and related matters. An especially important consideration is how to make it possible for the school principal or designated coordinator to have adequate time to forge and manage relationships. Then there is the larger question of benefit – are all parties clear about what the costs and benefits of their relationship will be?
At the heart of the "communities in schools" vs. "communities and schools" distinction is the question of how each approach helps students. The "in schools" approach focuses on addressing needs by responding with the proper services. The "and schools" approach focuses on service to the community; it sees community involvement as a social good and focuses on opportunities that go beyond school walls: internships, dual enrollment, work study, and other activities that broaden students’ experiences. Both obviously have value, and ideally both are available to students and their families.
James H. Lytle is Practice Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a former District administrator, and a former superintendent in Trenton.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.