Stages of development in transforming schools into community schools

Children eat their lunch in the school cafeteria.

Community schools—an education reform strategy—have been described as another way of thinking and acting and a new way of “doing” school. This type of school transformation is complex, involves change that can be uncomfortable, and doesn’t happen overnight.

Starting in the 1990s, the Children’s Aid National Center for Community Schools reflected on the development of their own community schools and, in working with other efforts nationally, observed that community school systems and processes become more refined and stronger over time. As community schools across the country accumulate their own experiences, lessons learned, and wise practices, the National Center continues to think about how community school strategies evolve and mature through “stages of development.”

Community Schools Forward’s Stages of Development Tool

A working group of the Community Schools Forward task force—a project led by the Center for Universal Education at Brookings Institution, the Children’s Aid National Center for Community Schools, the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leaderships, and the Learning Policy Institute—revisited the National Center’s 2017 stages of community schools’ development tool to reflect on the realities across implementation periods. The result is an updated tool that is aligned with the task force’s Essentials for Community School Transformation. In this framework, key community school practice areas include; family and youth engagement, expanded, enriched learning opportunities, cultivating a culture of belonging, collaborative leadership, shared power and voice, integrated systems of support, and rigorous, community-connected classroom instruction.

With the support of technical assistance, local community school expertise, and capacity development, the Stages of Development Tool is designed to guide and transform a local school and its surrounding community into a community school.

The tool helps practitioners to determine and plan concrete steps toward this transformation. Prior to using this tool, we recommend schools and their partners meet conditions of readiness.  These are optimal foundational conditions for implementation, such as promoting an asset-based mindset, a willingness to learn, and a general understanding of the strategy and how roles in the school may shift.

Once a school begins this process, we generally observe three stages of development: emerging, maturing, and transforming. In the emerging stage, community school advocates, school leaders, and partners begin to organize people, data, and community resources, and identify needs and community assets, including local leaders and partners. In the maturing stage, families, youth, leaders, and partners co-construct and align initiatives with vision and goals, assess impact, and formalize structures for continuous improvement. In transforming, the community school creates sustainable practices, relationships, and policies with the entire school community, and braiding and blending funds supports growth and long-term planning for collective impact. Community schools are a long-term strategy, thus, schools should not expect to move through the stages each year or even in a predictable or scheduled way. A school may be “transforming” in some areas and “emerging” in others. Likewise, contextual realities, such as leadership changes or funding shifts, may disrupt a developmental process.

Purpose of the Stages of Development Tool

A detailed overview of the Stages of Development Tool can be found on the National Center’s website. This resource includes information about each stage, key characteristics, processes, and task, as well as some of the benchmarks that practitioners might look to as part of regular self-assessment. Such descriptions can help policymakers, funders, and practitioners understand the longer-term trajectory of implementation, key drivers, and activities, and solidify their commitment toward progress and impact.

Alignment with implementation research 

In addition to reflecting decades of practitioner experience, the Stages of Development Tool also draws upon the work of the National Implementation Research Network (NIRN). Similar to the community school practice of bringing together key stakeholders, NIRN recommends an inclusive implementation team with internal and external partners representing key constituents who are both part of—and impacted by—a school or common issue. NIRN urges teams to constantly re-evaluate who is involved in decision making and who else should be engaged, while driving change. Community school teams also continuously revisit and refine their work–examining the “who, what, how, when.” For example, an assets and needs assessment process is often led by an ad hoc group of key stakeholders that develops into a more permanent structure—often called an advisory council, community school team, or CS committee. Key practices of implementation science are also reflected in community school development. Specifically, plan-do-study-act (PDSA) cycles of inquiry or results-oriented cycles of inquiry (ROCI) can be used to guide the identification of community school priorities and how programs and strategies are assessed and refined.

Next steps  

The Community Schools Forward task force has helped develop the Essentials for Community School Transformation, the Stages of Development Tool, and additional resources to support and align the growing national movement for community schools, marked by increased national and state-based interest and investment in the strategy. However, in the same way co-creation of a community school leads to new opportunities, ideas and partnerships, the task force and other leaders in the national community school movement identified the need for and interest in additional resources.

Sustained and effective community schools must be supported by broader district buy-in, cross-sector systems that promote and strengthen collaboration, and policies that support the whole-child. To that end, a forthcoming stages of system-level development tool will guide district and community leaders as they design and promote sustainable funding, capacity development, data systems, and strategic partnerships. These district infrastructures and relationships are crucial to addressing common implementation challenges and supporting community schools as they move toward transformation.