Philanthropy’s Role in the Growing Community Schools

Community schools have been around for over a century, but they’ve finally taken the spotlight. The educational model has picked up powerful backers in recent years — and some of its earliest and steadiest supporters come from the world of philanthropy. A number of funders have helped propel the community school movement forward, and will likely play a role in determining how widespread and enduring it remains in the years to come.

The appeal is clear. Community schools provide wraparound supports to meet both academic and nonacademic needs of students and families, often have extended hours and summer programs, and connect with community organizations to provide recreational programs and access to healthcare services  and mental healthcare, housing and food assistance, and other resources.

The Biden administration has thrown its support behind community schools — Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently announced $68 million in funding for a grant program to support community schools, and the administration is proposing to increase funding to $468 million next year, according to Education Week. Both of the national teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, are community school advocates. At the state level, California recently announced an ambitious $3 billion investment in community schools, and Florida, Maryland, New Mexico and New York have all invested in them. 

Part of the growth in interest and appreciation came about as a result of COVID-19, as community schools were able to respond quickly and effectively to the needs of students and families after the pandemic hit. “Our schools were made for this,” one school district administrator told the Hechinger Report.

Even so, as with virtually all movements in K-12 education, community schools have advanced thanks to the work of some devoted advocates and their funders. One of those advocates is José Muñoz, director of the Coalition for Community Schools (CCS), who could barely contain his exuberance as he described the growing support. CCS has helped foster community schools for the last 25 years, but its recent national conference had more attendees than ever, he said, and the excitement among those in the field is palpable. “It’s an idea from 1902, and after many years, it’s an idea that’s time has come.” 

Muñoz underscores philanthropy’s role in getting to this place. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation was an early advocate of community schools; other education funders that have championed the concept include the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Stuart Foundation and the Ballmer Group. Muñoz hopes funders will continue to play a major role going forward, as the model is replicated in schools around the country. “It’s a critical time for philanthropy to help keep our movement together,” he said. 

Social centers and lighted schoolhouses

The community school model is not a new idea, as Muñoz pointed out. In the early 20th century, for example, American philosopher and education reformer John Dewey argued that schools could serve as “social centers” in local communities.

Industrialist and philanthropist Charles Stewart Mott was an early supporter of community schools in Flint, Michigan. In 1935, Mott worked with Flint educator Frank Manley to develop “lighted schoolhouses”: local schools open during non-school hours to provide recreational and educational programs for students, their families, and other local residents, according to the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation website.

“The idea was born out of C.S. Mott looking around town and seeing all these school buildings that closed at four o’clock in the afternoon and thinking, ‘Why are these tremendous community assets not being used for the community in the evenings, on weekends, in the summers?’” said Jennifer Liversedge, a Mott Foundation program officer. “That was where the idea of schools as community hubs came from, bringing resources to the schools where kids and families already are to make it more accessible for them.”

There were community schools in Flint into the 1980s, according to Liversedge, and in 2013, during Flint’s master planning process, there was a consensus among local residents that they wanted to revisit the idea. The Mott Foundation worked with the city government and other partners to develop a community school pilot program. The model was implemented throughout the district, and the foundation continues to support Flint Community Schools today. 

The Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) has been a longtime supporter of community schools both in theory and on the ground in Baltimore, where a large percentage of schools follow this model. AECF is part of a coalition that helped Bal­ti­more City Pub­lic Schools hire a consultant to devel­op “a strate­gic long-term plan for sus­tain­ing and strength­en­ing its com­mu­ni­ty schools,” according to AECF’s website. 

The Stuart Foundation, a family foundation that focuses on education and the wellbeing of children, has also been a steadfast supporter of community schools. The foundation considers this approach essential to ensuring that “young people, especially those furthest from opportunity, thrive into adulthood; this is part of a movement to make systems more holistic, places where learning and healing are deeply intertwined,” Sophie Fanelli, foundation president, said via email. “For us, community schools address both learning and wellbeing through seamless delivery of essential academic, physical and mental health supports to students and families.” 

Stuart’s support for community schools is thoughtful and multilayered. The foundation has supported community schools on the ground in California and Washington state, and funded research and advocacy efforts that have informed and strengthened the movement. Stuart has funded, for example, the UCLA Center for Community Schooling, which is providing technical assistance for the new California Community Schools Partnership Program. It also works with the Partnership for the Future of Learning, a network that promotes education equity, which created the comprehensive Community Schools Playbook. Finally, Stuart has supported a constellation of research and policy organizations including the Learning Policy Institute, John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Families, and the Community Schools Learning Exchange.

“This work is long-term and not a silver-bullet strategy,” Fanelli said. 

The Ballmer Group’s support for community schools is more recent. This education model aligns with Ballmer’s place-based strategy (“place-based partnerships” are one of the four levers of change the foundation emphasizes in its work). Ballmer supports the Community Schools Forward Task Force, a coalition that includes the National Center for Community Schools at Children’s Aid, the Learning Policy Institute, the Brookings Institute Center for Universal Education, and the Coalition for Community Schools. 

In one example of its grantmaking on the topic, the Ballmer Group is supporting the Learning Policy Institute’s research on the policy undergirding community schools. “The Ballmer Group is interested in the policy side, to help make sure that we get the policy right,” said Jeannie Oakes, an education expert and senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute. “It’s tricky, because by nature, community schools are very locally grown. So you don’t want to turn this into something you can plug and play, but rather to develop standards and principles that schools adhere to, so that anybody can’t just put a sign on their door and say, ‘I’m a community school.’”

Why are community schools in the spotlight?

Philanthropists have backed many K-12 trends over the years, but what is it about community schools that makes them such a draw right now? For one, there’s a growing body of evidence that the model gets results.

A 2017 report, for example, published by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) and the National Educational Policy Center, reviewed the findings of 143 research studies evaluating the “impact of community schools on student and school outcomes.” The report concluded that “well-implemented community schools lead to improvement in student and school outcomes and contribute to meeting the educational needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools.” 

LPI has provided much of the research muscle demonstrating the effectiveness of community schools. In addition to Ballmer and Stuart, the institute has a long list of heavy hitters backing it, including Carnegie, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Walton Family and Sobrato Family foundations, and the Packard and Hewlett foundations. LPI President Linda Darling-Hammond’s name comes up frequently in the movement — she led the education policy transition teams for Presidents Obama and Biden, and as president of the California State Board of Education, has been instrumental in forming the state’s ambitious community schools program. 

Jennifer Liversedge at the Mott Foundation pointed out that the impact of community schools is at the individual level, but it’s also much bigger than that. “We hear stories about, for example, a family that comes to town and all they have are the clothes on their backs,” she said. “And the community school director helps connect them to an apartment and some furnishings and diapers for the baby and that kind of thing… And then, you know, you have the community school director walking through the school building, just giving a kid a high five on his way to his next class. So it’s this gamut of addressing big structural issues, as well as just encouraging a kid with a high five or a pat on the back.”

Another reason for high funder interest is that the model incorporates many of the policies and values that ed funders prioritize. Community schools are all about the “whole child,” an approach that is popular with many education funders today. Community schools typically practice less punitive, alternative forms of discipline — restorative justice practices versus expulsions, for example — which have won backing from many ed funders. Community schools address issues of racial equity and justice, which are important pillars of most ed funding programs today.

Finally, community schools manage to sidestep the controversy over the merits of charter versus traditional public schools, which many education funders have grappled with over the years. Once an ideological pillar for education philanthropists, we’re finding that many funders are taking a more agnostic stance when it comes to charters. The community school model has been adopted by both charter and traditional public schools in different areas of the country. 

The future of the movement

Schools face many challenges right now, including widespread COVID learning loss, teacher shortages, and persistent budget cuts, along with clashes over so-called critical race theory and right-wing attacks on the very notion of public education.

As thrilled as he is about the growing popularity of community schools, Jose Muñoz has concerns that success could make the movement a target in such heated debates. To date, community schools have won support from both sides of the political aisle. But now that the concept is being promoted by the Biden administration and by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a high-profile blue state governor, Muñoz is afraid that could change. He’s already seen some backlash in right-wing media.

“For all of us who’ve been doing this for years, this is nonpartisan work,” Muñoz said. “Now, we have to think of it as bipartisan work. But this isn’t about politics. It’s about students being safe, supported and successful. It’s about communities that are belonging together and working together and thriving together.”

Jeannie Oakes outlined some of the ways philanthropy can play an ongoing role in supporting the movement. “Philanthropy can continue to support individual schools and lift up sites that are real exemplars of practice,” she said. “It’s so important for people to be able to see good examples of this work. And funders can, like Ballmer, support us in efforts to strengthen the field and think about how to scale this. Philanthropy can also play an important role by continuing to focus on the science of learning and development and addressing the whole child — to advance those bigger ideas that drive practice.” 

The Stuart Foundation’s Sophie Fanelli agreed, adding that foundations can strengthen the community school movement by funding advocacy and organizing, developing and expanding the range of research and data on community schools, and underwriting professional development for educators.

“There is absolutely a role for philanthropy right now,” she told IP. “This is not a ‘new’ reform or program — it is a proven strategy, but deep transformation will take time.”

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