Community Schools Serve Students and Families Better

With local education budgets under threat nationwide, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney explains how the community schools model helps more students succeed in and out of the classroom even when school districts are underfunded.

This is a guest post by Mayor Jim Kenney.

This past month, Philadelphia had the honor of hosting the National League of Cities (NLC) Mayors’ Institute on Advancing Education and Health through a Community Schools Strategy. This three-day event convened mayors, city teams and national experts from six U.S. cities to learn from each other about how the community schools approach can improve health and educational outcomes for children. My team was joined by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner; Toledo, Ohio, Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson; Caldwell, Idaho, Mayor Garret Nancolas; Rancho Cucamonga, California, Mayor Dennis Michael; and Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, Mayor Tim Willson for this event.

Hosting this event gave Philadelphia an opportunity to showcase our new community schools initiative, which launched this school year. The community schools model is not a new idea — it is a national movement that has grown in popularity because it focuses on addressing the needs of the whole child, which ultimately helps more students succeed in and out of the classroom. As education budgets continue to be cut across the nation, implementing a community schools strategy is a good option for school districts that, like Philadelphia’s, have been chronically underfunded.

In Philadelphia, community schools are public schools that receive a designation through an application and selection process. These schools receive a full-time, city-employed coordinator who works with the entire school community — students, parents, teachers, administrators, service providers and neighbors — to identify the community’s most pressing needs, such as expanded medical services, afterschool programming and job training. The coordinator then works with service providers and city agencies to bring these resources directly into the school. Community schools become neighborhood centers, improving access to programs and services for students, families and neighbors.

By meeting the needs of the whole child and the neighborhoods in which they live, community schools better support students and families and address non-academic barriers like violence, hunger and homelessness, which too often keep students from succeeding in the classroom.

Out of our nine current community schools, about 75 percent of students come from economically-disadvantaged families that are part of federal welfare programs. Four of the nine schools have below-average access to healthy food in the surrounding neighborhood, and six are in areas that have above-average rates of diabetes compared to other Philadelphia schools. Of the ten largest U.S. cities, Philadelphia has the highest rates of diabetes, hypertension, obesity and premature cardiovascular deaths. Chronic diseases that could be prevented or delayed by physical activity, especially when combined with good nutrition and freedom from tobacco, kill more Philadelphians than any other cause.

Philadelphia is financing the Community Schools Initiative with a new tax on sweetened beverages known as the Philadelphia Beverage Tax. Currently, the city is engaged in litigation with the beverage association, and while the beverage industry is challenging the Philadelphia Beverage Tax in court, we are not able to expand the program at the rate we initially planned.

Nevertheless, I am proud to say that, in the nine months since the community schools initiative was officially launched in Philadelphia, we have made great strides in better meeting the needs of our students and families.

For example, at Gideon Elementary, a local food access program, Philabundance, runs a backpack program which provides five pounds of groceries for every Gideon student — more than 300 children — to take home to their families each month. Gideon has also implemented daily school-wide movement breaks, which help the students get up and moving between long periods of inactivity.

Meanwhile, at South Philadelphia High School, the community school coordinator built a partnership with the Inner Strength Foundation to bring mindfulness classes to ninth graders, which helps students reduce stress levels and build useful coping skills.

These are just a few of the great things happening in Philadelphia’s community schools. Throughout this whole process, one thing has been certain: community schools thrive on collaboration. Successful community schools leverage public, private, and philanthropic resources to address challenges that keep our students from learning. It is only through community support and buy-in that community schools can truly meet the needs of our students and families.

I want to thank the National League of Cities once again for bringing the community schools conversation to the forefront of their Mayors’ Institute. After hearing each city’s story about how they are utilizing a community schools strategy, we found interesting parallels across all implementations. While each city is different in size, demographics and need, we have many things in common around the challenges we face when meeting the needs of our children. We are all tasked with determining how to best align and use the resources we have and build partnerships with schools and stakeholders to propel our cities forward.

By continuing the conversation and sharing best practices and successes, I hope to see the community schools movement continue to grow, with the ultimate goal of helping students across the nation — regardless of their zip code — reach their full potential.

For more information on the community schools model, read our Mayors’ Institute report, Advancing Education and Health through the Community Schools Strategy, and sign up to get updates on the community schools initiative from the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Education.

Featured image from Getty Images.

About the author: Jim Kenney is the mayor of Philadelphia.