Why local leaders should champion ‘community schools’ to improve student, family, and neighborhood well-being

School buses waiting for students in front of Burbank High School. Burbank, California, USA - March 5, 2016.

By the time students poured back into schools this fall, the most disruptive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to have finally receded. But the lingering effects on children and learning are unfortunately still very much with us. 

New data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that the pandemic erased more than two decades of progress in reading and math for 9-year-old students. The effect was most profound for students from low-income communities—exacerbating the pre-pandemic achievement gap between those students and their higher-income peers.  

Outside of school, the pandemic also magnified long-standing geographic and racial inequities in economic opportunity and overall health and well-being. A 2020 report from the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC) found that approximately 78% of high-poverty neighborhoods in the U.S.—communities of color in particular—were highly vulnerable to the pandemic’s economic impacts, including loss of jobs and income, compared to just 15% of low-poverty neighborhoods.  

Federal relief funding is helping states and localities address these challenges. Large cities and counties have committed a significant amount of their State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds toward projects in economically disadvantaged communities. And according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, over $9 billion has been allocated for K-12 education and related purposes, including after-school programs and programs for students’ emotional and mental health needs.  

But money alone isn’t enough. Now is the time for local leaders to not only invest more in families and communities, but to invest differently. Given the intricate relationship between neighborhood well-being and school performance, championing and investing in community schools—a model focused on leveraging and coordinating the resources and voices of the entire community to support a thriving educational environment—could be one of the best ways for mayors and other local officials to confront both types of challenges.  

The relationship between schools and neighborhoods runs in both directions 

Research consistently shows that a neighborhood’s overall well-being and localized school performance go hand in hand. 

Evidence demonstrates that children raised in disinvested communities where residents’ overall well-being is poor—measured by factors such as high rates of poverty, joblessness, physical disorder, and violence—generally have lower levels of academic achievement, including lower high school graduation rates, than peers from wealthier neighborhoods. Insofar as school quality is often measured by student achievement, a high concentration of low-achieving students translates into an overall low-performing neighborhood school. 

Schools with low achievement levels can, in turn, impact the overall well-being of their neighborhoods. For one, we know that school performance affects families’ decisions about whether or not to live in a particular neighborhood; a National Association of Realtors report found that 53% of homebuyers with school-age children said that school district quality is an important factor when buying a home. Strong demand for communities with high-performing schools raises home values and generates wealth and investment in certain areas. But the reverse can also be true in areas where school quality is—or is perceived to be—low.  

The cycle can be vicious. Low levels of academic achievement compromise students’ long-term educational and workforce outcomes, which diminishes their income and wealth-building opportunities far into adulthood. Given low rates of neighborhood mobility in the U.S. among low-income residents (particularly low-income Black residents), those individuals are then more likely to be concentrated in underinvested communities that often have their own underperforming schools 

Investing in a community schools approach for students, families, and neighborhoods 

What if local leaders supported and scaled a different approach to K-12 education that fostered a positive feedback loop between schools and neighborhoods? 

In 2022, four national partners—Brookings’s Center for Universal Education, the Children’s Aid National Center for Community Schools, the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Coalition for Community Schools, and the Learning Policy Institute—collaborated with education practitioners, researchers, and leaders across the country to strengthen the community schools field in a joint project called the Community Schools Forward task force. 

According to a forthcoming resource from the task force, a community schools strategy “transforms a school into a place where educators, local community members, families, and students work together to strengthen conditions for student learning and healthy development. Together, as partners, they organize in- and out-of-school resources, supports, and opportunities so that young people thrive.” As part of their work, the task force has identified six key practices that make for highly effective community schools:  

  1. Empowering student and family engagement in school decisions. 
  2. Collaborative leadership, shared power, and voice among parents, students, teachers, principals, and community partners. 
  3. Expanded and enriched learning opportunities through after-school, weekend, and summer programs. 
  4. Integrated systems of supports such as health care, nutrition support, and housing assistance for families. 
  5. Rigorous, community-connected classroom instruction that emphasizes real-world learning and reflects lived experiences. 
  6. A culture of belonging, safety, and care that inspires trust and a sense of community. 

Each of these practices supports learning and student development. But it is the synergy among them that makes the community schools approach effective. Such interdependence requires local leaders to undertake new ways of structuring and staffing schools and school systems to sustain effective governance, partnerships, and resources. Beyond the educational benefits, investing in such an approach can also contribute to the creation of more prosperous, vibrant, and inclusive neighborhoods in several key ways: 

Advancing economic prosperity. Investment in community schools can yield important economic outcomes for both individuals and communities. In addition to strong, high-quality learning environments, some community schools offer adult learning, training, and skills development opportunities both during and after school hours. Others provide convenient access to community health and wellness services to make it easier for adult residents to successfully find and sustain quality employment. If designed intentionally in response to community-defined priorities, such programming can also strengthen the connections between neighborhood businesses and workers in ways that help fulfill mutual employment needs. The most effective community schools actively engage local organizations and businesses, involving them as valuable partners. Not only do such partnerships bring more resources into the school, but businesses and organizations may see benefits from an improved school and community environment as well.  

Enhancing the physical environment. Community schools provide a familiar, convenient physical venue for expanded educational activities, community services, and recreational opportunities when school is not in session—if leaders choose to invest in them. Aside from limited fee-based arrangements with local sports or recreational leagues, traditional school buildings sit mostly empty during off hours and the summer, even as high-quality neighborhood recreational facilities are often lacking, particularly in low-income communities. A robust community schools model would provide wider access to classroom, auditorium, gymnasium, and outdoor space for both structured and unstructured community use, supported by funding for physical improvements, upkeep, supervision, and quality programming.   

Increasing social capital. According to the Community Schools Playbook, the community schools approach requires strong family and community engagement for “fostering relationships of trust and respect, building the capacity of all stakeholders and the school, creating empowered decision-making processes, and leveraging local resources and expertise to address educational inequities.” By engaging with families around needs, assets, and interventions, the model aims to build trust between families and schools with the goal of improving student outcomes. Creating opportunities for families to forge social ties with one another can also have spillover effects for the broader community; even relatively weak social relationships can be helpful sources of information about employment or services, while stronger relationships provide a sense of community pride, connection, and stability that makes a neighborhood feel like a home.  

Fostering civic involvement. Finally, the community schools approach to family engagement helps cultivate leadership and relationships that, in turn, can facilitate greater civic involvement. By becoming stronger advocates and decisionmakers in their children’s education, parents and caregivers may then be more likely to engage or lead in advocacy efforts to advance broader community goals (e.g., infrastructure, housing), or may utilize new organizing and leadership skills to respond more effectively to community challenges or unwanted interventions (e.g., a toxic use of land, teardown of a culturally significant building). In a similar way, civic involvement can also be cultivated in older students. Projects such as the Y-PLAN at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Cities and Schools aim to further civic engagement by providing young people with the opportunity to investigate and address real-world community issues in areas such as housing, transportation, public space, and schools. 

There are notable case studies that exemplify how community schools allow these four spheres to work in synergy. In Austin, Texas, Northeast Early College High School was one of several area community schools to create a family resource center and partner with local nonprofits to provide health services, parenting classes, and student after-school programs. School enrollment doubled after a year, and graduation rates rose from 48% to 98% in five years. In New York, the Children’s Aid Society’s community schools have a yearlong program that trains parents to proactively advocate for their children while also furthering their own education and skill-building. Parents can participate in advocacy events, take literacy and English classes, and learn skills ranging from interior design to cake-making.  

As these examples illustrate, investment in community schools can have multiple and reinforcing positive outcomes for communities—a “win-win” that should galvanize school and city leaders to support and scale the model.    

The vital role of mayors and local officials in supporting community schools 

Last year, the Brookings Task Force on Next Generation Community Schools outlined the role of the federal and state governments in community schools with a series of recommended steps, including prioritizing leadership and staffing to focus inter-agency efforts; promoting policies and incentives for state and local government investment; pursuing research on innovative community schools strategies; and providing sustainable sources of funding to scale the model.  

But while federal and state policies are critical, community schools can’t succeed at scale without committed local leadership—not only within school systems, but also from local officials more broadly.  

First of all, mayors, city managers, and councilmembers must be champions of family-centered community-building, with the recognition that their cities’ well-being is contingent on the well-being of the families that live there. One way this can play out is through the establishment of dedicated agencies or “cabinets” that bring cross-sector systems together around shared accountability for children and families’ success. For example, the Baltimore Children’s Cabinet is a collective effort by multiple agencies—including the public school system, the Department of Transportation, the Health Department, and many others—to improve outcomes for the city’s youth. 

Second, local leaders must support community school efforts by directing the involvement of other agency leaders (e.g., parks and recreation, public health, planning, public works, workforce) into this work—whether through a “cabinet” as described above or through organizational structures that create a permanent table for sustained, interdependent collaboration. Community schools naturally involve multiple city agencies with missions and mandates that may otherwise have little to do with education; thus, it is incumbent upon mayors and city managers to ensure that agency leaders and staff have an explicit responsibility to work together to support the model. In 2020, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney did just that by establishing the Office of Children and Families, which now oversees the city’s community schools program, the parks and recreation department, the library system, the Department of Human Services, and several other initiatives. 

Finally, city officials need to ensure that community schools efforts are substantially and sustainably resourced. This means encouraging the local philanthropic and nonprofit community to directly fund grassroots and other organizations that work with community schools, while ensuring that city agencies’ annual budgets include community schools. This need not necessarily be “new” money, but rather a repurposing of existing resources. Cities are already spending millions of dollars annually on neighborhood improvement as well as workforce development, community health, and parks and recreation. It makes good fiscal sense to utilize the social capital and physical infrastructure that schools provide—blending and braiding public funds in new ways to achieve the multiplicity of goals embedded in the community schools model. Evidence already shows how doing so can yield a positive return on investment: A 2012 study found that support for community schools creates significant economic benefits in the form of higher earnings for students who graduate from high school, as well as from the fiscal savings that accrue from reduced use of publicly financed social services when those students reach adulthood.   

The COVID-19 pandemic cast a harsh light on disparities in neighborhood and family well-being, revealing the interrelated nature of the economic, social, and environmental factors that created and sustain those disparities. And just as communities’ challenges are multifaceted, so too must be the solutions. In this spirit, championing the creation of community schools can help meet the dual ambitions of advancing school performance and neighborhood well-being—and ultimately create more prosperous, equitable, and resilient cities and regions for everyone.