Schools alone can’t overcome poverty. They need a community.

Rebecca Hollis
Rebecca Hollis

This post is by Rebecca Hollis, who is working with OK Policy during the summer as a Southern Education Leadership Initiative Fellow. Rebecca attends Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH and is part of the Philosophy, Politics, and the Public Honors Program.

Improving educational outcomes for children living in poverty is one of the most difficult and important tasks that Oklahoma faces. The future of these children is the future of our whole state. The poverty rate has grown to the point that today nearly 1 in 4 Oklahoma children are living in poverty, and a recent study by The Southern Education Foundation indicates that low-income students (those who qualify for free or reduced lunches) are now the majority across the South. In 2011, 60.6 percent of Oklahoma’s students were considered low-income, and this number continues to grow.

The difficulty of educating children in poverty stems from the issues they face outside of the classroom. The poorest students may suffer from food insecurity.They may be exposed to air pollution and toxic levels of lead.They may experience violent crime or have a parent who is incarcerated. They may frequently change schools without a stable residence. The list goes on.

That’s why the typical school models are not enough. We need a whole community to meet the needs of the whole child.The community school model is a cost-effective, national reform strategy that seeks to do just that. In Oklahoma and other states, this model is producing impressive academic results such as increased enrollment, improved graduation rates, and higher test scores.

What are community schools?

Community schools provide resources that go beyond the classroom to address multi-faceted needs of students and their community. These resources include healthcare, psychiatric help, tutoring, and mentoring. Community schools can provide these custom experiences through partnerships with public and private entities, such as local government officials, non-profit agencies, community-based and faith-based organizations, philanthropies, businesses, and higher education personnel, that provide services within the school.

The startup cost of community schools is primarily the salary for the School Coordinator, who recruits and administers partnerships with community organizations that bring community services into the school. An experienced community school will receive funding from multiple entities such as federal grants, state funding, city funding, district funding, and private contributions from businesses and foundations.

How are community schools working in Oklahoma?

In the Tulsa-area, 31 community schools have already been established in Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) and Union Public Schools (UPS). Since 2007, the program has grown to reach over 9,000 students and families and incorporate over 150 community partners. The Community Service Council (CSC) and a community advisory board currently oversee the Tulsa Area Community School Initiative (TACSI).

Tulsa-area districts have established 31 community schools that are showing good results.
Tulsa-area districts have established 31 community schools that are showing good results.

TACSI has proven successful in improving academic achievements of Tulsa students. In a 2010 study, researchers at the University of Oklahoma found that students’ reading and math scores increased significantly after sustained tutoring and mentoring within community schools. The study showed that community school students scored approximately 32 points higher on math and 19 points higher on reading tests compared to non-community school students in similar communities. Further, community schools closed the gap between high-poverty schools and low-poverty schools. In non-TACSI schools, higher-poverty schools achieved half the points of predominately wealthier schools in mean math achievement. However, after the implementation of the community school model (which incorporated sustained mentoring and tutoring services), the previously underachieving schools closed the gap for both math and reading scores.

The future of TACSI and the proliferation of community schools throughout Oklahoma is promising.  According to Page Whalen, Quality Enhancement Initiative Coordinator with the Child Care Resource Center, the TACSI initiative has “connected multiple sectors and built the capacity to make a comprehensive approach efficient, effective, and sustainable.” TACSI has received numerous grants and support from the Tulsa Public School District, creating a very sustainable and secure funding base.

What are the next steps for community schools?

The Oklahoma City School Board recently approved a pilot community school project at Edgemere Elementary.
The Oklahoma City School Board recently approved a pilot community school project at Edgemere Elementary.

While TACSI has demonstrated great success throughout Tulsa, the movement must continue to grow throughout the state of Oklahoma. The benefit of the community school model is its malleability. Each community school looks different and can benefit any community. In 2008 TACSI initiated “academies” where interested schools could learn more about the community school model and its implementation. Two cities that showed interest in the academies were Sand Springs and Broken Arrow. Additionally, this spring the Oklahoma City School Board approved a pilot implementation of the community school model in Edgemere Elementary.

The community school movement has proven successful; however, there are still challenges that can arise during the implementation and proliferation process. One main challenge is establishing a consistent base of funding. While cities like Tulsa have a strong philanthropic base to supplement the program, other cities struggle to ensure consistent and steady funding over longer time periods. During times of budget shortfalls, the services provided at community schools may be viewed as “extra” programs that are easier to cut.

Funding can be a challenge even for long-existing community school movements. Chicago currently has the largest community school system in the nation, the Community Schools Initiative. However, recent district-wide budget cuts have threatened the initiative’s after-school programs and forced community resource coordinators to work part-time or spread their work across multiple schools. Chicago Public Schools closed 18 community schools during the 2012-2013 school year after funding cuts. Community schools have proven to be cost-effective at improving outcomes for children in poverty, but a diverse, committed group of funders is still crucial.

The bottom line

High-poverty schools bring special challenges that require more innovative ways of educating and caring for our students. Community schools are a way to meet those challenges without reducing expectations for low-income students.

Learn More // Do More


One thought on “Schools alone can’t overcome poverty. They need a community.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.