To meet the changing needs of small school districts, superintendents harness community school strategies

teacher with elementary student
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. 

“If there’s one way to turn around a school, it’s a community school.” 

-Anibal Soler, superintendent of Schenectady City School District 

Students from rural and small-town districts represent nearly a third of the nation’s public school enrollment. Forty-one percent of U.S. schools are located in these areas. The economic forces changing these districts offer school leaders the opportunity to rethink how schooling is done, and how to connect with families, mobilize partners, and address changing needs. Already, schools are often the hub of smaller communities. Now, they’re becoming more strategic. They’re becoming community schools.  

In Massena, New York, on the border with Canada, Superintendent Patrick Brady reflects on the changes in his communitythe city had been the economic center of St. Lawrence County. It houses the New York State Power Authority and the Moses-Saunders power dam. It was a manufacturing town with General Motors and Reynolds Metals, a major producer of aluminum. However, the decline of manufacturing and other economic changes have led to an increase in the poverty rate and its associated challenges. The connection between the well-being of children and families with student success was underscored as educators found themselves responding to complex barriers to learning. The district knew it had strong organizations and neighbors in the community that could help, but they found themselves reacting to crises and without a strategy to address the changing needs of schools and families. 

That’s when school leaders learned about New York state’s support for community schools. They hired a district community school director, mobilized partners into rapid response teams, aligned partners around a strategic vision, and made schools the centers of their community. As Community Schools Director Kristin Colarusso said, their community schools initiative has “taken away the walls that separate the school and the community. It’s brought everybody together.”  

In Harford County, Maryland, a mix of rural and suburban neighborhoods on the Pennsylvania border, Hall’s Cross Roads Elementary School Principal Christina Douglas knew that chronic absence was increasing. She also knew that there were assets in the community–partner organizations, families, and neighbors that could help. She began working with the district central office, knocking on doors in the community and bringing partners in to share resources and programs.  

On a visit to learn more from the state Department of Education about community schools, Principal Douglas realized that by becoming more intentional about her partnership approach and maximizing local assets, she was creating a community school. With state support and funding from the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, Harford County Public Schools is now expanding its community school strategycreating new community schools and a district-level steering committee made up of partner organizations. 

It turns out that community schools are not too different from the way schools in smaller and more rural districts operate. The difference? School leaders and their communities now know what to call their approach: community schools. The approach adds intention and strategy by mobilizing the resources in these communities, uniting school, business, faith, and community leaders together with families and residents to create learning and other opportunities for their students. 

The Changing role of schools 

The roles of schools in all communities, but especially rural communities, has changed. Michael Hayden, superintendent of Clyde-Savannah Central School District in a mostly agricultural community between Rochester and Syracuse explained, “In my role as superintendent you really do get a global understanding of the interdependence of everything—in the school and the greater community at large.” Hayden said that in the county, there is one health care provider for approximately 3,910 patients (the state average is one provider for 1,190 patients) and that many of the families don’t have cars, severely limiting access. Combined with housing and food insecurity, this leads to chronic absence, a real problem for schools that are responsible for student learning. 

So, what is Superintendent Hayden doing? He’s using federal recovery funds to support an outreach vehicle that is taking health services, academic, and other enrichment opportunities to the students in the community. He’s created community schools. 

In Batavia, New York, not far from Niagara Falls, former superintendent Anibal Soler (now in Schenectady) said that a community school “provides a clear focus. It provides a holistic approach to school improvement … . It’s not a program, it’s actually a way of working, a way of thinking.” 

Superintendents see the changing role of schools and are leveraging the strengths in their community through community schools. Massena Superintendent Patrick Brady said that community schools were a “significant tool” in their strategy to help the district address chronic absence, increase student achievement, and raise graduation rates. 

Mobilizing the community and aligning the strategy 

Partners are essential to the community school strategy. Superintendents in these small and rural communities know that districts have to identify, mobilize, and align partners. 

In Deer River, a school district with one elementary and one high school in north-central Minnesota, Deanna Hron began bringing partners together to support a building referendum. Once mobilized, they next turned their attention to addressing increased student needs through coordinated partnerships. The district hired Deanna to coordinate partnerships using district funds and received a federal Full-Service Community Schools grant in 2019. Their vision is driven by hope, happiness, and success. 

Jeff Pesta, Deer River’s superintendent, made his focus on community schools apparent to everyone by elevating Full-service Community Schools to a cabinet-level position. In his words, he made it clear that community schools are “the model that we’re operating under. … Community schools are going to be more effective when they’re viewed as integrated, not attached to the side of the district mission.” 

Similarly, in California’s central valley, three small rural districts are coordinating their resources with the help of U.S. Department of Education Full-Service Community Schools grant funds. They are bringing partners together to support their community schools across traditional district enrollment boundaries. District leaders have assembled a children’s cabinet made up of partners across the region to focus on issues of attendance. Families, principals, community school coordinators, the Boys and Girls Club, a local medical service provider, and other partners come together to direct the community school initiative and to align resources to address attendance issues. 

Back in Massena, New York, Kristin sits on the district’s leadership team which includes the principals. She is at the top of the agenda for updates. Her superintendent said community schools are “out front and center,” as demonstrated by their prominence in the district’s strategic plan. 

The leaders in Massena had a beautiful way to describe their community: generous. Superintendent Brady said: 

“Massena is a generous community. We seemed to tap into that generosity that people want to help the school, the center of the community. I think the community is proud of the school. This gave them the opportunity to be part of something, to be helpful. … This allows them to be part of the school and part of a greater effort.”

Superintendents in rural and small communities are expanding community schools that meet the changing needs of our communities by mobilizing the incredible resources all around them. We can learn from district leaders who have created community school strategies that are built to last.