As a community school practitioner and advocate for the past 30 years, I didn’t think I would live to see the day when the U. S. Secretary of Education would announce the federal government’s support for a major Full-Service Community Schools Initiative. But it happened—and that event was no fluke.
In this blog post, I will offer a set of reflections on the key events that led Secretary Miguel Cardona, in September of 2021, to use his bully pulpit and explain that “this program recognizes the role of schools as centers of our communities and neighborhoods, and funds efforts to identify and integrate a wide range of community-based resources needed to support students and their families, expand learning opportunities for students and parents alike, support collaborative leadership and practices, and promote the family and community engagement that can help ensure student success.”
The French writer Victor Hugo observed that “there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Cardona’s vision—one of schools that are organized to promote student success through active family engagement and strategic partnerships with community resources—represents a dramatically different viewpoint about the role and responsibility of schools from that advanced by the 2002 federal policy known as No Child Left Behind.
Several factors set the stage for this new paradigm. The first is federal policy. Rather than using NCLB’s narrow accountability measures to define student success, the 2015 federal education legislation known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) called for multiple success measures, including academic and non-academic results. As states struggled to break out of the NCLB mode, many named reducing chronic absence as a non-academic result—and then found themselves dealing head-on with causes of chronic absence that included family instability and unmet health and mental health issues. Just as ESSA was pushing states, districts, and schools in the direction of broader “whole child” results, the COVID pandemic hit the entire system in March of 2020. This event exposed a wide variety of unmet needs and persistent inequities—including differential access to technology, good nutrition, stable housing, and affordable health and mental health care.
Meanwhile, a “quiet revolution” was occurring across the country—a grassroots movement that saw over 100 districts and some 8,000-10,000 schools adopting community schools as a preferred reform strategy. While local in nature, these reforms found support from a handful of national organizations, including the Netter Center for Community Partnerships (founded in 1992), the National Center for Community Schools (1994), and the Coalition for Community Schools (1998). These national groups offered professional development, capacity building, networking, and advocacy. Their efforts relied primarily on philanthropic rather than public dollars and documented slow, steady growth over three decades.
Then, in 2017, the Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center published a landmark study entitled Community Schools as an Effective School Improvement Strategy: A Review of the Evidence. Based on their examination of 143 evaluations of community schools across the country, the research team observed: “We conclude that well-implemented community schools lead to improvements in student and school outcomes and contribute to meeting the educational needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools… Ample evidence is available to inform and guide policymakers, educators, and advocates interested in advancing community schools, and sufficient research exists to meet the ESSA standard for an evidence-based intervention.” Among its many contributions to the growth and credibility of the community school strategy was this study’s articulation of four “pillars” or core components identified in sites deemed effective: integrated student supports; expanded learning time and opportunities; family and community engagement; and collaborative leadership and practice.
It is no coincidence that Secretary Cardona cited these four pillars in his September 2021 testimony. Rather, it is a sign that the results of the LPI-NEPC study—which documented evidence drawn from three decades of local innovation, creativity, and problem-solving—had found their way into the pipeline of public policy ideas. Victor Hugo would surely have approved.
The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.
Dr. Jane Quinn (she/her) is a social worker and youth worker with over five decades of professional experience, including direct service with children and families, program development, fundraising, grantmaking, research, and advocacy. From 2000 through 2018, she served as the vice president for community schools at Children’s Aid, where she directed the National Center for Community Schools. Prior to that, she served as program director for the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund; directed a national study of youth organizations for the Carnegie Corporation of New York; and served as program director for Girls Clubs of America. Jane has a master’s in social work from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in urban education from the City University of New York.