Flexible, Customized Schooling Could be Remedy for Education Inequality

February 26, 2021 by Kate Michael
John B. King Jr., president and CEO of The Education Trust. He served as the 10th United States Secretary of Education from 2016 to 2017 under President Barack Obama.

WASHINGTON — COVID has taken a toll on student learning and wellbeing, but a coalition of community schools advocates believes they have the answer to correcting academic learning loss and supporting the holistic development of young people. They say their next-generation community schooling lays the foundation for a new way of educating — one that is flexible, customized to local needs, and equitable, and that brings together educators, students, communities, and families to support every student every day.

Estimates of academic learning loss due to COVID are running up to six months and hitting subjects like mathematics and science particularly hard. Families are battling with non-working technology, with many living in low-income communities virtually shut out of learning due to a lack of digital technology. And young people are increasingly reporting feelings of unhappiness and depression, missing friends, teachers, and the ability to learn with direct interaction. 

Community schools advocates say the effort and energy of a wide range of participants outside the school building itself, like families, employers, and even food banks, can be powerful education allies to interrupt the growing education inequality.

The non-profit Brookings Institution Center for Universal Education recently released a task force report on “Addressing education inequality with next-generation community schools: A blueprint for mayors, states, and the Biden-Harris Administration,” and examined what it would take to invest in and scale a next generation of community schools to neighborhoods across America.

“Community schools are both a place and an approach to doing schooling… they are not just a program that you bring in,” explained Jeannie Oakes, presidential professor emeritus in Educational Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

She offered that the synergism of the four pillars of community schools — integrated student support, expanded and enriched learning time, active family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership — create more positive school climates. “And research finds increased student success and reduced gaps.” 

In brief, community schools have an integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement. These schools offer a personalized curriculum that emphasizes real-world learning and community problem-solving. And used as community hubs, community schools bring together many partners to offer a range of support and opportunities to children, youth, families, and communities at large.

There are several reasons why former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. believes the push for community schools “meets the moment we are in,” including their centering on inequity, addressing those hardest hit by COVID, and paving the way for better inclusivity.

“We have to acknowledge that many of the equity challenges we face now were there before COVID,” King said. “[But community schools] help address the socio-emotional and mental health toll… and leverage resources to help families emerge from crisis.” 

“This is really a call to partnership… to listening. There’s a lot at stake for the country,” he said.

According to Oakes, the concept of community schools is a 100-year-old strategy born out of research on learning environments. A school-site leadership team, often comprised of educators, parents, and community partners, works together to leverage their shared physical and human assets to help kids succeed.

A community school coordinator is responsible for building relationships and engagement both inside and outside of the classroom. Success is measured by both academic and non-academic factors.

“During a traditional day, students can identify real-world issues affecting their neighborhoods and connect what’s taught in the classroom to community needs,” she said. 

In 2018, there were roughly 5,000 community schools in the United States, and advocates are pushing for the community schools approach to be scaled nationally. 

“In this moment, we’re not just reading the research. We’re figuring out how to implement on a wider scale,” said Rey Saldaña, Communities in Schools president and CEO. “It’s not programs that are changing students’ lives; it’s relationships.”

Advocates acknowledge, however, that some hurdles remain to implementing the community schools approach nationwide. Alongside a change in mindset and the logistics of coordination, a lack of resources tops the list.

“Schools serving highest-need students often have the lowest resources,” lamented King. “And school funding has been too reliant on property taxes.”

“Giving a little start-up grant to a school for a year to think they can continue to provide this comprehensive approach is flawed,” added Oakes. 

And Saldaña: “Building relationships is not something you do on a three-year funding cycle.” 

Still, the task force’s recommendations suggest that what seems like a heavy lift could actually start small and grow. The report claims that with a focus on targeted districts, community schools can still meet a large number of young people with the largest unmet needs.

According to the Center for Universal Education co-director Rebecca Winthrop, “You don’t have to boil the ocean. There are places to focus and make a larger difference.” 

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