A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between a school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth, community development, and engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities.
The community school model provides not just education for the children of the communities it serves, but also an ideal experience and environment for learning to occur. By supporting LD 956, “An Act to Create Community Schools,” such an experience and environment can become a reality in more of our schools in Maine, which, given the needs of many Maine families and children, is sorely needed.
Maine ranks first in New England in terms of child food insecurity, and research shows that 16 percent of Maine children aged 5-17 live in poverty. In 2014, 46.6 percent of Maine’s students were eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program. According to a 2013 Annie E. Casey Foundation policy report, low-income parents often spend more time away from their children struggling to meet basic needs, juggling multiple low-wage jobs, searching for secure housing and navigating complex public assistance systems.
The National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools demonstrates to us that strong parental involvement results in better school attendance, higher grade point averages, improved behavior at school and better social skills. The community school model builds on that research and addresses many of the realities that challenge today’s schools and educators.
Sadly, children come to school hungry, and many come without adequate clothing. We know of families that run out of fuel, have no running water and struggle to keep the electric bill paid. In addition, young children often go home to no structure or supervision. They could significantly benefit from both before- and after-school care. Despite the challenges that poverty presents, all children deserve learning environments that offer high-quality curriculums and provide learning experiences that extend beyond a standard learning day.
Our public schools should not be expected to take sole, or even primary, responsibility for creating such environments for learning. The community school model, however, enables schools to form intentional partnerships with families and a wide range of community organizations, volunteers, civic groups and others to create such environments. Partners provide services and opportunities that support the learning mission of the school and increase the effectiveness of the learning environment.
Maine needs community schools because research and experience clearly indicate that young people need a wide range of opportunities and supports to succeed. Community schools respond to societal factors, family circumstances, poverty and health problems. Having community schools allows all of our children, regardless of their economic, racial or family circumstances, to access a broad array of opportunities. The community school model also helps alleviate the conditions of poverty for students and parents by connecting them to needed resources. When students’ basic needs are met, they can better focus on learning and can begin to aspire to a better future.
Graduating from high school and obtaining a post-secondary degree or professional credential can mean the difference between a lifetime of poverty or a secure economic future. Community schools have additional resources and supports to achieve improved educational outcomes, including decreased absenteeism, improved graduation rates and increased rates of enrollment in post-secondary education.
The community school model can begin to flourish in Maine with our support and if we encourage others to join in support. Many schools already have great partnerships with community groups upon which to build. The community school model develops a wide range of intentional and proactive partnerships to benefit the students, their families and the communities in which they live.
Physical and mental health services, child and family services, adult programing, before- and after-school programming, violence-prevention programming, youth development and many other such programs and services can be coordinated efficiently to help our communities and families prosper. Supporting community schools will foster the continuation and further growth of such partnerships year after year.
Kara Hay of Old Town is chief executive officer of Penquis.