There is a nationwide movement to establish what are often referred to as “community schools.” The lack of progress in addressing the achievement gap has led many scholars, educators and parents to advocate for a more holistic approach to address the needs of students from low-income households. 

They posit that providing a network of services in a school, such as after-school learning programs, enrichment activities, sports activities, health services and adult education programs, will open the doors to the school, increase the opportunities for parent engagement, provide a more supportive environment for learning, and create the conditions for high student achievement.  

Perhaps one of the most expansive efforts is the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides wrap-around services starting at birth. The community’s mantra is that every child will be college ready by the time he or she finishes high school. Closer to home, 40 schools work with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) on Chicago’s northwest side to build community learning centers. They have a nationally recognized model that engages and empowers parents to partner in their child’s education. 

Here in Evanston, the Youth Organizations Umbrella (YOU) is in the beginning stages of piloting a “community school” at Chute Middle School.

“Community schools develop in so many ways and they’re really about what’s happening in the local community,” said Melissa Carpenter, YOU’s community school manager who previously worked with LSNA. “At the core, what they all have in common is the school is the hub of the community. It’s really a place where programs, resources and services come together,” she said.

The Chute Pilot

YOU has operated an after-school program at Chute since the 1990s, providing academic assistance, enrichment activities, mentoring, and clinical services. “Because our program is already so holistic, United Way saw an opportunity to fund us to build on that holistic programming and establish a pilot for a community school at Chute,” said Ms. Carpenter.

Jim McHolland, principal at Chute, was receptive to the idea, she said.

“There is already a lot going on at Chute,” said Ms. Carpenter. In addition to YOU’s after-school program, there are after-school sports activities run by FAAM and other groups. The school has a Homework Club that meets three days a week.

In the first year of the pilot, YOU took a two-pronged approach: 1) address some obvious needs, and 2) simultaneously begin a needs assessment that will lead to developing goals and measures of success for a community school.

“There were some early obvious needs we wanted to respond to,” said Ms. Carpenter. Many parents, teachers, and administrators said a lot of kids needed eye glasses. In response, YOU offered a “vision clinic” at which Art of Vision optometrists fitted 39 students with prescription eyeglasses at no cost. For students who could not attend the vision clinic, optometrists with For Eyes Optical provided support.

YOU also organized a Holiday Outreach program to provide gifts and food to about 50 families in partnership with First United Methodist Church and the City of Evanston. They partnered with the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation to provide winter coats to students. YOU sponsored a tax-preparation clinic at the school in partnership with the National Community Tax Coalition.

The pilot also established the “Academic Advocates” program, a one-on-one mentoring relationship for sixth-graders who were struggling in math, reading and life skills.

The Needs Assessment

While these programs were being offered, “We did the beginnings of a needs assessment,” said Ms. Carpenter. She said the school staff handles the academic school day “very well,” and the needs assessment focused on other things.  

She said it is important that the school community determine its own goals based on “what it feels are its distinct needs,” rather than bringing in a set model for the community school. There is no preconceived plan.

Ms. Carpenter said she met individually with parents and teachers and held three small group meetings to discuss the community’s needs. 

Some of the topics that have come up, she said, are access to health care, access to healthy eating, recreation, truancy, parent education, jobs, homelessness and connecting to one another.  “We’re starting broad,” she said.

During this summer, the community will take “buckets” of goals and begin to talk about “what are the measure of success,” said Ms. Carpenter. For health care, the measures might be every child who needs eyeglasses has them, every household should have a doctor they consider their family doctor, the rate of diabetes should be no higher than a specified percentage, she said.

They will then see how the community is currently living up to these measures and whether there is an organization in Evanston that might partner with the community school to achieve these goals. “It gives us a way to prioritize,” said Ms. Carpenter.

As an example, she said Erie Family Health Center currently provides affordable health services in Evanston. The community school could analyze how to connect the school community to Erie Health Center, such as by providing a regular clinic at the school, by providing health information nights or booths at school events, or through some other means.

“The nice thing about being in Evanston is we have all the resources really that we need,” said Ms. Carpenter. “A big part of the community school in Evanston is integrating services. How do we integrate them better in the schools. The schools are a natural place to start that integration.”

To make this work requires “as a minimum” dedicated funding and a strong lead agency that serves as the “glue” for the integrated effort, says a report prepared by Elev8 Chicago, a group of community schools in Chicago.

Parental Leadership

“A big part of our work is building a different definition of parent leadership,” said Ms. Carpenter. “In conversations with people about community schools I really try to put an emphasis about changing the face of parent leadership to be more representative and to mean different things than it has traditionally meant in Evanston.”

Drawing on lessons learned by LSNA, she said, you have to ask parents what their goals are, what they’re good at, what they can offer. “Give parents an entry point into the school.”

“When you open the doors of the schools to meet the needs of families such as through an ESL class, health care, tax preparation services, that builds space that becomes comfortable for other things.”

She gave an example – a grandmothers’ group. Grandmothers raising their grandkids may be reluctant or unable to be involved in the PTA, but they may want to meet other grandmothers and exchange ideas about their grandkids’ use of Facebook, or how to best contact a teacher, or how to find out what their grandkids’ homework assignment is. If the school facilitates a meeting place and the exchange of information between grandmothers, “it provides an entry point into the school,” said Ms. Carpenter.

“Parents become more champions of their children’s education when you very intentionally engage them and their goals and their lives.”

Expanding the Community School Model

“I think everyone is receiving it well,” said District 65 Superintendent Hardy Murphy. He said the program at Chute is not a “pilot” in the sense that it is a new concept that needs to be tested. “Community schools have had good results throughout the country. The question is whether we can bring the array of supports and resources together in a way that’s effective,” he said. “It appears we’ve been able to do that.

“We’re showing that we can replicate the kind of outcomes and experiences that have been successful in other places,” Dr. Murphy said.

When asked if he was open to the idea of expanding the community school concept to other schools in District 65, Dr. Murphy said, “I’m very open to this, I think, by definition, schools are part of the community. Any effort that serves to bring supports and success closer together and in a more coordinated fashion for the youth of our community is something that has to be looked at for replicating and expanding.”

“I am very happy that YOU is a community partner and is piloting their community school initiative,” said Katie Bailey, a member of the District 65 School Board. “Metrics indicate that community schools can improve outcomes, including  achievement. YOU’s commitment to the community school model and Missy [Carpenter’s] understanding of the benefit of community schools and her commitment to work with specific communities to serve their needs will benefit District 65. As a School Board member and a member of YOU’s Community Counsel, I look forward to supporting this initiative.”

District 65 School Board President Tracy Quattrocki was also supportive. “As a School Board member and long-time YOU supporter,” she said, “I am excited to see YOU and the District working together closely to roll out the community school model in Evanston.  With the success of the Chute pilot, it is my hope that this model can be expanded to other schools in the District.

“The Board is also eager for a discussion of the community school model to be included in our upcoming strategic planning process, thus ensuring that the social, emotional and academic needs addressed through this initiative are reflected in the District’s vision going forward,” Ms. Quattrocki added.  

Seth Green, YOU’s executive director, thinks YOU’s after-school program is a natural fit for a community school, but would like to see other community organizations partner in the effort.

“We see it as a kind of partnership with the after-school program,” said Mr. Green. “We would naturally be a fit to run the after-school program in a lot of places. But community schools we see as something that numerous agencies in this community would be natural owners of, not just us, but YMCA, Family Focus and the School District.

“Our goal with Chute is we want to pilot something, but then hopefully get it to be a shared effort by the community and have numerous groups supporting and funding it.”

Many papers and research briefs describe the positive effects of community schools. In a report, Positive Student Outcome in Community Schools (2012), the authors say many of the analyses are not based on rigorus research models. However, they point to several studies which they say are “methodologically rigorous.” The studies found positive effects for “Communities in Schools,” a nationwide organization that provides wrap around services in 200 schools in the nation, and for community schools in Tulsa, Ok. The report itself found positive effects in Redwood City, California. The positive effects include higher academic scores, lower drop-out rates, higher attendance rates, lower discipline problems and improved student attitudes.

In a paper “Community School Results” (2013), the Coalition for Community Schools describes generally the academic progress taking place in community schools in nine cities across the country, and cites examples of how other community schools are improving students’ work habits, efforts and attitudes toward learning.

In Chicago, Elev8 Chicago, an initiative with five community school partners says it has incorporated a rigorous evaluation framework and is being independently evaluated by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, an evaluation expected to take place over the next few years. In the meantime, Elev8 Chicago issued a report with these early lessons:   

• Integrated programs and services “make it possible for collaborating partners to provide more efficient services and to achieve a powerful collective impact on students and families.”

• “Expanded learning programs provide a backbone for engaging students and families in the life of schools. These programs help young people become excited about learning and keep them safe during the critical afterschool hours. They also foster supportive relationships between students and adult.”

• “Annual surveys in Elev8 schools show that students’ sense of belonging, parent support for student learning and perceived support from teachers have all increased since Elev8 started.”

• “Elev8 schools have seen reductions in disciplinary incidents and perceptions of school safety.”

• “Elev8 programs brought new parents into the schools and strengthened ties with parents who were already involved. … Such connections are critical for helping students succeed.”

• “School-based clinics help students manage chronic illnesses like asthma and improve school-wide immunizations and attendance rates. Counseling services have been particularly sought after at Elev8 schools, suggesting that without school-based health centers, students mental health needs may go largely unaddressed.”

• “Supports like school-based healthcare, high-quality expanded learning programs, and parent engagement have all been linked to better outcomes for youth.”

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...