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"Race, Poverty and Community Schools,"

by Ira Harkavy & Martin J. Blank September/October 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

Listening to the recent debate culminating in the “No Child Left Behind Act”, it would be easy to assume that the only things that matter are annually testing for all children in grades 3-8, having a qualified teacher in every classroom in four years, and allowing parents to move their children out of persistently failing schools.


High academic standards, aligned tests, clear incentives and strong professional development are important, but they’re not sufficient to meet the lofty goal of educating all children.

Largely ignored in this debate, and early implementation of the Act, are the highly visible, morally troubling, increasingly savage inequalities experienced by far too many poor children in predominantly minority urban schools, as well as in under-served, under-resourced rural schools, and their respective communities. The school-community connection is evident in the relationship between the multiple interrelated plagues: poverty, violence, ill health, broken families, unemployment, and drug and alcohol abuse – and academic failure.

Discussion of these issues seems to be outside the present education reform framework. Paul Barton of the Educational Testing Service, in his 2001 study Facing the Hard Facts of Education Reform, suggests an alternative view. He argues that “our reluctance to address important nonacademic factors stems from a fear that to consider such factors may cause us to lose focus, … and provide excuses for not raising standards and achievement… [H]owever, we do so at our peril. The seriousness of our purpose requires that we learn to rub our bellies and pat our heads at the same time.”

From our perspective, rubbing our bellies and patting our heads means creating comprehensive community schools. While the community school approach is applicable to all students, it is particularly important for poor children of color, whose assets and talents tend to be overlooked, and who bring the largest challenges to the schoolhouse door.

A Vision of Community Schools

Here is a vision of a community schools supported by the Coalition for Community Schools, an alliance of more than 170 national, state and local organizations. This vision explicitly recognizes the shared responsibility of schools, families and community for the education of all our children.

A community school strategically combines community resources with the assets and expertise of educators and schools to better meet the learning and development goals of students and schools, and to support families and communities. Individual schools and the school system work in partnership with community agencies and organizations to operate these unique institutions. Families, students, principals, teachers and neighborhood residents decide together what happens at a community school.

Community schools are open to students, families and community members before, during and after school, throughout the year. They have high standards and expectations for students, qualified teachers and a focused, engaging curriculum.

Before- and after-school programs build on classroom experiences and help students expand their horizons, contribute to their communities and have fun. Family support centers help with parent involvement, child rearing, employment, housing and other services. Medical, dental and mental health services are readily available. Parents and community residents participate in adult education and job training programs, and use the school as a place for community problem-solving. Volunteers come to community schools to support young people's academic, interpersonal and career success.

Community schools use the community as a resource to engage students in learning and service, and help them become problem-solvers in their communities. The school also sees itself as a resource to the community, sharing its facilities, equipment and other assets to support community-building efforts.

Strategically, when community schools bring together school and community assets they create six conditions for learning, conditions that are especially vital for poor, minority children:
  • Condition #1: A core instructional program with high standards, qualified teachers, and a focused, engaged curriculum provides for academic excellence.
  • Condition #2: The basic medical, mental and physical health needs of young people and their families are addressed.
  • Condition #3: Families are actively engaged in supporting and making decisions affecting their children’s learning.
  • Condition #4: The school climate, strengthened by community engagement, promotes safety, respect and connection to a learning community.
  • Condition #5: Students are motivated and engaged in learning in and out of school.
  • Condition #6: The community provides a resource for learning and civic participation.

These conditions summarize a growing consensus on what research, practice and common sense suggests it takes for all young people to succeed.

In our vision of community schools, educators are major partners, but they do not do everything. A capable partner organization – a youth development organization, a college or university, a child and family services agency, a community development corporation, a family support center, for example – can serve as the anchor partner for a community school. The partner organizations work with the school to mobilize and integrate the resources of community and school. This allows principals and teachers to focus on their core mission: improving student learning.

Asset-based and strengths-based practices that have emerged in the fields of community building, youth development, family support and related human services fields complement one another at a community school, providing students, their families and neighborhood residents with multiple pathways to success. The totality of the work of a community school represents an important anti-poverty strategy.

In the past decade, community school expansion has largely been in poor urban and rural settings, with large minority populations. There are national approaches, such as the work of Children’s Aid Society and Beacon Schools, initiated in New York and now being adapted in many cities; Communities in Schools, reaching students and families in more than 2,300 schools; and the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps, started in Philadelphia, now operating in more than 20 communities. There are many more locally grown models, distinguished by the creation of community leadership groups that bring together representatives of various stakeholder groups concerned with the well-being of children, families and communities (Bridges to Success, Indianapolis; Local Investment Commission, Kansas City, Missouri; Schools United Neighborhoods, Portland/ Multnomah County, Oregon; and the Community Learning Centers Initiative in Lincoln, Nebraska). In rural communities, the community school strategy emphasizes place-based education – engaging the community, the school and its students in active learning and community problem-solving. Each of these approaches has different emphases, but they all share the broad vision of a community school.

Results in Community Schools

Do community schools work? Absolutely. Evaluation data from organizations such as the Academy for Educational Development, the Stanford Research Institute, the Chapin Hall Center for Children and others, compiled by leading authority Joy Dryfoos, demonstrate the positive impact of community schools on student learning, healthy youth development, family well-being and community life. Results include students doing better on tests, students improving their attendance and behavior, and families having their basic needs met and being more involved in their children’s education. Moreover, principals and teachers in community schools testify that deep and intentional relationships with community partners are not a distraction, but rather a significant source of support, giving teachers more time to teach and students more opportunity to learn.

The Public’s Perspective

A recent poll by the Knowledge Works Foundation in Ohio provides evidence that the public supports the community school approach. Eighty-four percent of respondents supported community use of schools during afternoon, evening and weekend hours for activities like health clinics, recreation activities, and parenting and adult education classes. Seventy-two percent agreed that adult fitness, community activities and parenting classes should be located in public schools. Seventy nine percent agreed that schools should offer mental health services for students, and 65% agreed that community social services for children like health services, dental services and after-school programs should be located in public schools. We suspect there is similar support around the country.

Keys to Community Schools

There are four keys to creating community schools: leadership, partnership, community voice and financing.

Leadership: As Atelia Melaville writes in her 1998 study, Learning Together: The developing field of school-community initiatives, leadership provides “fuel and direction; community school initiatives that last are led by people committed to the well-being of poor children and families, and who know where they want to go and have the position, personality, and power to make others want to come along.” This leadership is creating permanent coalitions to improve results for children through community schools.

Partnership: Partnerships are essential to mobilizing, galvanizing and integrating the enormous untapped resources of communities for the purpose of improving schooling and community life. These partnerships, bringing together stakeholders across the public, private and non-profit sectors and including community voices, are part of a “democratic devolution revolution” that is slowly restructuring the way communities make decision affecting their residents. Through these partnerships, the ongoing work of local institutions (e.g., higher education; health and human services agencies; youth development and community development groups; civic, business and religious organizations) changes and adapts to the needs in particular community school settings.

Community Voice: Organized and vocal support from students, parents and neighborhood residents ensures that the community school is responsive to their concerns and helps to convince stakeholders across the community of the importance and effectiveness of the community school strategy. Through effective leadership and community participation, strong partnerships emerge.

Financing: Money does matter in a community school. Government and public school systems, in particular, as well as philanthropy and United Ways and other institutions have key roles to play in helping to finance the cooperation among the sectors of society that must come together in a community school strategy. The work of the partnership at the community or school district level, and the coordination work at the school site, generally require new investments or the use of existing funds in new ways.

Barriers to the Community Schools Movement

The benefits of community schools are becoming clearer and clearer. Yet there are numerous challenges to expanding the community schools approach as an anti-poverty approach and education reform strategy.

Differences in Philosophy and Practice: Practitioners in education, youth development, health, mental health, family support, community development and related fields often have their distinct philosophy and practice of what works best to help young people succeed. The cultural distance between school and community remains wide. To shorten that distance, interprofessional development programs are needed that help educate practitioners able to work across sectors and with schools and communities.

Categorical Funding: Narrowly crafted public funding streams separate people and organizations. They make it more difficult to integrate resources in ways that are consistent with a community school strategy. Needless to say, resources remain insufficient to meet the needs of all students even if they were used more strategically; at the same time, much more can be done with what is available.

Preparation of School Leaders: Superintendents and principals learn little about working with family and community at institutes of higher education. They are trained to manage their buildings, not to be leaders and partners in the education of children.

Community Leadership: The leadership to initiate and guide a partnership-driven community school strategy, especially involving working across race and class, is still limited. More efforts must be made to develop leaders committed to a collaborative community problem-solving culture.

Financing: Funding is still insufficient to develop community schools that can create the conditions for all children to learn. We now find ourselves in a zero sum game in education, with increases in federal funding for programs such as Title I and after-school programs balanced out by cuts in state and local spending for education and other child and family services. Still, more can be done with what exists within a community schools framework.

The continuing expansion of community schools across the country in the face of these barriers demonstrates the power and potential of this idea.

Action Steps

Stakeholders in many sectors must act to create and sustain community schools. The following action recommendations focus on the federal and state government. There are six major leadership actions for the federal and state government:
  • Develop and promote a VISION for improving student learning that incorporates the critical role of families and communities, as well as schools.
  • Support BROAD-BASED, LOCAL COALITIONS OR MULTI-AGENCY COMMISSIONS to advance, develop and sustain community schools.
  • Ensure that federal and state programs and policies FOCUS on supporting student learning and are subject to the guidance of a local coalition of such multi-agency commissions. This means coordinating categorical grant programs across agencies to improve student learning, and providing incentives for coordination at other governmental levels.
  • Substantially INCREASE FUNDING for the supports and opportunities that poor children need to succeed, with a focus on those that build on the assets of young people, their families and communities.
  • Make targeted INVESTMENTS in community schools to increase the effectiveness of existing programs and resources. This includes funding community school coordinators to facilitate effective partnerships, sustain funding over time, and support local planning and partnership-building processes.
  • Build SCHOOLS AS CENTERS OF COMMUNITY. As state and local government and school districts pay to rehabilitate or construct new schools, they should build community schools that meet not only the needs of students and schools, but family and community as well.


Organizational development expert Peter Senge argued in the Summer 2001 Community Youth Development Journal that “until we go back to thinking about school as the totality of the environment in which a child grows up, we can expect no deep changes. Change requires a community – people living and working together, assuming some common responsibility for something that’s of deep concern and interest to all of them – their children.”

Community schools can help build the kind of caring, compassionate, responsible community Senge describes. Community schools are an environment-changing institution that engage children, their families, neighbors and local institutions in active work to improve the quality of life and learning of all members of the community. Needless to say, community schools have a particular contribution to make in helping to change the appalling conditions facing far too many of America’s poor and minority children.


Ira Harkavy ( is an associate vice-president of the Univ. of Pennsylvania and the director of its Center for Community Partnerships; Martin Blank ( is the director for Schools, Family and School Connections at the Institute for Educational Leadership. They are Chair and Staff Director, respectively, of the Coalition for Community Schools.

CCS can be reached at the Inst. For Educational Leadership, 1001 Conn. Ave. NW, #310, Wash., DC 20036, 202/822-8405, x156.


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