Many of us innately believe that neither your race nor the community in which you have been raised should determine your chances in life. Unfortunately, these factors often have a significant impact on our life outcomes. Geographical and racial disparities in opportunity can be reduced and potentially eliminated, but only through intentional intervention that seeks to enhance opportunities in areas disproportionately impacted by structural racism. One strategy that has potential as an effective tool for achieving more equitable access to opportunity is the “school-community partnership” model that intervenes early in a child’s life to create the conditions necessary for social mobility.
Access to opportunities necessary to achieve social mobility are integrally tied to America’s history of explicit racial bias in American housing policy. Policies existing in the first half of the 20th century explicitly created lasting racial residential patterns that clustered people of color in areas with fewer opportunities. Generally, whites moved out to the suburbs, bringing jobs and wealth with them, while minority and poor populations remained in the urban cores with fewer options for quality housing, gainful employment, and high functioning public school systems. Although the Civil Rights Act made explicit racism illegal, these residential patterns have largely remained. People of color are still disproportionately represented in urban areas of concentrated poverty that have significant barriers to the conditions needed to thrive.
Access to quality K-12 education is one of several key ingredients for socio-economic mobility that tends to vary greatly by place, and subsequently by race. This educational element is unique due to its reciprocal relationship with the overall strength of a community. Higher levels of academic achievement tend to bring a wider array of employment and geographic options to the life of a person and even to the lives of their descendants. Elements internal to schools such as quality teaching, curriculum, and leadership undoubtedly influence the ability of children to learn. These in-school factors require investment across our most vulnerable communities if we are to fight for educational equity in our country. Yet at the same time, the ability for students to learn within local school systems is also partially determined by external factors that influence the community’s strength. Some of these external factors include the housing stability, healthy food access, job access for parents, the availability of transit options for children to reach the highest performing schools and more. Therefore, we must focus on factors both inside and outside of schools that influence learning, thereby fortifying both the school and community in tandem.
These internal and external factors not only jointly contribute to student outcomes, but they are interdependent and reciprocal in nature. Our community shapes our access to resources that enable us to not only thrive, but very importantly, to learn. Research demonstrates that “school quality can only account for about one-third of variation in student achievement,” and that the rest can be attributed to factors outside of school. Concurrently, the quality and reputation of local schools largely impacts the vitality of a community. School quality is one of the largest factors in a homebuyer’s choice of residential location. This is especially so for families, but even still for those who are keen to the impact of school quality on the future value of their investment. If schools perform poorly, a community will likely have difficulty attracting and retaining residents and therefore the tax base to support local schools. This reciprocal relationship between education and community development means that education reformers and community developers can benefit through collaboration.
School-Community Partnerships can act to align the goals of community development and educational opportunity in a way that can encourage student success. “In these partnerships, schools expand the traditional educational mission of the school to include health and social services for children and families and to involve the wider community.” In this way, they work to simultaneously strengthen both the internal and external factors that, together, impact student outcomes. Within the realm of place-based urban school reform efforts, school-community partnerships have drawn increased attention by city and school stakeholders alike. There are various kinds of school-community partnerships, each having different scopes, purposes, and inputs necessary for success. With the growing interest in these partnerships, it becomes important to use a common framework with which to categorize, evaluate, and communicate the various programs that fall under the category of “school-community partnerships.” We must also be critical in understanding how our best intentions within the context of school-community partnerships can be harmful to the very populations we seek to assist.
Researchers at University of Maryland, College Park have created a typology of school-community partnerships that is useful in understanding and evaluating the different strategies that currently exist to coordinate efforts of school and community stakeholders. These authors categorize school-community partnerships into the following four groups: Family and Interagency Collaboration, Full-Service Schools, Full-Service Community Schools, Community Development models. The strategies range from least to most comprehensive in purpose. The most basic form of partnership is the Family and Interagency collaboration which extends the work of schools beyond that of teaching and learning by coordinating the delivery of services to support students and families. The goal is to build relationships between the school and service provider that are sustainable, but services are neither meant to be comprehensive nor necessarily at or near the school site. Full-Service schools take service provision one step further by attempting to “integrate a full-range of academic, health, and social services.” These schools become a new kind of institution that works to serve the needs of the “whole” child within the time and space dimensions of the school. Full Service Community Schools (FSCS) are similar to Full Service Schools, but are open to including greater participation in decision making by the neighbors and greater community. Families become more than clients, but partners. The Community Development model “goes beyond transforming schools to transforming whole neighborhoods and communities.” These programs focus on things such as job creation, advocacy, community organizing and view the school as a central resource to be used to connect community members.
Numerous studies have reported positive outcomes in schools and communities that have utilized the various types of school-community partnerships. Researchers have reported evidence of increased student achievement and attendance across examples of each of the four typologies. Reports also show benefits that extend outside of the school by improving neighborhood stability, increasing parent and community engagement, and increasing community pride. However, even the least intensive school-community partnership model requires a commitment of time and resources from the actors involved. Researchers and critics of these partnerships widely agree that the “level and fidelity of implementation as well as longevity and intensity of treatment” are important in determining whether positive outcomes are realized. The Community Development model is a relatively new theory and its results can be expected to emerge over a relatively long time-horizon. Therefore, to evaluate the Community Development Model, more research is needed to isolate the impact of such partnerships on student and community outcomes.
Although school-community partnerships are an attractive tool for fighting against educational inequities, they are not without risks. These partnerships have been criticized for operating under an ill-defined and idealized concept of “community,” and engaging primarily in deficit thinking. Those who initiate school community partnerships must be careful to ask important questions such as: Who does our concept of community include/exclude? Whose ideal community are we trying to achieve? Are those being served by this partnership involved in the defining the ideal community for which to strive? Without examining these questions and explicitly exploring how community is defined and determined, these programs could end up reproducing the current systems that continue to create inequitable outcomes.
Despite their risks, school-community partnerships are helpful in highlighting the interdependence of school and community outcomes and the ability for collaboration between stakeholders to generate efficient outcomes. Community planners and education reformers individually working to achieve equity for their constituent populations could benefit from thinking outside of the traditional boundaries of their fields and working to align their interdisciplinary strategies. Doing so could be catalytic in driving change for children, families, and the systems that underpin the ability of our communities to provide the conditions for thriving citizens. School-Community partnerships are a strategy that has helped urban planners, policy makers, education reformers shift toward more efficient and interdisciplinary methods of change.
(1) Charles, Camille Zubrinsky. "The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation." JSTOR 29 (June 4, 2003): 167-207.
(2) Baum, Howell S. Community action for school reform. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.
(3) Quoted in Bierbaum, Ariel H, Jeffrey M. Vincent, and Deborah L. McKoy. "Growth & Opportunity Aligning High-Quality Public Education & Sustainable Communities Planning in the Bay Area." Center for Cities & Schools, June 2011, 6.
(4) Ibid., 9.
(5) Valli, Linda, Amanda Stefanski, and Reuben Jacobson. "Topologizing School–Community Partnerships." Urban Education 51, no. 7 (2016): 719-720.
(6) Ibid., 719-47.
(9) Perkins, Tasha. "School–Community Partnerships, Friend or Foe? The Doublespeak of Community with Educational Partnerships." Educational Studies 51, no. 4 (2015): 317-36.