10 recommendations for superintendents to transform education systems into community school districts

Kids walking to school
Editor's note:

This post is part of the “Community Schools Leader Insights” series in which Brookings is sharing the experiences of people in the thick of community schools and who are making strides toward student success through the unique strengths of the local community. This post summarizes the new report “Starting and sustaining community schools: 10 tips for district leaders.”

In school districts and neighborhoods across the country, we find ourselves struggling to find answers that will help us meet the goals that we have for our children and communities. Superintendents are looking for resources, consistent staffing, and effective learning opportunities. Teachers are looking for help, trust, and respect. Families and students are looking for consistency, excellence, and belonging. Communities are looking for safety, equity, and prosperity.

Too often, we are looking for simple, technical solutions to complex, adaptive problems—and we aren’t looking together. We cannot just focus on academics, we cannot just attend to health, and we cannot just address out of school time. Our students are whole children, and they require comprehensive, multifaceted strategies that can help them thrive. Our educators, from school staff to teachers to the district superintendent, are whole people who require understanding and support.

Superintendents have a substantial role to play in creating, maintaining, deepening, and sustaining community school initiatives in every part of the country.

The pandemic has only exacerbated our existing challenges, As one article put it, “The pandemic has smacked American students back to the last century in math and reading achievement.” Schools have reported an increase in students seeking mental health services, and only 56 percent say they could provide effective mental health services to students.

When we look  for solutions, what we should see is that there are tremendous resources in every community. Our neighbors, families, nonprofits, local faith and higher education institutions, and youth represent our strength. When used creatively, collaboratively, and consistently, districts and partners can mobilize resources and enrichment opportunities, they can strengthen learning and provide integrated supports, and they can help the whole child succeed.

District leaders and their community partners have been turning to community school initiatives as a whole-system approach for over 20 years–and the idea is accelerating, significantly.

Now, advocates have championed successful policies that help fund and create community schools in states such as New York, Maryland, Vermont, New Mexico, and California. The U.S. Congress has supported a federal Full-Service Community Schools grant program since 2008 that has provided 84 awards across 26 states. In addition to policy wins, local organizations and organizers continue to campaign for and build community school initiatives. All this means that many more district leaders are involved in starting and sustaining community school initiatives.

What do these district leaders and the community members they work with need to know about the important role they play in the community schools strategy? What must they do to successfully turn a community school vision into action?

Tips for creating community school districts

To answer these questions, I spoke with district superintendents, their leadership teams, and experts in the community schools field in order to understand why and how they created and sustain community school districts.

In a new resource released by the Brookings Institution and The School Superintendents Association, “Starting and sustaining community schools: 10 tips for district leaders, these leaders who have a track record of creating sustainable community school initiatives share key lessons for their peers.

This resource is for the growing number of superintendents taking leadership of the community schools strategy. It is also for the community partners that are working with superintendents who want to better understand the superintendent’s role in transforming systems into community school districts.

The leaders I spoke with recommend that district leaders:

  • Recognize that the challenges students and families face show up in school.
  • Develop a shared vision and strategy for community schools.
  • Mobilize community stakeholders and resources to share responsibility for student success.
  • Align the community school strategy with the district’s strategic plan.
  • Transform the district’s culture through dedicated staffing, organizational change, and building knowledge and capacity for implementation.
  • Help principals become community school champions.
  • Communicate the vision for and commitment to community schools.
  • Support sustainable financing through aligning and leveraging resources.
  • Evaluate and continuously improve community school approaches, systems, and engagement.
  • Sustain the initiative through policy that codifies the community schools approach.

In addition to these tips, there are new resources emerging to support leaders and help grow successful community schools. As a member of the Brookings Task Force on Next Generation Community Schools, I have joined other experts and organizations to align frameworks and create new resources, such as this one. The task force will soon be releasing updated resources on costing and capacity building, as well as a new framework. Each of these resources will help advance community schools that respond to the academic and other challenges our students and communities face.

Superintendents have a substantial role to play in creating, maintaining, deepening, and sustaining community school initiatives in every part of the country. They are not just adding a program, they are mobilizing each part of the district and the community to transform the way the district operates to create something new. This isn’t always easy to accomplish. Yet, we cannot wait–we need to find answers, together. Looking to peers who have created community school districts is a good place to start.