Queena Kim is passionate about community. She lives a mile from the school that she leads and is an active member of her local church and civic organizations. As principal of the UCLA Community School, a K–12 public school in Los Angeles, Kim embraces her role to elevate the strengths of her students, families, teachers, staff, and partners. “We lead from every chair,” is a common refrain. That’s how she and others developed the school’s multilingual program. They listened to families who wanted their children to keep their home languages as they learned English. Teachers experimented and developed a program that not only lifted up the linguistic assets of families but also recognized the role that culture plays in learning and development.
For example, Spanish teacher Suyapa Hurtt teaches a three-week unit on the Pre-Columbian and colonial histories of Día de los Muertos in Latin America. She engages with UCLA teaching artists, parents, staff members, and students in creating altars, which are displayed each November in the multipurpose room to celebrate the community’s diverse traditions and family histories.
Democratic at Every Turn
When I’m asked to explain what a community school is, I start with examples like these. I want people to feel the power of communities as the heartbeat of public education. This power is rooted in the hopes and dreams that families have for their children, the passion that educators have for preparing the next generation, and the promise and agency of young people. Community schools embrace this power by being democratic at every turn. As John Dewey shared in a 1902 address, “The conception of the school as a social center is born of our entire democratic movement.”
For a school leader, this means a deep commitment to shared decision-making and collaborative leadership. Community school principals spend their day listening, convening, debating, problem-solving, and innovating. When eighth-grade student Jenny wanted to start “Girls in Motion,” an after-school coding club, a teacher helped make it happen and connected with local nonprofits for support. Asked to describe her school, Jenny shared, “You can make anything happen here, we’re a community.”
Community school principals also ask “why?” so they can keep the core values of the school community front and center. Faced with a tough budget decision about hiring a computer science teacher, the UCLA Community School leadership team looked at research on equity and access and learned that low-income students of color were typically denied access to computer science. At the school’s “Coffee With the Principal,” parents said they wanted their children to have access to rigorous college-prep computer science classes as well as the hackathons and summer programs that Jenny and her peers were attending. The Shared Governing Council’s schoolwide budget survey sent the same message. The position for a computer science teacher was posted and a hiring committee was formed. A few years later, the school was recognized by the College Board for helping to close the gender gap in computer science.
It Takes a Village
The UCLA Community School is one of more than 8,000 community schools across the nation. As a movement, these schools are growing in number and are viewed by many as a COVID recovery strategy based on the idea that schools are well-positioned to provide much-needed services and resources for children and families. These include meals, health screenings, vaccinations, eyeglasses, recreation, legal help, mental health counseling, and more. Community schools deliver and integrate these “wraparound” services, anchored by a multi-tiered system of supports that tracks the needs and assets of each and every student. Research on the value of these integrated student supports estimates a $7 return on every dollar invested in a community school coordinator—an individual at the school site responsible for coordinating and integrating services. For principals, this means managing and braiding multiple funding sources beyond their core school budget—a process that demands collaboration and distributive leadership across youth-serving agencies and partners. Or, put succinctly, more work.
Recognizing the labor involved in developing integrated services, there are a variety of grants and programs that support community school coordinators to assist busy principals. For example, the Federal Full-Service Community Schools Program provides funds to “improve the coordination, integration, accessibility, and effectiveness of services for children and families.” Local education agencies and community-based organizations tap a variety of funding sources to fund community school coordinators as well as other support staff, such as psychiatric social workers, nurses, and counselors. The core idea: It takes a village.
A community coming together to raise its children is a very old idea. That’s why historians point to Hull House in Chicago as the beginning of the community schools movement. Founded by feminist social reformer Jane Addams in 1889, Hull House was a settlement house and inspired Dewey’s conception of the school as a social center—not a place set apart to learn lessons. Located in an immigrant neighborhood, Hull House approached the challenges of poverty and assimilation holistically, honoring families’ languages and traditions, offering cultural and recreational opportunities, as well as food and other material resources. In addition, Hull House aligned with labor unions to fight for fair working conditions and against child labor, taking on issues important to the community.
A Social Justice Legacy
Community schools have a long legacy of social justice activism. In 1937, Leonard Covello, principal of Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem, NY, established a housing committee of students, teachers, families, and community members to study and organize against dilapidated tenements. As a result, the school was part of a successful campaign to establish the first low-income housing complex in East Harlem. In 1973, the Black Panthers established the Oakland Community School in Oakland, CA, to challenge “the public school system’s perceptions of what it meant to be Black and poor.” The school’s director Ericka Huggins welcomed Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, and James Baldwin to the school to affirm Black students’ identity and promise.
Current reform efforts to dismantle systemic racism and oppression in our society include community schools working hard to center the voices of marginalized students and families. Community school principals make sure that their schools are welcoming, anti-racist, and inclusive spaces that authentically engage families as partners in their child’s education. They also make sure their students have opportunities to learn and grow beyond the school day. Some community schools add as much as one-third more learning time through before-school, after-school, and summer programming. As extensive research has documented, providing expanded learning time can both enhance students’ social, emotional, and physical development as well as help close opportunity gaps between young people from high- and low-income households.
Community Schooling: A Process—Not a Model
As the community school movement expands, advocates are working hard to establish a common definition to guide practice. A seminal 2017 research review by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) held up four pillars as essential to successful community schools: integrated student supports, expanded and enriched learning time and opportunities, active family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership and practices. Most recently, the Community Schools Forward Task Force has created a coalition to deepen and expand this definition to include a more explicit focus on innovative teaching and learning. In addition, states like California are developing their own frameworks that explicitly challenge the common misconception that community schools are simply schools with health clinics or extra services. California frames community schools as “an equity-enhancing strategy that aligns with and can help coordinate and extend a wide range of state, school, and district initiatives.”
As a school leader barraged by new initiatives, it may be tempting to view community schools as another program, with compliance checklists and accountability reports. Instead, tap into the movement’s long and important history to challenge the reform mill. Think of community schooling as a process—not as a model or template. At the end of the day, community schooling is the approach you take as a leader to connect with your local community, to work together to meet needs, and to elevate the strengths and promise of young people. As Principal Kim shares, “Community schools are not only academic institutions—they are a microcosm of our society. I truly believe that if we can build schools for everyone to thrive in, we can transform our world.”
Karen Hunter Quartz is an adjunct professor and the director of the Center for Community Schooling at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Benson L., Harkavy, I., Johanek, M., & Puckett, J. (2009, Summer). The enduring appeal of community schools: Education has always been a community endeavor. American Educator, 22-29, 47. aft.org/periodical/american-educator/summer-2009/enduring-appeal-community-schools
Bloodworth, M. R., & Horner, A. C. (2019). Return on investment of a community school coordinator: A case study. Apex and ABC Community School Partnership. communityschools.org/
Californians for Justice. (2022, March 3). California community schools framework. caljustice.org/2022/03/03/california-community-schools-framework
Ealey, S. (2016, November 3). Black Panthers’ Oakland community school: A model for liberation. Black Organizing Project. blackorganizingproject.org/black-panthers-oakland-community-school-a-model-for-liberation
Maier, A., Daniel, J., Oakes, J., & Lam, L. (2017). Community schools as an effective school improvement strategy: A review of the evidence. Learning Policy Institute. learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/ community-schools-effective-school-improvement-report
Partnership for the Future of Learning. (2018). Second pillar: Expanded and enriched learning time and opportunities. communityschools.futureforlearning.org/chapter-4