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The history of inequity and insufficient investment. And then, two years ago, the first signs of a global outbreak. Leaders and their communities were not faced with these issues alone. They had the plan to bring their communities together by establishing partnerships based on trust and years of cooperation.

Community schools collaborate with local organisations, families, and other institutions to enhance student outcomes by integrating student support services with the active involvement of the community and family and leadership strategies that are collaborative and have a broader and more improved learning time.

A strategy like this requires planning and targeted leadership. Superintendents have assumed unanticipated leadership roles under challenging conditions in the last two years. They were the decision-makers for public health, were involved in political fights over masking and school openings as well as involved the community in the decision-making process of how to use recovery funds to address the most particular requirements and dealing with staffing issues–all while executing the tasks they were prepared for including budgeting, instructional decision-making and establishing an office team in the central area. The magnitude and complexity of the present situation have impacted many superintendents. Administrators from the most populated districts have left, and many others are contemplating a decision to change.

However, superintendents are aware of the necessity of taking an integrated approach to recovery and comprehending students’ real-world needs, both inside and outside the school. Based on an analysis of a poll of superintendents about American Rescue Plan funding, the School Superintendents Association (AASA) discovered that superintendents had identified the top priorities for funding, which included “expanding all-encompassing child support services that include emotional, social, physical, mental and development and health.” The report states that the organisation believes that districts will focus on the whole child investment “well beyond the American Rescue PlanARP’s] timeline for expenditures that runs through 2024.”

The investment requires an organising strategy.

The need for a community STRATEGY FOR SCHOOLS

Although the programs and services designed to aid the whole child are a natural reaction to the uncertain and inequitable effects of COVID-19, many administrators need to be equipped to engage families and partners — the community’s strength–to cooperate systematically.

Last year, AASA brought together several AASA members for the Annual National Conference on Education to discuss community schools. In particular, superintendents discussed the basics they knew about the approach, their communities’ long-term, and emerging demands, and how they could create lasting and effective district-wide initiatives that meet their objectives.

The superintendents were from small districts, with student numbers between 38,000 and less than 600. Most superintendents came from smaller districts – usually with less than 10,000 students. They were often excluded from policy discussions.

No matter the size or location, regardless of size or geography, the superintendents talked about common challenges to address issues of housing insecurity, hunger, the opioid epidemic, the pandemic, and the ongoing effects of racism and poverty that are systemic. They sought to understand strategic partnerships that can draw on new and existing sources.

Every district described some form of cooperation with their communities, including churches, nonprofits, or even organizations like United Way (though these types of organizations were typically not as numerous in the smaller districts), which could link them to other sources. One superintendent stated, “I’ve witnessed partnerships differing across districts. I can assure you that every district has its unique method of establishing partnerships.” Superintendents generally wanted to understand the most effective transformational practices in schools in the community.

Some topics and questions that were common emerged from the discussion.

  • Uncertainty regarding the purpose of community education and the goals they pursue. Superintendents were aware of the role of community schools but needed clarification about what they meant. They cited a variety of variations within their states regarding how community schools are perceived. What are the goals of community schools? Integrating services, improving academics, or both?
  • The role of schools is changing. Superintendents have noted that the spread of the outbreak and other developments in society has led them to think about the roles of schools. One of the leaders suggested that schools should be redesigned and said, “We have to redefine what schools are.” With the increased demand in our communities, from health to food insecurity–should schools be the primary place where services are provided? Are they equipped for the new roles? Who are the partners needed, and how do they get them organized?
  • Alignment with district and leadership goals. Naturally, district leaders sought to ensure that all partners were aligned with their district’s goals. What are the best strategies for alignment between district offices and the community?
  • What strategies do districts employ to mobilize partners? Leaders, particularly those in districts with smaller populations, expressed concerns about the system-level infrastructure, which includes the human capital to support community schools. What resources, financial supports, and models are available for teachers to take a look at?

There is a historical opportunity for district officials to establish and maintain community schools at the system scale. Community schools are becoming recognized as a transformative strategy, and funding has increased. It is believed that the White House and the U.S. Department of Education continue to support community schools. The new $75 million federal funds for the community schools grant program was recently approved by Congress states such as California, Maryland, and New York have statewide community school grants (with California starting a groundbreaking $3 billion grant program). Community schools can be funded using the massive funding for recovery created by Congress.

Superintendents require a plan to arrange resources, connect with the community, make use of existing assets and meet the needs of their students and the community. They said that they are interested in understanding the concept of community schools and how to use them, along with other funding opportunities to improve the educational system. This is why working with the Community Schools Forward task force will provide this kind of guidance and is viewed as a great resource by superintendents across the country.