Community Schools: Whole Child Education in Action

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By JoAnne Ferrara and Eileen Santiago

Poverty in America is at the forefront of discussions taking place among policymakers and gaining media attention. The time has come for individuals outside of the education arena to pay attention to the issues related to poverty and student achievement. In their search for solutions to the widening achievement gap between poor students and their affluent counterparts, perhaps these individuals will discover what teachers, especially those in high-poverty schools, have always known: poverty and achievement are inextricably linked.community schools

One wonders how often teachers in under-resourced schools have witnessed students coming to school hungry, tired, sick, or lacking a winter coat. For many children living in poverty, these signs represent either a lack of or limited access to the basic necessities often taken for granted in many households across the nation. To expect these students to perform at the same rate as middle-class or well-to-do students when their basic human needs are not met is a disservice to them and the professionals that teach them. One way for educators to level disparities between these two groups of students is through the implementation of whole child education within the structure of a community school model.

Community schools and their predecessors, settlement houses, provide services for children and families in need. Central to the mission of the community school model is the unwavering belief that in order for children to be academically successful, the primary focus of the school experience must be meeting their developmental needs. Therefore, community schools garner the resources of the community through partnership with social service agencies or nonprofit organizations to provide a network of easily-accessible programs at the school site. In this way, community schools develop a culture in which the overall well-being of children is supported, so that teachers can focus on the job of teaching.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of community schools or have never worked in a high-needs setting, then we ask you to use your imagination as we share our story. In our work as the higher education liaison to a community school and the school’s principal, we witnessed whole child education in action.

  • Imagine the power of a group of diverse community organizations (e.g., mental health, medical health, recreation, teacher education, and adult education) designing programs and services to benefit both students and their families.
  • Imagine the benefit to the principal in a high-poverty school of having access to all of these supports within the school building.
  • Imagine the benefit to the teacher of having access to a school dedicated to serving the needs of children in a community school framework.

For more than a decade we have been part of this dynamic school infrastructure of stakeholders working in tandem under one roof to put the needs of the whole child at the center of all decision-making and problem-solving activities.

The school we worked with is located in a suburb about 30 miles north of New York City. Like many suburban school districts, the school experienced a shift in student demographics due to an increase in poverty-stricken and immigrant students and an increase in cultural/linguistic diversity. This particular school serves a mostly Latino immigrant population with more than 80 percent of the students eligible for free and reduced lunch.

We remember a case from several years ago that highlights how the collective energies of staff and partners was impressively mobilized to address the needs of a particular student who was not a native English speaker. Although this child communicated reasonably well in English, he came to school with many obstacles to learning, including major health concerns and lack of health coverage, high distractibility, gaps in learning, and poor social skills. To further complicate the child’s immediate challenges, his grandparents, with whom he lived, did not have legal guardianship. Since guardianship was not established, the school’s staff had no access to the child’s prior educational records.

Fortunately for this child, the school staff had the appropriate resources to begin problem-solving. The steps taken to assist the family illustrate the ways in which well-run community schools typically operate. The family caseworker was able to help the grandparents pursue the appropriate legal channels to secure custody of the child. Staff from the school-based health center then attended to the child’s medical needs while school staff provided academic intervention services at the classroom level. Over the course of a year, this comprehensive plan of action proved successful and demonstrated the power of various partners pulling together their knowledge and resources to meet the needs of the whole child. Four years later, the child’s teacher happily reported progress in terms of his overall well-being, social-emotional maturation, positive attitude toward school, and learning.

Another case we dealt with that relates to a student’s overall well-being happened when a single mother enrolled her child in school. From the beginning it was clear that the child had special needs, and after some investigation, we learned that domestic violence was occurring in the home. Once again, the family caseworker intervened. She invited the mother to participate in parenting classes and referred her to a county agency for legal advice and assistance and protection. When the child was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, we provided both counseling to the parent and school-based supports for the child. This mother went on to speak publically about domestic abuse and serve as a resource for other women in similar situations.

These cases exemplify two of many cases we encountered over the years that required the entire school community to pull together to comprehensively support the needs of children and families. We are honored that the work we began continues today and that a commitment to whole child education is flourishing.

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To learn more about community schools, read the Educational Leadership article “A Full-Service School Fulfills Its Promise” by Eileen Santiago, JoAnne Ferrara, and Marty Blank and the book Whole Child, Whole School: Applying Theory to Practice in a Community by Eileen Santiago, JoAnne Ferrara, and Jane Quinn.

Dr. JoAnne Ferrara is the associate dean for undergraduate advising and the Professional Development School (PDS) coordinator at Manhattanville College in Westchester, N.Y. Ferrara divides her professional duties between teaching courses, supervising student teachers, and overseeing a network of PDSs partnered with the college. She strongly believes in the power of school/university partnerships to inform educator preparation, professional development, and student achievement.

Dr. Eileen Santiago is a retired community school principal and co-owner of Strategies for Whole Child Education and Community-School Partners, LLC. Under her leadership, she and her community partners received federal support to develop one of the first full-service community schools in Westchester County, N.Y.