Laura Howard, community schools coordinator in Batesville, AR, has a message for communities throughout her state that want to improve student engagement and learning: The community schools strategy works.
“Community schools enable school districts to work in partnership with surrounding community organizations to ensure that students receive all that is vital to their success,” Howard said. “They represent an intentional effort to increase students’ and families’ access to many different types of support. Even if a school district is already providing extended learning opportunities and other student supports, the community schools approach provides a framework to build on those areas where the district is light and where students would benefit from access to additional resources.”
In 2020, with grant and technical support from The NEA Foundation, the Batesville community embraced the community schools strategy and tailored it to the community’s specific needs. The goal of the strategy is to increase support and opportunities available to all students in this city of approximately 10,0000 people, located 80 miles north of Little Rock. Sixty percent of students in the Batesville School District are eligible to participate in the federal free and reduced-price meal program, and 17% of the students are English language learners. The ethnic and racial makeup of the student population is 62.6% white, 26.5% Hispanic/Latino, 5.7% Black/African American, 1.1% Asian, 0.5% Native American, 0.5% Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 3.4% two or more races.
What are community schools?
Community schools are a powerful and proven strategy for achieving the goal of educational equity. Using schools as hubs, community schools bring educators, families, policymakers, and community partners together to increase the resources, supports, and services available to children, families, and communities. They are designed to ensure that all students, regardless of their ZIP code, can receive an excellent education that cultivates and inspires their hope, skills, and sense of self-efficacy.
—The NEA Foundation
Among rural communities like Batesville, as well as in urban areas nationally, community schools have been proven to represent a powerful strategy for achieving the goal of educational equity. Research indicates that community schools often show improvements in student attendance and behavior, academic outcomes, and college matriculation rates — particularly in places where access to resources historically has been inequitable and where students’ prior success rates pointed to the need for significantly increased support.
Using schools as hubs, community schools bring together educators, families, policymakers, and community partners to increase students,’ families’ and even entire communities’ access to coordinated academic, health and wellness, developmental, cultural, and other resources and opportunities. The impact of community schools has been especially visible during the pandemic. Given their often-extensive partnerships, community schools were able to quickly mobilize and continue educational and other support services for families and neighborhoods hit hardest.
Last year, Arkansas passed legislation recognizing community schools as an evidence-based approach for school improvement. Howard says this has had the effect of building awareness and an understanding of the community schools strategy across the state.
It is important to note that the bill does not require any school or district to implement the community schools approach; nor does it change school governance or structure. Rather, it affirms that community schools create new learning and developmental opportunities for students, and they remove barriers to learning through what commonly are referred to as the schools’ “four pillars of support” for students, schools, and communities.
In Batesville, for instance, here is what the four pillars look like in practice.
Pillar one: integrated student supports
In addition to telemedicine clinics, school-based mental health support, hot spots, and food distribution programs, Batesville’s Coordinated Care Network has become an integral feature of the district’s community schools strategy. Through the network, the district offers families support beyond what an individual school can provide, such as connecting them to medical care or clothing services, and helping out with home or car repairs or even a house fire. When a student’s family faces a particularly daunting challenge, educators coordinate support to meet the request by submitting a request for support. Community partners received text messages and can send donations to the network.
Pillar two: expanded learning time and opportunities
One of Batesville’s many expanded learning programs and opportunities associated with its community schools strategy is Camp Pioneer, a seven-week, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. summer camp for students ages 5–12. Another is the district’s E3 (Experience, Exposure and Excellence) Internship and Apprentice Program, offered in partnership with the National Apprenticeship Training Foundation. E3 provides students at Batesville High School with opportunities to gain paid work experience through local businesses and industries.
Pillar three: family and community engagement
Last year, in addition to a home visiting team and Excel by 8, the statewide early learning program, Batesville created the Pioneer Parent Academy. With the pandemic limiting opportunities to be in school buildings, the district began creating videos to provide useful information to parents and strengthen the school-home connection. Topics included supporting students’ social and emotional development, navigating the college selection and financial aid processes, and instructional resources. The videos are shared through social media, a website, and a notification system for families. Each video offers a Google form so that families can ask follow-up questions.
Pillar four: collaborative leadership and practices
Examples of the school district’s emphasis on collaborative leadership include its robust implementation of the state-required Health and Wellness and Family Engagement committees. Through these committees, family and community members come together with educators and administrators to study district needs assessment data and collaboratively respond to the data, continuously improving the school system’s ability to support students.
What distinguishes a community school from others is its hyper-focus on aligning and integrating these varied supports into a comprehensive and cohesive whole. That alignment is facilitated by the community school coordinator who works closely with school and district administrators and others committed to the complex work of coordinating the contributions of multiple school partners.
Moving from concept to reality
Work to develop community schools in Arkansas began in 2016 when ForwARd Arkansas, a public-private partnership whose mission is to build statewide conditions to prepare students for increased opportunities in life, began convening the Arkansas Coalition for Community Schools in partnership with others such as the Arkansas Education Association.
With funding and technical support from The NEA Foundation to conduct needs assessments, hire community schools coordinators, and learn about best practices in community school development, Arkansas Coalition for Community Schools and community leaders launched Arkansas’ first community schools in Little Rock and Batesville.
Using the community schools framework, Batesville has since developed a districtwide approach to braid together a range of supports and opportunities personalized to students from preschool through high school.
The effort has paid off. As Michael Hester, superintendent of Batesville School District, says, “This model is authentic, and it is engaging our community and parents.”
To learn more about the community schools strategy and how Arkansas schools are using it to serve students, visit https://forwardarkansas.org/blog/closing-gaps-opening-doors/.
To learn more about how the community schools strategy might serve your community, check out https://communityschools.futureforlearning.org/assets/downloads/community-schools-playbook.pdf.
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