When community schools meet the basic needs of students, education can improve

“The suspension rate was high. MLK unfortunately had the highest rate of disciplinary referrals in the entire district,” said Leslie Hu, MLK’s community schools coordinator who added that standardized test scores were really low. The principal wanted to incorporate PBL, but knew that students were confused by the lack of basic needs that could not be met at home. Shifting to a community school model helped students with needs like food and medical care, and teachers like Found were able to invest more time in developing their teaching practices.

Schools are typically not designed to offer more than instruction, but by addressing basic needs, they are finding that students learn better. The Cincinnati Public Schools Learning Center, the Oakland Unified School District and even the LeBron James I Promise School in Akron, Ohio are community schools that lend a supportive framework to closing achievement gaps and improving student outcomes.

“The community school approach is where you take the resources that you think kids and families need to be really successful. And you bring all those resources into the school building,” said Dr. Angela Diaz, director of the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center.

For example, a community school can help families access health and safety needs by having a medical clinic, dental services, food program and counseling services on campus.

Some schools, such as Buena Vista Horace Mann (BVHM) in San Francisco, have gone so far as to build shelters for homeless families on campus. Other schools offering shelters include the Sugar Hill Project in New York and the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District.

Community school coordinators find organizations that offer what their families need and partner with them to gain access to professionals and funding. MLK, starts with school meals.

Food and nutrition services

Before MLK became a community school, teachers extended themselves to help students struggling with trauma or food insecurity. “As a teacher, you’re really in a position to recognize a lot of the needs of your students,” says Founds. “You read assignments where it reveals that the student is really struggling with their mental health or you know the child always comes in hungry.” Found would go to Costco to buy granola bars so she would have them on hand for hungry students. When it’s up to teachers to fill in the blanks for students, it leads to burnout and takes attention away from educators.

About 30 million children have relied on the free and reduced lunch programs to help families since the 1940s. Food insecurity affects 10% of children in the United States, resulting in lower academic performance and a higher likelihood of behavior problems. When MLK transitioned to a community school model, they expanded student and family support beyond free and reduced lunch to include breakfast and all-day meals in the school program.

Over the past six years, MLK has developed more than 50 partnerships, including organizations like Huckleberry Youth that provide case workers that help families gain access to affordable food. “Our teachers no longer need to be social workers. They don’t need to keep their own socks in the closet to give to young people because we have programs for that,” school coordinator Hu told me.

Health and wellness services

MLK students distributed a comprehensive health assessment survey with questions about how much sleep they got and how often they exercised. The survey found that many of their students were under stress. “We knew that their health affects their learning, their ability to concentrate [and] Retain information,” Hu said.

Assessment results were shared school-wide and led MLK to partner with the Beacon Organization to support student mental health and wellness. Beacon hosts Community Day to celebrate student achievements. They also provided push-in services. “If a student is being extended in class instead of being pulled out or allowing them to escalate and disrupt learning, you make a call and then a support member comes into the classroom to help mitigate that. students,” said Founds, so she can continue to attend class and other students can learn as well.

“Students are getting better service,” Founds said. “It’s freeing up time and mental capacity for me to think, ‘OK, what are the best projects that are going to engage students and how can I deliver a differentiated curriculum to support a broad range of students?'” In an election year, she has a Assign students to research local representatives or ballot measures to increase voter participation in school-wide events. “We were able to invite local candidates, local supervisors, and many of them showed up that election night. And then it just goes from ‘Oh, you’ve done your report,’ to ‘Oh, you’re actually meeting people who might be your future representatives.’

Student sits at a desk with multicolored pamphlets next to a sign that says
An MLK student distributes “Yes on Proposition D” pamphlets (Courtesy of Jennifer Founds)

Using the community school model goes hand-in-hand with PBL, Founds said. “One supports the other.” Students had better academic performance with their math and English language arts test scores, which improved by nine percent and were ahead of the rest of the district. And MLK’s teacher turnover, up from 61% in previous years, has improved

Accommodation and shelter

Each community school is different because the services they offer depend on the needs of the community. Buena Vista Horace Mann is a K-8 Spanish immersion school community in San Francisco. With a large population of recent immigrants and low-income students, BVHM uses the community school model to get them the food, healthcare and mental health services they need. They already had partnerships with community mental health organizations and local food banks, but noticed that housing was an issue for many students’ families.

“We were seeing a ton of our families in shelters or homeless or in cars,” said community school coordinator Nick Chandler, who recalled one family asking him, “Can we stay here in your building tonight?”

1 in 5 students in California has experienced homelessness, and the number is rising due to unemployment in the wake of the pandemic. Latino immigrants experience higher risks of housing instability and more barriers to getting help, including language barriers, according to a MacArthur Foundation report. Local shelters did not have enough beds for families, and many Latino caregivers did not feel comfortable going to the shelter.

Students experiencing homelessness are more likely to be chronically absent and less likely to complete high school. “If we don’t address these underlying challenges, the brain isn’t going to absorb the world’s best teacher of information,” Chandler said. So Chandler and school leaders proposed turning their school gym into an emergency shelter for the family.

Four years ago they held school-wide meetings to discuss the possibility before launching the service. Latinos and low-income families, who had not had much say before, supported the shelter, while wealthier families, who were often white, were against it. “The power dynamic that exists within the community mirrors the national power dynamic,” Chandler said of the community meeting. “People with privilege tend to control and influence and sway. It upsets that balance.”

“There was a stigma about who homeless people were. When you think of a homeless person, you think of addiction or violence. We didn’t want this for our children,” Maria Rodriguez said in Spanish. She has three children who attend BVHM.

To address concerns, BVHM has created a website listing every question asked at the meeting and how they were answered. About 200 questions were shared and answered in English and Spanish. In response to questions about sanitation, BVHM assured families that the gym would be cleaned every morning. Those concerned about safety were told there would be a security guard on duty when the shelter was open. Parents were also assured that running the venue would not cost the school extra money.

“The more meetings that were held, the more we learned about the rules of the place and how the shelter would support families. “I’m calmer when they say they clean it after the families stay at night and the kids can use the gym again during the day,” Rodriguez said in Spanish.

BVHM decided to convert their gym into a shelter that operates from 7 pm to 7 am and works in partnership with a local housing agency. “Our family has a place where they can rest so that when [students] Come to school, we know they have a place to sleep,” Chandler said. A total of 20 families are able to stay in the shelter. Families must have a student enrolled in the San Francisco Unified School District. This is the third year of their “Stay Over” shelter program.

Some families left the school after the shelter opened. “Our demographics have changed, so we have fewer white students now than we did five years ago. And yet our enrollment has maintained and grown,” Chandler said.

For the parents who stayed, this process of negotiating the shelter built trust between the family and the school. Parents felt that BVHM was committed to filling the void and becoming a safety net when families navigated difficult times.

“When I think about a community school, I don’t think every community school needs a homeless shelter,” Chandler said. “I think the willingness to open up that space and let families pinpoint the needs of the community and use that information to advocate for resources is a community school.”

From free and reduced lunch to bus after school programs, schools have always stepped up to support families who need extra help. Community schools and their focus on the whole child are the next step in expanding schools to meet the needs of families. Children need to attend school, creating an accessible space to provide resources for their caregivers while continuing to get students what they need to learn.