Open letter to the incoming Biden administration on Next Generation Community Schools

children having fun at a table.
Editor's note:

The Task Force on Next Generation Community Schools submits the below open letter to the incoming Biden administration on expanding community schools.

We, the undersigned members of the Brookings Institution’s Task Force on Next Generation Community Schools, applaud President-elect Biden’s stated commitment to expanding community schools. We believe that with the right policy actions, this work could be scaled to a next generation of community schools, serving millions of students nationwide, which can address the impact of COVID-19 and combat educational inequity long term.

In community schools, every family and community member is an asset that can be leveraged to build on students’ strengths so that every student can learn, thrive, and reach their full potential. The Community School Coordinator partners closely with the principal, school staff, students, and families, and plays a central role in harnessing community resources to support whole child development.

Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center conducted a review of the research on community schools and their implementation in a variety of settings across the country—from urban to suburban to rural. They determined that while community schools look a little different in each community due to local context, there are four core community school pillars that drive student outcomes:

  • Expanded and enriched learning time. This includes after-school and summer programs, as well as enriching the curriculum through culturally relevant, real-world learning opportunities.
  • Active family and community engagement. This includes both service provision and meaningful partnership with parents, family, and community members to support children’s learning.
  • Collaborative leadership and practices. This includes the coordination of community school services, as well as site-based, cross-stakeholder leadership teams and teacher learning communities.
  • Integrated student supports. This includes supports such as mental and physical health care, nutrition support, and housing assistance.

The synergy and interaction among the four pillars create the necessary conditions for learning both in and beyond the classroom.

We recommend the scaling of community schools as a central strategy in both the recovery from COVID-19 and in building back better and more inclusive school systems. The unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on our students, families, and communities requires a powerful response. We must seize the moment and emerge from the pandemic with a new and better way of schoolingone that meets student and family needs and addresses systemic failures to provide equitable educational opportunities for all.

  • Proven solution. Community schools are a proven solution for coordinating services so that the right students have access to the right services at the right time. Effective community schools begin with understanding community assets and designing support specific to the needs of children and families. And, community schools are proving their mettle during COVID-19. By leveraging relationships with students, families, and community partners, they have quickly coordinated local resources in creative ways to meet unprecedented student and family needs. Serving as neighborhood hubs, community schools have addressed emergent challenges, including the digital divide, hunger, health, trauma, and homelessness.
  • The building blocks for scaling exist. There is a groundswell of support that stands ready to help scale a community schooling approach. A diverse national network composed of advocacy groups, such as the Coalition for Community Schools, teachers’ unions, parent networks, expanded learning providers, higher education institutions, and capacity-building intermediaries, supports policy development and provides technical assistance. A shared commitment to all children thriving and to strengthening communities brings all of these groups together. A research network, focused on marshaling evidence and setting standards, supports quality implementation across the country. There are numerous examples—both urban and rural—of successful district, regional, and state community school initiatives (New Mexico, Cincinnati, Oakland, and New York).

Recommendations for a concerted national effort to scale community schools

By creating a shared understanding of the community schools strategy among funders, policymakers, and practitioners and intentionally coordinating, aligning, and leveraging resources and policies around a common vision, we can build a concerted national effort to scale community schools. Community schools have an essential role in creating healthy rural, suburban, and urban communities where everyone fully belongs. We provide the below recommendations as a starting point to do just that:

Immediate executive actions

  1. We support the recommendation made by Nemours Children’s Health System, Mental Health America, First Focus on Children, Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Forum for Youth Investment, and others to establish a White House Office of Children and Youth to organize cross-departmental and interagency efforts to ensure rapid recovery from COVID-19 and address long-standing impacts of structural inequality and systematic racism. In the first 90 days of the Biden-Harris administration, this Office would:
  • Establish a White House Commission on Next Generation Community Schools to spearhead the expansion of community schools during the first four years of the Biden-Harris administration by:

(1) studying the scale and scope of learning loss related to the pandemic;

(2) convening the nation’s governors at the White House to spur state-level policy and funding activity in support of community school expansion in their respective states;

(3) leading, together with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a mayoral campaign to establish and spread a next generation of community schools across the country, starting with the communities most impacted by COVID-19;

(4) collaborating with state and local children’s cabinets to ensure successful adoption of the strategy;

(5) empowering youth leaders to help shape a national community schools agenda; and

(6) amplifying successful strategies at the level of the Local Education Agency (LEA) for community school implementation and braiding funding.

  • Reduce barriers associated with braiding and blending funding from multiple federal departments, agencies, and programs that support community schools by issuing an executive order to direct agencies to:
  • Identify and use common definitions, metrics (e.g., GPRA requirements), and priorities across discretionary grant programs issued across federal departments and agencies that relate to school health, school mental health, school safety, and other issues central to the community schools framework.
  • Issue guidance on combining funds across formula and discretionary grant programs that support healthy whole child outcomes in the context of community schools.
  • Leverage a common application form across multiple grant programs to reduce the burdens associated with preparing and submitting grant proposals.
  1. Use guidance and regulations from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to advance a next generation of community schools through:
  • Updating and issuing new nonregulatory guidance on the use of ESSA funds (particularly for Title I-A, Title I-D, Title IV-A, and Title IV-B) that includes a specific focus on the community schools strategy.
  • Establishing a community schools technical assistance center through the Department of Education focused on supporting local and state education agencies, as well as their governmental (e.g., Departments of Health) and nongovernmental (e.g., community nonprofits) partners to collect quality data and establish community schools partnerships.

COVID-19 Relief

  1. Prioritize community schools as a critical COVID-19 recovery strategy in communities and an eligible use of federal COVID-19 relief dollars earmarked for schools in communities most impacted by the pandemic.
  2. Provide start-up funding for state- and local-level children’s cabinets that facilitate the integration and coordination of cross-sector resources for whole-child supports.
  3. Expand AmeriCorps to meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of students, particularly those in the schools most impacted by COVID-19.
  4. Address food insecurity. Extend waivers allowing universal school meals and extend Pandemic-EBT SNAP benefits for school age children through at least September 2022.
  5. Build incentives for community schools as part of infrastructure revitalization. Encourage the co-location of critical community services, including technical certification/job training programs and social service agencies (e.g., community health and mental health providers), at schools as part of funding to build a more modern and sustainable community infrastructure.

Long-term strategies

  1. Create incentives for districts that develop the community school strategy as part of their Title I plans.
  2. Extend the use of funds from the Student Success and Academic Enrichment grant program (Title IV Part-A) to support hiring staff critical to the functioning of community schools. Such staff include, but are not limited to, community school coordinators, social workers, guidance counselors, family engagement specialists, positive behavior and intervention supports specialists, and out-of-school time program directors.
  3. Establish next generation community school national and regional technical assistance centers to build the professional capacity of community school leaders and to create national peer learning communities.
  4. Reinvigorate and expand the Promise Neighborhood Grants Program, center it around the community school strategy, and focus funding on the 500 neighborhoods most impacted by COVID-19 as a way to activate and connect local community resources to invigorate building back better.
  5. Make community schools a priority area for a rapid-cycle learning agenda and 10-year improvement science research and development effort, as well as a focus area for Institute of Educational Science (IES) and Education and Innovation (EIR) grants.

The undersigned members of the Task Force on Next Generation Community Schools include:

Robert Balfanz, Director, Everyone Graduates Center, Johns Hopkins University

Richard R. Buery Jr., President, Achievement First

Hedy Chang, Executive Director, Attendance Works

Leslie Cornfeld, President and CEO, National Education Equity Lab

Abe Fernández, Vice President of Collective Impact and Director, National Center for Community Schools, Children’s Aid

Kristen Harper (Task Force Vice Chair), Director of Policy and Outreach, Child Trends

Reuben Jacobson, Senior Professorial Lecturer and Director of the Education Policy and Leadership Program, American University

Sarah Jonas (Task Force Chair), Executive Director, Office of Community Schools, New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE)

John King Jr., President and CEO, The Education Trust

Kristin Anderson Moore, Senior Scholar and Past President, Child Trends

Jose Muñoz, Director, Coalition for Community Schools, Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL)

Jeannie Oakes, Presidential Professor Emeritus in Educational Equity, University of California, Los Angeles; Senior Fellow in Residence, Learning Policy Institute (LPI)

Andre Perry, Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution

Sarah Peterson, Director of Research and Development, Office of Community Schools, New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE)

Gema Quetzal, Next Generation Coalition Co-Chair, Coalition for Community Schools, Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL)

Jane Quinn, Director 2000-2018, National Center for Community Schools, Children’s Aid

Todd Rogers, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Student Social Support R&D Lab, Harvard University

Ian Rosenblum, Executive Director, The Education Trust-New York

Robert Runcie, Superintendent, Broward County Public Schools

Rey Saldaña, President and CEO, Communities in Schools

Scott Sargrad, Vice President of K-12 Education Policy, Center for American Progress (CAP)

Kyle Serrette, Senior Policy Analyst, National Education Association (NEA)

Tony Smith, Founder and CEO, Whyspeople

Rebecca Winthrop (Task Force Vice Chair), Senior Fellow and Co-Director, Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution

Dr. Brian T. Woods, Superintendent, Northside Independent School District

Sheena Wright, President and CEO, United Way of New York City