Full-service community schools 101

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At a recent Minneapolis school board candidate forum, hosted by the Coalition for Quality Schools, several candidates committed to the “full-service community schools” model. That phrase gets a lot of use, it risks becoming a vague buzzword. For context, the only Minnesota schools currently recognized by the Coalition for Community Schools are the Brooklyn Center school district and Saint Paul’s Achievement Plus schools.

So what constitutes a true full-service community school? Here’s a starting point, with much more at the Coalition for Community Schools web site.

1) Keep the buildings open.
Schools need to be available to the community during more than the school day, and for more than school-related activities like athletics or concerts. Offering a range of services to students, families, and community members outside normal school hours, and even on the weekends, greatly increases the usefulness of these public buildings.

2) Locate services on-site.
Offering a variety of services — both academic and not — during these additional hours is critical. Co-locating services on school grounds also increases service providers’ abilities to coordinate services and provide quick and easy referrals.

2a) Match services to community needs and strengths.
It’s common sense that services offered through the school should align with community needs, but it’s also important to identify community strengths and build on those in the schools.

2b) Plan to increase health services.
One of the most common needs is easy access to on-site health care. Consider a hypothetical student with needs outside the purview of the school nurse. If there’s a clinic built into the school, the nurse can immediately refer the child. Even with a community clinic a few blocks away, co-locating at the school is a much more direct route to access. (If, like Brooklyn Center, you also make health services available to staff, the district can wind up saving money through better health insurance deals and lower substitute costs.)

3) Invite, recruit, and sustain community partnerships.
Critical to all of this is the school’s ongoing work to build partnerships in the community and with service providers. This opens the door to increased community input in the school, as well as shared responsibility for the well-being of students, the school, and the community as a whole.

It’s far too common for great educational ideas to transform into meaningless catchprases. The full realization of the community schools model requires a broad, sustained commitment to several key ideas. The preceding list is a good starting point for interested school and district leaders, with much more to come if we want schools to be truly transformative.