by Ben Katz
As evidence has piled up against the “test and punish” model of the No Child Left Behind era as a way to close academic gaps between needy and well-off students, the concept of full-service community schools has finally begun to draw the attention many educators say it deserves.
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In 2015, 10 states introduced community schools legislation, but Minnesota was the only one to pass it.
Education Minnesota, which represents 70,000 educators in the state, set the stage to pass legislation creating a grant program for “Full-Service” Community Schools. Educators worked for two years to organize and educate local leaders and school personnel with the Community School Model, which is a cost-effective method of closing achievement gaps.
Community Schools differ from traditional schools by meeting student and community needs through an array of additional services that might include extra tutoring, a community pantry, health services, extracurricular activities, and English language classes for parents as determined by local parents, students, teachers, and education organizations.
Anna Brelje, Education Minnesota’s Community Engagement Coordinator, says the Community School Model actually works, “because it is sustainable, respects parents and teachers, and empowers them to improve their schools and thereby the education of their children.”
Research into the effectiveness of community schools shows a wide range of positive effects ranging from better reading scores and lower chronic absenteeism to improved student behavior and greater parent engagement. A study on Minnesota’s Brooklyn Center (est. 2009) found that student enrollment in “college or university increased from 61% in 2009 to 78% in 2010.” Another study found that community schools improved homework completion and overall grades and even found that “the longer a student is placed in a community school environment, the better his/her grades, attendance, and graduation probabilities are.”
A Boston College study about Boston’s “City Connects” Program showed similar results, with students attending more classes and improved academics. But one of the most remarkable statistics was the dropout rate, which dropped nearly 50 percent among students attending community schools.
Brelje says the first step to passing a community schools policy is “to educate members within the union or state organization about what the community school model is and why it works; and then get connected with other advocates, networks and educational unions that are learning about best practices within community schools.”
Education Minnesota built a knowledge base among its own members through workshops, meetings, and a convention focusing on what community schools are and the positive effects that community schools can have. Now, Education Minnesota and partner groups are working to ensure these important programs are funded by maintaining communication with members, political lobbying, and building public support around the possibilities of shrinking the opportunity gap.
Brelje points out that there are “national resources are available once you have the internal (community based) knowledge and commitment to the Community School Model.”
The “Every Student Succeeds Act,” signed into law by President Obama on December 10th, includes an important amendment. Just as Minnesota has a law opening the door to allocate funds for community schools, now the federal government has one too.
The stage is set for community schools to take their place in the cultural and educational world of our students, educators, parents, and communities across the country .