System Change Through Community Schools

District leaders cite the benefits they are reaping through external partnering by Martin J. Blank and Dan Cady

In 1991, community schooling in Evansville, Ind., consisted of an afterschool program in a single elementary school. A dozen years later, community schooling is becoming embedded in the system through an infrastructure of support for schools, students, families and community.

Leadership and community support made it happen. By 1998, something special was happening at Cedar Hall Elementary School in Evansville. With leadership from Principal Cathy Gray, staff and community partners had transformed a traditional school into a full-service community school, using site-based decision making to identify student needs and mobilizing school and community resources to meet them. Standardized test scores increased dramatically, while student attendance, mobility and discipline improved. The site team led the district’s application for a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, bringing $1.8 million to five Evansville schools.

Buying into Cedar Hall’s community school vision, the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp. decided to establish a citywide School-Community Council consisting of school and community agency leaders. Known locally as the “Big Table,” the council mirrors the highly effective site council at Cedar Hall that involves parents and residents, school staff, community agencies and businesses. Today nearly 70 agencies energize a 28-member council steering committee with numerous problem-solving groups. Additional site teams developed in tandem with the School-Community Council have moved far beyond their required advisory status.

Taking the Cedar Hall model systemwide required central-office leadership. With the school board’s approval, Evansville Superintendent Bart McCandless realigned key administrative positions, making sure staff had sufficient authority to roll out a community school approach. An assistant superintendent for federal projects who oversees the School-Community Council enables the district to pool its funding streams. This critical step minimizes the categorical barriers to comprehensive service delivery.

An assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction ensures that instructional and professional development reflects a full-service, community school approach, while an assistant superintendent for finance and facilities oversees cash flow and adequate building space.

“What we have created is an infrastructure to solve problems,” says McCandless, a district staff member for four years and superintendent since 2001. “People see you’re meeting needs and all of a sudden everyone wants to help.”

Much Potential

Encouraging this kind of community and school change is what the National Center for Community Education and the Coalition for Community Schools are all about. Since 1962, NCCE has been promoting community schools by providing leadership development, training and technical assistance. The Coalition is an alliance of 170 national, state and local organizations that promotes community schools as the most effective vehicle for integrating schools and community resources to ensure student success.


NCCE’s work affirms what the Coalition for Community Schools found in its recent review of 20 major community school evaluations. According to “Making the Difference: Research and Practice in Community Schools” (available at www.communityschools.org/mtdhomepage.html), community schools show:

  • Significant and widely evident gains in academic achievement and essential areas of nonacademic development;
  • Increased family stability and more involvement with schools;
  • Increased teacher satisfaction and more positive school environment; and
  • Better use of school buildings and increased security and pride in neighborhoods.

Community schools make a difference because they have advantages that traditional schools, acting alone, do not. They bring more human and financial resources into the schools so teachers and students can focus on learning. They engage and motivate students by fostering social, emotional and physical growth as well as academic skills. And they build social capital for schools as well as students.

The stories of superintendent leadership in four small to mid-size districts serving many low-income students illustrate these advantages, showing how schools are changing from the inside out.

Human Resources

Evidence of new resources in Evansville is hard to miss. After hearing from site team members that children were coming to school with toothaches, St. Mary’s Medical Center commissioned a gleaming 60-foot dental van to take services directly to students at school. Dentists and hygienists saw 1,600 children last year, many of them for multiple visits. The hospital bills Medicaid but absorbs any uncovered costs so all services are free. Jean Baresic, Evansville’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, says: “When children are in pain, learning suffers. Services like these help us be more effective as teachers.”


In Independence, Mo., more resources and great success have come through the school district’s participation with the Local Investment Commission, or LINC, a regional community collaborative that functions as an intermediary between the state and local institutions. The partnership has been “crucial in braiding together state and community resources,” says Superintendent Jim Hinson.

Through LINC, Independence received funding from the state’s Caring Communities initiative to bring additional health care, social services and parent involvement to four underperforming elementary schools. The turnaround in these high-poverty, low-achieving schools has been remarkable. Test scores at all four schools now lead the district and outrank state averages. A range of services and evening activities keep the schools open and their neighborhoods safer. A case study by the Education Commission of the States (available at www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/46/03/4603.htm) reports: “Throughout the city, pressure has been lessened on teachers and principals to deal with social and behavioral problems, enabling them to concentrate on teaching and learning.”

Motivational Force

For the high-poverty Port Chester School District in New York’s affluent Westchester County, partnering with community agencies to bring an umbrella of resources to its students is only one part of its community school vision. It’s also about building communities in classrooms.


The idea of full-service community schools took root several years ago at Edison Elementary School in Port Chester. Says Principal Ilene Santiago: “One way a school becomes a true community school is by creating a community of learners--translating the philosophy of community schooling into the classroom.”

“Introducing this perspective has required teachers to look at their role a little differently,” says Charles Coletti, who has been with the school district for 35 years and its superintendent since 1995. Instead of classrooms organized in straight rows with an “all eyes forward” approach to instruction, the flow of information and ideas moves freely among teachers and children. The teacher connects the curriculum to experiences that actively involve children and make learning meaningful to their own lives.

For example, in a unit on letter carriers as community workers, children wrote letters; divided the building into delivery zones; developed pick up schedules; and delivered mail throughout the school. The children’s activities, facilitated by skillful teachers, taught math and language skills and developed competence and a sense of community.

Assistant Superintendent Michael Kohlhagen says the shifting to research-based, best instructional practices consistent with community schooling has improved Port Chester’s pedagogy. “We’re making learning relevant to their lives. … The best teaching comes from building stronger relationships with kids.”

Over two consecutive years, Edison Elementary’s performance has exceeded that of comparison schools. Eighty-six percent of 4th graders passed New York’s state language exam last year and 98 percent passed math. “Classrooms have changed and so has conversation in the teacher’s room,” observes Santiago. “Since the problems that get in the way of teaching are being solved, teachers are free to think about the curriculum instead of whom to blame.”

Social Capital

Community schools build young people’s social capital by connecting them to resources and relationships that can help solve problems and open the doors to opportunity. The same advantages apply to school districts. Communitywide partnerships give school districts a voice and a forum in which to bring school needs and perspectives to a wide audience.


In Independence, a community school approach has helped foster an ongoing dialogue with city leaders. Monthly meetings sustain relationships between school staff and key city leaders including the chamber of commerce, police and fire departments and city government. The participation of school board members on planning and growth committees has allowed the district to influence city economic and housing development plans, rather than reacting to them.

“We’ve been in a position to review proposals in the early stages and evaluate them on the basis of their impact on the tax base and school funding. We’ve been pro-active rather than adversarial and the city has modified some of its initial thinking,” said Hinson, who has been Independence’s superintendent for the past two years.

Growth issues also are a pressing concern in the Ankeny School District in Ankeny, Iowa. As rural Iowans move closer to Des Moines, the suburban district’s enrollment is increasing and the community is changing. “It’s so important that we work together to shape a vision for the future,” says Superintendent Kent Mutchler.

Community planning is a key feature of Ankeny’s long-standing commitment to community education. Every three years the district convenes a citywide, three-day conference to hammer out new priorities. Encouraging diversity and a sense of belonging ranked high in 2002. The district already has a centrally located family support center and schools provide space for thousands of hours of programming for learners of all ages so they are looking at new ways to build community, such as increasing affordable housing.

A cooperative arrangement with a local community college also helps Ankeny create a strong sense of belonging. More than half the students at Ankeny’s single high school earned college credit last year in their own classrooms through a state-funded program. The district provides masters-level teachers; and the community college provides the curriculum. As Mutchler puts it: “A sense of service and community cooperation is just ingrained here. It helps us make the most of our resources and people are so much more comfortable in the schools and supportive of them.”

Leadership Role

Community schools take root where superintendents provide leadership, advocacy and support.


Superintendents support this work by articulating a clear vision of community schooling as central to the district’s core mission. They use that vision to sharpen and focus partnerships. And they sustain commitment to community schools by broadening participation and respecting local wisdom.

Evansville’s McCandless agrees with psychologist Abraham Maslow that children’s basic needs must be met before they can shine at higher-level tasks like reading and writing. He is also a tireless advocate of his district’s commitment to education as a shared responsibility. Communicating that vision “takes getting out there in the community,” says McCandless, “not just being visible, but actively participating.”

How to frame the message also matters. When several news media outlets in Evansville approached the district with various story ideas, McCandless made sure they worked closely with the School-Community Council and the volunteer experts on their communications subcommittee to send the right message: “Kids are in need and you can help.”

“When someone asks, ‘What can I do?’” McCandless says, “have an answer. Give them a contact name and the next meeting time of their nearest site council and you’ll have them hooked.”

In Ankeny, pairing student assessment results with efficiency data made it easy for the community to see their district’s success and justify budget requests. Consistently high test scores complement the district’s rank as the 8th most efficiently run of 370 in the state. By pointing out that geothermal energy makes schools more efficient, people see how using school buildings evenings, nights and weekends to provide community education programming is cost effective and contributes to student performance.

Staying Focused

School districts have to know what they want to achieve and get there in a way that doesn’t detract from the school’s core mission. The greatest concern in the beginning, says Port Chester’s Coletti, was “making sure that we didn’t lose sight of the academic piece.”


He wanted external partners to agree that the communities they were creating in classrooms and out of school were all aimed at academic development. The school board had to be assured that services would not be duplicated. “So we did a lot of sharing and team building,” the superintendent says, noting the time was well spent. “We were changing our school from the inside out and we understood that these were critical issues.”

Evansville stays on track by using its four-part mission statement to evaluate and sharpen every proposal that comes before the School-Community Council. Developed by a large group over more than a year, it requires that all ventures must directly contribute to specific school goals.

Wider Participation

A community school, according to Independence’s Hinson, “grows out of inclusive, shared decision making by professionals and consumers together. The more people you involve, the more successful the process will be. We don’t consider anyone an outsider.” Hinson also encourages his staff to find ways to put separate funding streams under the same umbrella.


Successfully engaging the community also means deepening the public’s understanding of the ideas that inform community schools. Mutchler, the superintendent in Ankeny, helped his school board members get a better handle on what community building could mean to their district through a yearlong book study. At every meeting they discussed a chapter of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam.

“It helped us think about how to instill a sense of belonging and keep things small for students and staff while growing larger as a district,” says Mutchler, Ankeny’s superintendent for the past two years. When administrative staff launched a similar study, he made sure they received professional development credit for their work.

At Port Chester’s Edison school, partners are invited to talk about their work at grade-level meetings and staff retreats. Santiago, the school’s principal, says insights offered by case workers have helped “illuminate children’s lives. Teachers are touched and begin to understand the difference a community school can make.”

Edison also has begun to grow a cadre of new teachers who better appreciate the community school approach by supervising field placements for student teachers. “When a teaching position opens up,” Santiago says, “that’s who we hire.” At last count, four of Edison’s 35 teachers were homegrown.

Local Wisdom

Over the past century, local community schools have developed in various ways with community education playing a central role. Communities and school systems are rebuilding themselves block by block and family by family.


The National Center for Community Education and the Coalition for Community Schools, along with our many partners, believe that paying better attention to local wisdom is one way to put the community school approach front and center on the national reform agenda.

Martin Blank is the staff director of the Coalition for Community Schools, Institute for Educational Leadership, 1001 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 310, Washington, DC 20036. E-mail: blankm@iel.org. Dan Cady is the executive director of the National Center for Community Education in Flint, Mich.