In the ongoing efforts to improve scholastic outcomes for our students, educational equity continues to stand as a strong focal point. For example, this year the New Jersey Association of School Administrators is promotingas an organizing platform to “use our voice as school leaders to achieve a vision of equity for all New Jersey students.”
Among the successful strategies that have fostered educational equity over the past century are “community schools.” The nationaldefines such a place as “a public school — the hub of its neighborhood, uniting families, educators and community partners to provide all students with top-quality academics, enrichment, health and social services, and opportunities to succeed in school and in life.”
Community schools are emerging again, this time as a promising approach to two critical policy issues in our state: school desegregation and school consolidation.
On behalf of the New Jersey, former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein referenced community schools as a useful legal remedy to facilitate school desegregation in his March 19, 2019 testimony to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools during a hearing on Access and Equity:
“So, any remediation program…to diversify schools must ensure that it does no harm, that it provides whatever extra resources to urban districts that are necessary to maintain and enhance their educational progress. One such initiative...is the community schools initiative that already is operating in Paterson, Trenton, Orange, Newark, and Newton. That program, which has federal funding available, uses both community providers and an extended school day and school year, to provide services to both students and their families. It could be an ideal supplement for urban districts affected by the impact of magnet schools and an interdistrict choice program.”
In, the New Jersey Economic and Fiscal Policy Workgroup proposed school consolidation as a means “to improve the quality of education and promote efficiency” by merging all limited grade school districts into K-12 regional districts. But what if significant value could be added by considering the benefits of community schools rather than just regionalizing administrative services?
Due to a generation of population shifts and outmigration, many of our public schools have physical space that could be used to deliver state and local resources to improve the lives of students and their families. Why might our schools be the right place for such consolidation?
First, New Jersey’s public schools are an essential focal point of the communities in which they serve. They do more than educate children: They are places of refuge, dispensers of healthcare, promoters of wellness, and providers of basic family needs. Why not enhance the schools’ role in providing this assistance?
Second, parents entrust the care and education of their children to the talented professionals in our schools every day. These relationships make parents feel welcomed and secure in addressing some of their family’s most essential needs. Why not build upon that trust?
Third, over 90 percent of threats to school safety and security come from known persons, either disaffected students or young adults. The major tools we have to address this problem are mental and behavioral health services, both on the prevention and treatment sides. What better place to detect and address problems early on than in our schools?
The issue is that educators — and, by extension, the Department of Education — are not necessarily best equipped to deliver this assistance. Fortunately, New Jersey has a strong network of governmental agencies that provide services such as the departments of Health, Children and Families, Human Services, and Community Affairs. Community schools can serve as useful sites for these state offices to deliver critical resources to students and their families.
Adopting the community schools model deserves our strong consideration if we want to diversify student enrollments and maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of resource delivery to provide our youth what they truly need for success.