Blog / Enabling High-Quality Teaching and Learning

Community Schools: Focusing on Learning Inside and Outside the Classroom


Sharon Deich

Posted June 3, 2018

Tag IconCommunity Schools, Deeper Learning, Expanded Learning


For far too many students, factors outside the classroom directly impact their learning each day. That’s why the community school model focuses on wraparound supports for students –  like transportation assistance, counseling, and dental and health care – as a way to eliminate barriers to learning. Community schools help turn down the noise of what’s happening outside class so that students can focus on learning.

I recently attended the Community Schools National Forum where nearly 2,000 people came together to explore the growing number of community schools across the country. I was struck by the many conversations about how supports outside the classroom are key to learning inside the classroom because the two are inextricably connected. But I found myself searching for more conversations about the ways that community school models contribute to academic achievement.

So just how do community schools support deeper learning?  Common sense and a growing body of research show how non-academic supports lead to improvements in attendance, behavior, and ultimately academic outcomes for underserved students in both rural and urban settings, including students with disabilities, low-income students and students of color. The Learning Policy Institute in a review of 143 research studies on community schools found that not only does the approach lead to better outcomes for students from all households, community schools have the biggest impact on low-income students in high-needs schools.

Here are three clear ways that community schools are impacting learning:

  1. Expanding the learning environment and creating meaningful learning opportunities. Successful schools expose students to a curriculum that encourages deep learning by tackling complex problems and collaborating with peers to find solutions. Afterschool and summer programs, often cornerstones of community schools, provide these types of opportunities through programming tied directly to school-day activities and through less structured activities and programming.

In Hartford, Connecticut, where extended learning time is a large part of the community school model, students participating in academically rich after school programs saw big gains in math and reading compared to their peers who didn’t use the programs. These after school programs focus on academics for the first two hours, including targeted tutoring based on each student’s strengths and weaknesses.

  1. Creating a culture of high expectations, trust, and shared responsibility between teachers and students. Expectations help shape both social and academic aspects of learning within a classroom. Studies have shown that when teachers have a higher expectation, students rise to the challenge. The same studies show that it is important for students to feel empowered in the classroom and to have some choice in the content and context of their learning. Effective community school staff work with teachers, other school staff, and community partners to reinforce high expectations for students at every interaction.

At Ben Franklin High School in Baltimore’s industrial Curtis Bay neighborhood, where air quality has long been an issue for residents, students upset that a giant trash incinerator set to open nearby used what they had learned in academic-rich science and government classes to stop the project from moving forward. The four-year campaign not only prevented more air pollution in the neighborhood, but it also garnered a Goldman Environmental Prize for student leader Destiny Watford.

  1. Fostering strong relationships with families and communities. In community schools, school leaders share authority with teachers, students, parents and with a broader set of community partners. This helps students in many ways. First, everyone is clear about expectations on issues from homework to behavior and consistency breeds success. Second, a wider set of relationships give students additional access to social and cultural capital and prepare them to be engaged community members. Expanded relationships also bring additional resources—people, time and money—into schools. Finally, strong relationships with families and community partners help schools to reflect community cultures and practices. Research shows that these connections  enhance motivation and participation at school.

At Wyoming Elementary in Wyoming, Minnesota – a town of about 7,800 – students interact with community members at school regularly, from learning fire safety with the Wyoming Fire Department to taking walking field trips to the local bank and library. These community relationships are the heart of the school and create excitement about learning.

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