Our Education System is Broken. University-Assisted Community Schools Can Help.


Emily McReynolds (PPS ‘25)

Emily McReynolds (PPS ‘25)

Approximately 20% of children in Durham County experience food insecurity. This means that 1 out of 5 children do not have access to food to fulfill their most basic needs. 31,667 students in Durham Public Schools qualify for free or reduced lunch, illustrating the need for schools to address this issue. However, our public schools are underfunded and under supported, resulting in many children’s needs being overlooked.

Education is a pillar to our society — unless we want this pillar crumbling beneath, reform is necessary.

Currently, North Carolina ranks near the bottom of funding public education. Blair Reeves, Carolina Forward Executive Director, states: “North Carolina’s public education system is being starved of resources in a long-term kind of way.” Paired with increasing poverty levels and widening disparities, our public schools are in dire need of increased support now, more than ever.

The University-Assisted Community Schools (UACS) model aims to bridge the gap between public schools and the surrounding community. The UACS model connects universities and other agencies with local public schools to 1) address the needs of each school 2) provide resources and 3) establish an innovative educational model that is supported by the community. According to the Community Schools Playbook, “The most comprehensive community schools are academic and social centers, where educators, families, and neighbors come together to support innovative learning.”

The four pillars of the UACS model — Integrated Student Supports, Active Family and Community Engagement, Enriched Learning Time, and Collaborative Leadership — illustrate the emphasis on a well-rounded and dynamic learning experience for all students.

The UACS model eliminates any barriers that students may face, while tailoring the model to the specific needs of each community. Additionally, UACS play a pivotal role in connecting the community and its public schools — together, community members can shape its schools and foster close relationships with educators and students.

On January 18th of this year, the U.S. Department of Education announced $63 million in grants to support the expansion of 42 community schools across eight states, marking the largest number of grantees in the history of the grant program. This furthers the Biden administration’s goal of doubling the amount of “full-service community schools” across the nation.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona states, “This work [UACS] continues today because we know that students learn best when there is a comprehensive and holistic approach to meeting their needs.”

Furthermore, studies show that the UACS model works.

Across the four pillars, 143 studies show strong academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes in fully implemented UACS. According to the Learning Policy Institute, graduation rates increased by 8.6% over three years and students scored 30 and 19 points higher on standardized tests for mathematics and reading, respectively. Students’ families have shared that they feel a stronger sense of trust with educators and appreciate being welcomed into the conversation of their child’s education.

At the University of Pennsylvania, the benchmark institution for UACS, students can enroll in 75 interdisciplinary Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) courses that include a service-learning component with partnered community schools. These ABCS range from UPenn students teaching robotics, facilitating COVID-19 booster shot clinics, and staffing afterschool programs for students. Notably, the ABCS where UPenn students taught a biology course for 10th graders led to a 17% increase on final exam scores.

In 2018, the community school strategy was launched at Club Boulevard and Lakewood Elementary schools in Durham County. Although they are not fully implemented UACS, the benefits from this strategy are evident. From 2018 to 2020 the “NC Teacher Working Conditions Survey” reflected educators’ positive sentiments towards the model, while the teacher turnover rate decreased by 8%.

UACS help all involved parties. University students can extend their impact beyond their college campus, while public school students explore diverse opportunities that are offered to them.

I believe that Duke University and North Carolina Central University should support local public schools to establish UACS and transform the educational landscape in Durham. Currently, Duke University and North Carolina Central University faculty and students, are motivated to establish community schools. The Bass Connections Research Team is conducting an asset and needs assessment of the Durham community and researching the available resources both universities have to offer, in hopes of establishing a partnership with public schools.

A UACS partnership, supported by Duke and NCCU, would amplify both universities’ impact and enrich the public-school students’ educational experiences.

It’s our turn to advocate for public schools, and UACS is an innovative and effective way to achieve true reform in our community.

Emily McReynolds is from Greensboro, North Carolina and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.