What are community schools? (Capitol Update)

I recently noted the 2024 KIDS COUNT® Data Book published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and its state partner, Oklahoma Policy Institute, in its state-by-state comparison of child well-being ranked Oklahoma 49th in education, ahead only of New Mexico. One of the recommendations contained in the report (for all states, not just Oklahoma) was to invest more in community schools. Oklahoma has few community schools.

I’ve had several people ask what’s the difference between a community school and a regular public school, so, not being an educator myself, I thought I’d investigate it a bit. There are several good sources of information, but one research document I found is a report entitled, “Community Schools as an Effective School Improvement Strategy: A Review of the Evidence,” sponsored by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) and the National Education Policy Center (NEPC).

According to its website, LPI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts and communicates independent, high-quality research to improve education policy and practice. Some of its listed funders are the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Thornburg Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, and many others. NEPC doesn’t list its funders, but its mission as partly stated on its website is “to provide high-quality information in support of democratic deliberation about education policy.”

Quoting from the report, “Community schools represent a place-based strategy in which schools partner with community agencies and allocate resources to provide an integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement.

“Many operate on an all-day and year-round schedule and serve both children and adults. Although this strategy is appropriate for students of all backgrounds, many community schools arise in neighborhoods where structural forces linked to racism and poverty shape the experiences of young people and erect barriers to learning and school success. These are communities where families have few resources to supplement what typical schools provide.

“Community schools vary in the programs they offer and the ways they operate, depending on their local context. However, four features — or pillars — appear in most community schools and support the conditions for teaching and learning found in high-quality schools. (1) Integrated student supports, (2) expanded learning time and opportunities, (3) family and community engagement, and (4) collaborative leadership and practice.”

According to the report, “Today’s community schools build partnerships between the school and other local entities – higher education institutions, government health and social service agencies, community-based nonprofits, and faith-based organizations. These partnerships intentionally create structures, strategies, and relationships to provide the learning conditions and opportunities — both in school and out — that are enjoyed by students in better resourced schools, where the schools’ work is supplemented by high-capacity communities and families.”

Some of these activities are likely happening in nearly every school district. But the report found the four pillars of community schools appear to reinforce each other. A comprehensive approach that brings all these factors together would require changes to existing structures, practices, and partnerships at most regular school sites.

No doubt, community schools have a cost, which is probably why they are sparse in the state. It’s likely nearly everyone could name schools or areas in their communities off the top of their head that have suffered for years and are simply not going to have a high level of success without this, or some comparable level of resources being made available to them. The state aid funding formula gives some added weight to school districts for economically disadvantaged students, but it is not enough to provide for the needs in these schools.

According to the LPI/NEPC report, funding help is available through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The report concluded that sufficient evidence exists to qualify the community schools approach as an evidence-based intervention under ESSA. Perhaps the legislature will reconsider creating some pilot community school programs in the state if Rep. Tammy West, R-OKC, chooses to renew her efforts again next session.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.