3 Lessons Learned From Sustainable Community Schools in Practice

Sustainable Community Schools in Action

Brighton Park Elementary School is a model for schools looking to meet the needs of students beyond the classroom walls. For Principal Sara Haas, this reflects a lifelong commitment. “I come from a community school background, and it’s been a core part of my entire educational career trajectory,” she says. Aside from impressive educational offerings like a STEM lab and a recording studio, this commitment manifests within her school through extracurricular programs like extensive out-of-school programming, language support, and mental health services.

Brighton Park funds many of these opportunities through the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Sustainable Community Schools program (SCS), which currently allows 20 schools to provide similar types of services that benefit students and the community. “It has truly been a lifeline for us,” Sara says of the funding provided through SCS. Throughout the life of the program, CPS has used SCS to partner with neighborhood organizations and provide services that meet community needs. As the district considers expanding this program, it is important to understand how to successfully implement an SCS program, and how CPS can scale the initiative most effectively.

What Are Community Schools?

The concept of “community schools” is not unique to Chicago and has in various forms been implemented in districts across the country. The National Center for Community Schools describes the community schools model as “a strategy for organizing the resources of the community around student success.” CPS formally supports the community schools model through three programs under its Community Schools Initiative.

CPS adopted SCS as one of these programs in 2016, when its contract with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) included $10 million to establish the model in 20 schools. These participants pair with community-based organizations to provide additional services at the school under the direction of a community-based leadership team. Expanding the program has been a priority of CTU since its inception, and Mayor Brandon Johnson made SCS a key plank of his education platform during his campaign, eventually setting a goal of having 200 participant schools by the end of his first term.

3 Lessons Learned From the SCS Model in Practice

School leaders like Sara at Brighton Park appreciate the SCS model and the additional opportunities the program allows them to bring to their students. As CPS looks to scale up the program, it is important to learn from these leaders’ experiences to highlight the essential ingredients of a successful community school. In our conversations with principals, a few common threads are apparent:

1. Community buy-in is essential.

Successful community schools design programs that meet needs identified by community partners and provide for them in a way that accounts for the unique cultural, linguistic, and geographic characteristics of the surrounding neighborhood. Doing this requires a strong working relationship and constant communication between the principal of the school and community leaders. Under SCS, this means convening a strong leadership team to guide implementation.

2. A well-equipped community-based organization is an asset.

Successful community partners have the capacity and experience to handle large-scale grants and to work with CPS and other district stakeholders. As the program scales and expands, it will be crucial to identify organizations with both these attributes and deep, genuine ties to the neighborhoods they serve to ensure implementation that is both effective and authentic to the spirit of their communities.

3. Communication between participating schools can identify best practices.

Currently, there is no formalized process for participating schools to share their experiences within the Community Schools Initiative, even for those schools in the same neighborhoods or partnering with the same organizations. As the SCS grows in scale, opportunities for collaboration can generate best practices, and suggestions for changes at the district level will improve program operation.

When implemented successfully, community schools can serve as a lifeline to students, their families, and other community members alike. As the district considers adding new schools to the program, school leaders with experience in the current iteration of SCS can serve as a valuable resource for guiding this expansion. These lessons, along with countless more experiences at the school level, can drive improvements in the system and the successful growth of CPS as a school district that prioritizes community involvement.

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