It is difficult to think about a neighborhood or community without thinking about its schools. When families make decisions about moving, for example, school districts are always part of the decision making process. Schools are a kind of social infrastructure, which Eric Klinenberg, sociologist and author of Palaces for the People, describes “as veritable glue that connects us and binds us together in our communities.”
View the Executive Summary for this brief.
“March 2020 will forever be known as the time all the world’s schools closed their doors.” The coronavirus pandemic has shifted education issues out of physical schools and into people’s living rooms, prompting a greater acknowledgement of schools, teachers, and the essential services schools deliver to vulnerable children.
Schools give parents “a safe and low-cost option for childcare and thus are a pillar of our economy.” They also provide emotional support and connection to students, through school counselors and psychologists, that protect the mental health of children. Additionally, more than half of public school students rely on schools for free or subsidized meals.
“The simple idea of a space designed for learning becomes supremely important when it’s taken away.” The dilemma produced by the pandemic, explains Keith Holmes of Futures of Education Ideas LAB at the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “becomes how to sustain – in the short to medium term – the relationships, peer-to-peer learning, intellectual engagement, services, and sense of belonging.” Changing the idea of school from a physical place to “a learning community” may help reframe the challenges brought about by the pandemic.
Why it Matters
The American school system is based on the idea that “the engagement of children between ages five and eighteen in formal education, for about 180 days per year, provides sufficient preparation for the workforce and higher education.” Given that a school day is only 7 or 8 hours long, this means that children up to the age of 18 only spend about 20% of their time at school.
With 80% of children’s time spent outside of school, schools alone cannot be responsible for guiding a generation of “well-educated and civic-minded” children. In fact, in his book How Schools Really Matter, Ohio State University professor Douglas B. Downey found evidence that “[g]aps in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged kids can be traced mostly to the time when children are not in school – to home, habits, neighborhood, culture.” This introduces the concept of “‘life-wide’” learning, the idea that “the fabric of the community offers many enriching learning experiences alongside school.”
Putting it in Context
Bringing schools to the center of the community targets “out-of school barriers” that children face. Numerous studies have linked “school, family, and community involvement and student success.” Community-school engagement has been correlated with improved work efforts, habits, and attitudes, improved test scores and grades, lower dropout rates, and higher graduation rates.
Sienna Wildfield, Founder and Executive Director of Hilltown Families in Massachusetts, explains how community-based education benefits both communities and children (12 min):
The Importance of Schools in Community
From Appalachia to the Mississippi delta, from farmlands to native lands, “rural schools serve 9 million students across the country” and are “central to community cohesion and pride.” In addition to educating children, schools in rural communities tend to act as centers for civic education and community employment; in fact, schools are often the largest employer in rural communities.
Research also suggests removing schools from rural communities has a negative effect on local social structures. One early study comparing rural communities with and without schools in New York demonstrated that in the smallest rural communities, the presence of a school was associated with much higher property values, and more developed municipal infrastructure. These communities also tended to have more households with self-employment income and more professional workers in the local workforce. In rural communities without schools, more households received public assistance, more children lived in poverty, and income gaps between high-income and low-income families were greater.
The Role of Government
The U.S. Constitution leaves the responsibility for public k-12 education with the states, so the federal government tends to take more of a hands-off approach to education in terms of funding and curriculum. The federal contribution to elementary and secondary education is on average less than 10% of all education spending. Federal money flows to states primarily based on formulas that consider the needs of each state, taking into account the cost of education in each state and poverty data from the Census.
As the Department of Education explains, the quality of public schools is a national interest, so the federal government does provide supplemental assistance through grants and community programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, discussed below. Of the $750 billion in expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools during the FY2019 school year, $57.9 billion (7.7%) came from the federal government. The majority was for Title I funds, special education programs, and child nutrition programs. State and local governments implement these programs and block grants at the local level.
There are a few main federal programs, implemented at the local level, that address strengthening ties between schools and communities. The Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child Model (WSCC) calls for a “greater alignment and integration between health and education,” with collaborations with community agencies serving as the focal point to securing resources and support.
Head Start’s Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Framework is another federal model “through which program staff and families, family members, and their children build positive and goal-oriented relationships” and incorporate community partners to provide child development support and educational or economic resources for families. The Head Start program received $9.6 billion in federal funding in 2019 and served just under 873,000 children in all 50 states.
The largest education program implemented by the federal government is the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, the “only federal funding source dedicated exclusively to supporting local afterschool, before-school and summer learning programs.” Each program is tailored by the local community to meet local needs, and provides opportunities for additional services, activities, programs, and hands-on learning experiences for STEM, physical wellness and nutrition education, drug and violence prevention, service learning, youth development, arts and music, financial and environmental literacy, career readiness, and internships or apprenticeships. According to Afterschool Alliance, students who regularly participate in Community Learning Centers demonstrated improved attendance, school engagement, and math and reading grades. Additionally, 80% of parents said their children participating allowed them to keep their jobs.
Roughly 80% of community learning centers are school districts. These learning centers serve 2 million youth nationwide through grants awarded by state education agencies (states receive funds based on their share of Title I funding, which provides financial assistance to local educational agencies for low-income students). Funding is competitive; only about one-third of requests for funding are awarded. Since 2017, $1.1 billion in grants has been awarded nationwide to community learning centers. Each grant is about $300,000, which breaks down to about $1,500 per attendee and $120,000 per center.
At the policy level, policymakers can foster cross-agency and community partner collaboration. For example, Children’s Cabinet Networks “bring together federal, state and local leaders to assess and align government policies horizontally (across systems) and vertically (across levels of government).” At the state and local levels, these councils serve “as forums for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of government efforts to improve child and youth outcomes.”
State education agencies, sometimes also called state boards of education, oversee the administration of public education. They are usually led by a superintendent of schools, but whether members are elected or appointed depends on the state. According to the National Association of State Boards of Education, all boards and board members have the power to adopt and revise educational policies, convene experts and stakeholders to bridge policymakers and citizens, and serve as the citizens’ voice in education.
Specifically, policy authority usually includes establishing high school graduation requirements, determining the qualifications and preparation programs for teachers and other education personnel, establishing assessment and accountability standards, and establishing accreditation standards of local districts. States also generally oversee special services for students with disabilities and license all public and private schools in the state. See how education governance functions in your state here, or for a more detailed analysis see the State Board Insights.
States supply about 45% of public school funding, most coming from income and sales taxes. State legislatures determine the level and distribution of funding, usually with funding formulas so districts receive allocations based on student enrollment.
A school district is “a geographical unit for the local administration of elementary or secondary schools.” It is considered a “special-purpose government entity.” Florida serves 2.7 million students in 74 districts, while Illinois serves 2 million students in 879 districts. Students’ educational experiences largely depend on the decisions school boards make and the policies they set. See here for a list of school districts in your state, from Ballotpedia
The local school board, also known as a board of education or sometimes a board of directors, is essentially the governing body of a school district, usually in charge of oversight and governance for the school district. The main purpose a school board serves is to identify the educational needs of the community and use that information to determine goals and policy. They set standards for school performance, determine spending priorities and approve budget, curriculum materials, and the annual calendar, among other things. School boards generally convene in monthly meetings that are open to the public, where parents and other community members can attend to ask questions and provide input. As “the ‘public’ side of public education,” school boards represent “the community’s voice in public education, providing citizen governance and knowledge of the community’s resources and needs.” For more, see The Policy Circle’s Understanding School Boards Engagement Guide.
Some school boards have the authority to levy tax rates, but local funding for schools comes primarily through residential and commercial property taxes collected by the local government. Local revenue contributes to about 45% of public school funding.
Role of the Private Sector
Private schools have been part of education in the U.S. for centuries, and were the norm prior to the 20th century. The Policy Circle’s K-12 Education Brief dives deeper into the history of U.S. education.
Today, private education functions alongside public schools. A small percentage of households, about 3-4%, choose to homeschool their children. Private schools also offer services geared towards students’ individual learning styles, abilities, or backgrounds. These can include schools for deaf or blind students, faith-based schools, or schools that offer specific learning methods such as Montessori schools, for example. The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates 5.7 million students attend private schools nationwide.
At the intersection of the public and private spheres in education are charter schools, publicly-funded schools that are part of the state school system but are privately run by an organization that has a charter, or contract, to do so. New York’s Success Academy Charter Schools, authorized by the State University of New York’s Charter School Institute, serve 20,000 students in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Schools engage all students, regardless of economic background or learning ability through tailored programs that engage parents and focus on individualized learning goals. IDEA Public Schools began in 1998 as an after school program to focus on student achievement and college readiness, and worked so well it was granted a charter in 2000. The network serves more than 63,000 students at 120 schools across Texas and Southern Louisiana. For the 2020-2021 school year, 100% of IDEA’s graduating seniors were accepted to college for the 15th consecutive year.
When schools connect and collaborate with private individuals, businesses, and formal and informal organizations and institutions, they have an opportunity to “leverage community resources and assist students in achieving positive outcomes.” For example, school-community partnerships with businesses “are uniquely equipped to assist schools with preparation of students for the changing workplace.” Schools can be open to involvement of the wider local community, identifying additional human capital to support students and teachers. This includes exploring partnerships with:
- Local businesses that “are uniquely equipped to assist schools with preparation for students for the changing workplace”. See Florida’s Flagler County Education Foundation for examples of how working with businesses to identify key industries in the community and region has created mentorship and internship opportunities, and career and technical education programs.
- Existing community healthcare resources or organizations that can address “physical and mental health needs, substance abuse, food insecurity, homelessness, and other issues that can interfere with healthy child development and learning,”
- Nonprofit organizations, such as Opportunity Education, dedicated to active, skills-focused approaches to learning to help students excel.
- Higher education institutions and apprenticeship programs that help prepare kids for the next steps.
- Mentoring/Volunteering programs such as Florida’s Take Stock in Children, which matches a mentor with a child for 6 years.
- Community foundations, national philanthropies, and corporate funders that can offer partnerships for funding, such as local United Ways or the Annie E. Casey Foundation which provides grants, staff support, and consulting to local initiatives serving communities, families, and students.
- Teacher training programs such as Frameworks, which trains teachers on social-emotional learning, or the Jack Miller Center, which trains teachers on civics.
Educational studies indicate that when parents are involved, students tend to have better attendance, higher grades, and more positive attitudes. Many parents choose to be involved in PTAs, or parent teacher associations.
Although the legal responsibility to make decisions falls to the boards of education, PTAs also work with schools “to provide quality education for all children and youth” by participating in certain school policy decisions. A PTA is a member group of the National PTA, “a single, nationwide membership non-profit group with state and local units that have existed for 120 years.” School PTAs charge dues, which go towards access to online training, conferences, and nationwide events as well as policy advocacy. According to the National PTA, there are more than 20,000 local PTAs nationwide. A PTO, or parent teacher organization, is not affiliated with the National PTA and is instead an independent group that focuses solely on parental involvement at the local school. PTAs/PTOs are generally involved in special events that support students’ health and wellness, career development opportunities for students, or event planning such as for talent shows or prom.
Communities in Action
Strong Local Ownership
Strong local ownership is a necessity when it comes to properly implementing collaborative programs meant to improve educational outcomes. Individual communities are best equipped to understand gaps they face, and how resources can build on strengths and opportunities. Dedicated community stakeholders, with the proper flexibility and autonomy, can help design and implement activities that put community resources to best use, from extracurricular learning activities like internship experiences to family support centers. Together, stakeholders from youth development organizations and businesses to libraries and health and social service agencies “can play an essential role in galvanizing community commitment to integrating social, emotional, and academic development across learning settings, from the periphery to the mainstream of American education.”
For example, the Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem, New York combines education programs with community outreach and wellness initiatives to create a “neighborhood-wide network of programs and services [that] build up opportunities for children, families, and communities to thrive in school, work, and life.” Acknowledging that “[i]ntergenerational poverty is often the result of a series of interconnected failures,” Harlem Children’s Zone developed early childhood programs; elementary, middle, and secondary charter schools; extracurricular youth programs; and college and career supports that address the specific issues families in the community face. The neighborhood-based programs serve more than 22,500 children and families each year across a 97-block zone.
Resource scans and data sharing can help identify gaps and how best to fill them. The CDC’s School Health Index is a self-evaluation and planning tool for schools to identify strengths, weaknesses, and develop action plans.
The Coalition for Community Schools cites shared ownership, through which “[s]chool and community partners share resources, information, and accountability,” as one of the characteristics of effective community school systems. Such cross-sector coalitions include partnerships among “parents, educators, and community leaders who aim high, believe deeply, and insist on rigor and results for children of every background,” allies including “thought leaders, representatives of trusted institutions, and policymakers,” and other important voices such as businesses, health services, and civic- and faith-based organizations.
For example, the Florida Department of Education releases Career & Technical Education Curriculum Frameworks every year. The programs “prepare individuals for occupations important to Florida’s economic development” and are developed with business, industry, and trade associations “to include program standards that are both academically integrated and responsive to business and industry.”
On the Ground
Communities across the U.S. are creatively meeting the educational needs of their youth. In Portland, Maine, science projects involve community engagement and meaningfully interactive fieldwork. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “leading executives and learning scientists in business, higher education, public education, civic and cultural organizations, foundations, and government” collaborate to “remake learning.”
California’s expanded learning system serves over 900,000 students across 4,500 before- and after-school programs, and summer and intersession experiences. In Tacoma, Washington, the Whole Child Initiative has increased high school graduation rates from 55% in 2010 to 89% in 2018, and the Tacoma Housing Authority partners with public schools to ensure “immediate enrollment and educational stability for homeless children and youth.”
In New Orleans, schools performed poorly by most measures prior to Hurricane Katrina, and many achievement gaps ran along neighborhood socioeconomic lines. After the hurricane, New Orleans took the opportunity to restructure and redesign the school system itself, shifting from traditional neighborhood schools to public charter schools with a large degree of autonomy in terms of curriculum and instruction design. Charter schools are publicly funded on a per-student basis with standard performance measures. Families can enroll students in whichever charter school they choose, enabling them to look for the educational model that best suits their students’ learning needs and interests. New Orleans has reported better student outcomes, with more students going to and graduating from college, since the transition, which economists have attributed to the scholastic reforms. The Policy Circle’s Education Savings Accounts Deep Dive provides more in-depth explanations of charter schools and other school choice options.
The coronavirus pandemic, however detrimental to the learning experience of millions of children worldwide, has also prompted communities to take ownership, create cross-sector coalitions, and seek the best means for their children to learn. Education Next notes that some schools were not necessarily meeting the needs of students and families, explaining that “[s]ome may not have benefited from the school having great football and debate teams or a state-of-the-art planetarium and school lunch program. Instead, they might get more from a school that has specific focus that means the most to them.”
According to the Census Bureau, “It’s clear that in an unprecedented environment, families are seeking solutions that will reliably meet their health and safety needs, their childcare needs and the learning and socio-emotional needs of their children.” For example, learning hubs, “from private pods organized by parents to large, city- or municipal-operated efforts… typically offer small groups of students in-person academic support and other whole child supports like enrichment, social-emotional learning, exercise, and healthy meals and snacks.” This is also apparent in homeschooling statistics; in Spring 2020, 5.4% of U.S. households with school-aged children reported homeschooling. By Fall 2020, this had increased to 11.1% (with a clarification of true homeschooling as opposed to virtual learning through public or private schools.)
Schools are a central component of communities, and if they are able to meet the specified needs of community members, individuals and communities are best able to thrive. When there are options for parents to engage and options for children to receive an education regardless of their learning ability and background, it paves a path forward for competent and independent individuals who can live positive lives and contribute to society.
Thought Leaders & Additional Resources
- Annie E. Casey Foundation: Family-Centered Community Change
- Afterschool Alliance
- National Association for Family and Community Education:
- Children’s Cabinet Networks
- UnitedWay: Volunteer near you
- Harlem Children’s Zone
- Opportunity Education
- Success Academy Charter Schools
- IDEA Public Schools
- Coalition for Community Schools toolkit
- Fiscal Mapping Tools “that enable communities to maximize how they use funds to advance shared goals, by identifying and aligning both existing and new funding streams to amplify their impact.”
Ways to Get Involved/What You Can Do
Measure: Find out what your state and district are doing about engaging communities in education.
- Do you know how prevalent educational collaborations are in your community or state?
- What are your state’s policies?
- Is there a coalition or task force at the state or local level, or does one need to be formed?
- What is your school district’s budget?
- How are your schools performing, relative to the state and nation.
- What is the average salary of teachers and administrators in your district?
Identify: Who are the influencers in your state, county, or community? Learn about their priorities and consider how to contact them, including elected officials, attorneys general, law enforcement, boards of education, city councils, journalists, media outlets, community organizations, and local businesses.
- Who are the members of the board of education or city councils in your state?
- What steps have your state’s and community’s elected or appointed officials taken?
Reach out: You are a catalyst. Finding a common cause is a great opportunity to develop relationships with people who may be outside of your immediate network. All it takes is a small team of two or three people to set a path for real improvement. The Policy Circle is your platform to convene with experts you want to hear from.
- Find allies in your community or in nearby towns and elsewhere in the state.
- Foster collaborative relationships with law enforcement, first responders, faith-based organizations, local hospitals, community organizations, school boards, and local businesses.
Plan: Set some milestones based on your local school board meeting calendar
- Don’t hesitate to contact The Policy Circle team, firstname.lastname@example.org, for connections to the broader network, advice, insights on how to build rapport with policy makers and establish yourself as a civic leader.
Execute: Give it your best shot. You can:
- Engage with your school district:
- Reach out to your representatives on the school board
- Attend meetings of school boards or PTAs/PTOs to understand what policies and plans are on their agendas.
- Find out from superintendents or principals what collaborations exist. Is there a community partnership liaison in the school district?
- Consider sharing the Nine Elements of Effective School Partnerships (PDF download).
- See The Policy Circle’s Understanding School Boards engagement guide
- Engage with private sector businesses to see if there are opportunities for apprenticeships or internships. Find out if your own employer offers such opportunities.
- Investigate community organizations exist in your neighborhood. Do they offer after-school programs or extracurricular activities?
- Determine whether there are local or state children’s cabinets in place.
- For an idea of what this would look like, see this children’s cabinet toolkit designed for mayors and staff, from Harvard.