Small Cities Find Innovative Ways to Support Education

Municipal Leadership for Children and Families in Small and Mid-Sized Cities
May 24, 2013

By Michael Karpman

This is the first in a series of articles highlighting municipal leadership for children and families in communities with 75,000 people or less, drawing on examples from a new NLC report available at www.nlc.org/smallcities

In the vast majority of America's small and mid-sized cities, independently elected school boards serve as the governing bodies for local school districts.  While city councils in some communities approve school budget requests, the administration of public schools is rarely a municipal responsibility.

At the same time, the quality of the local educational system affects top city priorities, from the health of the local economy and tax base to current and prospective residents' perceptions of the community's quality of life.  In many smaller cities, municipal officials are looking for new ways to support their schools in improving student outcomes.  NLC's new report, "Municipal Leadership for Children and Families in Small and Mid-Sized Cities," highlights some of the innovative and often low-cost or no-cost approaches that these city officials are using to strengthen public education and promote student achievement.  

Early Learning and School Readiness  

Efforts to expand access to high-quality early care and education are among the most important forms of city involvement, given the wide gaps in readiness for school that develop before children reach kindergarten.  In Enfield, Conn., the town government is part of a coalition that sponsors a parent leadership academy and promotes collaboration among early education providers and elementary schools.  

The City of Petal, Miss., plays a similar role as a member and coordinator of a local Excel by 5 coalition.  This group has helped align early education and school curricula, sponsor joint trainings for preschool and elementary school teachers, facilitate smooth transitions to kindergarten, and improve the quality of child care facilities.  In other locales, redevelopment plans have reduced blight while also addressing shortages in preschool slots.  The City of Lemoore, Calif., used CDBG funds to develop an intergenerational day care that offers preschool and health services for children between the ages of three and five.  

Grade-Level Reading  

Early education programs are a critical starting point for broader efforts to ensure that all students read at grade level by the end of third grade, an important milestone on the pathway to academic success and high school graduation.  In Holyoke, Mass., the city is a key partner and coordinator of a task force that has developed family literacy centers at local elementary schools in pursuit a goal of having 85 percent of third graders read proficiently by 2014.  The city-sponsored Education Advisory Board in Delray Beach, Fla., is working to increase grade-level reading proficiency by promoting school readiness, reducing chronic absenteeism, and preventing summer learning loss.   

Wraparound Services and Afterschool Programming  

One of the strategies adopted by city and school leaders in Delray Beach is to replicate Village Academy, a successful local model that serves children from Head Start through high school and provides Beacon Center programs such as afterschool activities, tutoring and adult education.  Through its funding of and participation in a Community Schools Collaboration, Tukwila, Wash., is another city that has helped expand school-based wraparound services - including health care, tutoring, enrichment programs, and family engagement opportunities - that support student learning.  

Increasing participation in high-quality afterschool programs is an especially valuable strategy for keeping youth engaged in school and supplementing what they learn in the classroom.  The City of Redlands, Calif., provides space at a local community center for Music Changing Lives (MCL), an entrepreneurial nonprofit organization that provides music and arts programming for disadvantaged youth.  MCL recruits students from local universities to tutor youth, who must maintain good grades to continue participating in the program.  

Efficiency and Effectiveness  

In addition to providing or expanding access to preschool, out-of-school and in-school learning supports, cities can collaborate with schools to maximize resources and identify cost savings.  For instance, in Trotwood, Ohio, the city has begun coordinating bulk purchasing of supplies with the school district and offers service learning internships at city agencies.  The City of Mountain View, Calif., has developed a Virtual Library Resource Card that enables high school students to access the public library's digital resource collection through their schools.  In both communities, structures exist to bring city and school officials and/or staff together on a regular basis to discuss common challenges, priorities, and opportunities for collaboration and resource sharing.

Joint use agreements are also a prevalent resource-sharing strategy in small and mid-sized cities throughout the country.  Municipal and school district officials in Spartanburg, S.C., both allocated funding to restore a historic baseball field that now provides space for high school teams, and developed agreements for shared use of school district playgrounds, trails, courts, and fields.  

Cities and school districts are also taking steps to use existing resources more effectively by supporting targeted, data-driven interventions.  The Charlottesville, Va., City of Promise initiative has facilitated a robust data collection strategy to support a "cradle-to-career" continuum of services that will reach students in three disadvantaged neighborhoods.  

Access to College  

Two of the cities featured in the NLC report have partnered with school districts and community colleges to prepare students for life beyond high school.  In Monticello, Iowa, the city provided critical infrastructure for the Jones Regional Education Center, which offers college courses and technical training to prepare high school students for careers in high-growth, local industries.  The City of Burleson, Texas, has helped establish a college scholarship fund that covers two years of tuition and fees at Hill College.  

As postsecondary education and training become increasingly essential to local economic prosperity, cities and schools of every size will face growing pressure to ensure that students are succeeding at every point along the educational pipeline.  The experiences of the cities highlighted above illustrate the expansive possibilities for city leadership to support public schools during a time of unprecedented resource constraints.  

Details:  To download the "Municipal Leadership for Children and Families in Small and Mid-Sized Cities" report, visit www.nlc.org/smallcities. To share additional examples of innovative local education strategies from your city, contact Michael Karpman at karpman@nlc.org or (202) 626-3072.