Public education is the cornerstone of a healthy society. Yet across the country, communities are being left behind and families are increasingly denied access to the most basic educational opportunities. Urban school districts are suffering from chronic disinvestment as government fails to provide equitable funding. Charter schools are a tool in the education reform toolkit, but have so far failed to provide scalable solutions for improving all public schools.
In New York City, as in many big American cities, inequitable public education is compounded by poverty, housing instability, food deserts, and a lack of quality healthcare and childcare. Without these essential services, economic pressures and generational trauma interfere with learning by creating a barrier to educational success and, ultimately, economic security. Thus, transforming our nation’s schools must be combined with addressing the fundamental inequalities in our society.
Across the country, cities are beginning to meet this challenge by investing in community schools, which operate as full-service, year-round community centers wrapped around cutting-edge public schools, integrated and partnering with existing neighborhood organizations. In addition to traditional and advanced curricular options, community schools offer local communities a full range of arts and athletic programming and tutoring outside of school hours. They even provide on-site healthcare, day care, job training, and food pantries as well as offering employment placement for students, parents, and the wider community.
While maintaining normal instructional hours for teachers, community schools open early and stay open late to accommodate working parents, and they remain open during the summer as neighborhood community centers. Keeping schools open during the evenings, weekends, and summers provides young people with a safe setting to play and hang out under the care and supervision of adults, reducing juvenile delinquency while helping working parents cope with demanding schedules. Community schools can help students better cope with toxic stress, trauma, poverty, and insecurity, and become more engaged in the classroom, while teachers face less resource strain. In fact, a New York City Department of Education review of more than 20 studies about the impact of community schools found they improve teacher attendance and job satisfaction.
At their most extensive, community schools provide these wrap-around services beginning in pre-K all the way through to high school graduation. Counseling and support throughout puts every student on a trajectory to college and a career, with opportunities to earn community college credit before students even graduate. Community schools take a more holistic approach to K-12 education, providing high-quality, student-focused teaching that is supported by a full range of services available to every student, their families, and the entire community.
Community schools are being implemented across the country, now serving over 5 million students. In Cincinnati, 34 of the 55 public schools in the city have been converted to full time, full access Community Learning Centers. These Community Learning Centers provide “recreational, educational, social, health, civic and cultural opportunities for students, families and the community.”
Cincinnati’s Community Learning Centers boast smaller class sizes, engaging, relevant curricula, and health clinics, as well as providing strong social infrastructure for the students attending them through community engagement. Students also enjoy an array of after school activities — sports, crafts, and academic lessons — that safely foster community and broaden students’ horizons. While further research is taking place, it is likely that the Community Learning Centers have played a role in increasing the graduation rate from 52% to 82% in the Cincinnati Public Schools.
The Community Learning Center model has the potential to transform underserved communities in New York City, and Mayor de Blasio has accordingly begun to implement a Community Schools Strategic Plan, establishing 215 Community Schools serving 108,000 students as of 2017. The Mayor’s campaign has relied on federal grants, but there won’t be enough federal money under current programs to convert every public school in New York City to a full-service community school.
To address this funding shortage, we need to establish a program at the federal level that will support and facilitate the conversion of traditional public school systems across the country to the community school model, providing grants to school systems that agree to meet class size and teacher hiring targets. These transformations will take place under the supervision of the current public school administrations and local neighborhood organizations, with federal dollars being directed to meet the needs of specific public school systems. Cities will be able to build community schools where they need it the most, starting with low-performing districts and low-income communities. These investments have proven to be highly efficient, with a recent study indicating that one dollar spent in a NYC Community School can yield between $10.30 and $14.80 in return on investment. In my district, neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, Astoria, and Long Island City have been begging the city for more schools, and new community schools would deliver for these families.
Federal funding exists for a 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, but Trump has tried to abolish it in his budgets. In addition to protecting community school funding from Republican attacks, we need enough federal grant funding such that every single public high school nationwide can become a community school, with a vision to expand the program to public schools at all levels.
A shift towards community schools will help undermine the school-to-prison pipeline by trading in metal detectors and zero-tolerance disciplinary policies for highly trained, well-paid teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians, social workers, and resource coordinators who are prepared to implement community school models and restorative justice practices rather than mete out harsh, outdated modes of punishment. Zero-tolerance school discipline has pushed scores of youth, particularly black and Latino youth, into the criminal justice system. Partnerships with local organizations would allow community schools to better deal with behavior issues, allowing students to stay in school to work through issues, rather than being barred from participation.
Additionally, in the 19 states that still allow corporal punishment in educational settings, physical discipline is used disproportionately on African-American and Latino students — this unjust practice must be abolished. A growing body of research shows that restorative justice methods — peer mediation, restorative circles, and conflict resolution — can help reduce violence, truancy, and dropouts, build empathy and trust, and bolster student voices. With more support staff and counselors as well as extensive afterschool programs, community schools can easily integrate restorative justice methods that produce more positive outcomes for all students.
Neighborhood public schools should be the soul and backbone of communities, providing services and a support system that goes well beyond classroom education. To create a society where one’s zip code does not determine his or her destiny, we must start with creating thousands of equitable community schools that naturally champion restorative justice in the classroom.
Bringing community schools to all of New York City and the entire country can revolutionize our public school system and bring American secondary education into the 21st century. Access to well-funded public education is unequal across our country, and it is imperative that we deliver federal funding to support a educational model with real potential. Providing essential wraparound services at our public schools will improve the quality of education and quality of life available to every American family.