THE BLOG

Shrinking Budgets Demand Smarter Schools

05/21/2011 01:02 pm ET | Updated Jul 21, 2011

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has warned of an ominous "New Normal" for public schools. This era of sky-high deficits and fiscal austerity for states and school districts threatens our ability to achieve better outcomes for all students, particularly the most vulnerable. That leaves us no choice but to work together and spend smarter.

Enter community schools. Built around the notion that education is a shared responsibility, community schools draw on the expertise and capacity of many local institutions, including universities, nonprofits, and government agencies to coordinate diverse services under one schoolhouse roof. When a school is a community hub, students and families can easily access healthcare, academic enrichment, social services and a range of supports that strengthen kids, parents, and neighborhoods.

Just as critically in this economy, community schools efficiently combine scarce school, local, public, and private funds to maximize the benefit to children and families. By marshaling complementary services, community schools eliminate waste and bureaucratic barriers to leverage a variety of funding streams and human talent. These multi-tasking campuses provide more comprehensive help to families than any one school or organization alone could. Working across boundaries educates the "whole child" and serves the whole family, which in turn, strengthens the whole community.

I saw this vision in action during a visit to the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) community schools in Multnomah County, Oregon. This initiative links the county, the city of Portland, and six school districts to provide a range of supports for students that will help them to succeed. Thanks to sustained investments by the county, city and school districts, with strong local leadership, and support from existing health, higher education, youth development and other agencies resources, SUN Community Schools have grown from eight in 2001, to 60 schools today.

A coordinator at each school, hired by a lead community-based agency, strategically leverages the services and expertise of local nonprofits and other organizations in an intentional way that supports the school's core mission and addresses the myriad of challenges low-income children face.

The 4-H leader at Earl Boyles Elementary, a SUN community school, is funded from a juvenile justice grant, to help mentor at-risk youngsters. He was grateful for the community schools structure, which eliminates logistical hassles of coordinating with administrators, and allows him to focus on his real goal: reaching kids. Meanwhile, AmeriCorps volunteers engage families, a local charity provides summertime meals for parents and kids, and a gardening group helps students plant and care for a community plot. Teachers connect the work students do in the community garden with classroom learning: one child presented a class report on eggplants; part of the school garden's harvest.

Last school year, Earl Boyles Elementary partnered with 28 community agencies and businesses, resulting in nearly $30,000 in cash and in-kind donations, and nearly 200 hours of volunteer service. With so much community support -- and offerings ranging from chess club to youth service learning to financial literacy for adults -- Boyles students have boosted reading and math scores, and teachers report better attendance, homework completion, and participation.

Another SUN school, Woodmere Elementary, helps prepare the youngest children -- many with no preschool or Head Start experience -- for kindergarten through a special three-week program. Parents can take English, nutrition, and computer classes. Woodmere's 29 community and business partners offered direct services, generated nearly $69,000 in cash and in-kind donations, and volunteers contributed 670 hours of service last school year.

This multi-layered approach is made possible through money from Multnomah County, the city of Portland, school districts, state and federal grants, Title I funds, the resources of local partners, and the essential donation of supplies, and volunteer hours from groups such as the PTA, Portland State University, and Reed College.

Joining forces stretches limited dollars: A recent report by the Coalition for Community Schools found that every dollar invested in a community school generates 'three dollars' worth of services and opportunities for children and families. And that's a conservative estimate. When Duncan was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, he advocated for community schools, estimating that they capture even more value.

In the midst of Duncan's "New Normal," community schools make more sense than ever. Many different services and opportunities exist in communities -- but, a coherent and collaborative strategy for organizing them is missing. By uniting social and health services, enrichment, youth development, tutoring, adult education, and other opportunities under one roof, schools and communities save time and energy, and most critically, use their money in a smarter way.

Times are tough; today's children arrive at school with complicated challenges. Solving them demands that we work together toward a smarter solution that is both effective and cost-effective. That's just what community schools do.