Community Schools: An Evidence-Based Strategy for Equitable School Improvement

This brief by the Learning Policy Institute examines the research on community schools, with two primary emphases. First, it explores whether the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) opens the possibility of investing in well-designed community schools to meet the educational needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools. And second, it provides support to school, district, and state leaders as they consider, propose or implement a community school intervention in schools targeted for comprehensive support.

How to Engage Families to Improve Student Outcomes

Family engagement is a key factor in addressing the achievement and opportunity gaps – and ultimately achieving equity in education.

Research shows that family engagement makes a difference.

Family involvement in a child’s education is the single most important predictor of student academic success. Research over several decades has shown that when families are involved in their own child’s education, their child does better in school – regardless of family background (e.g. race, educational level, income, marital status). Students with involved families are more likely to:

  • Earn higher grades and test scores
  • Enroll in higher-level programs
  • Attend school regularly
  • Have fewer behavioral problems
  • Pass their classes, be promoted, and graduate

But not all family engagement activities have such a significant effect on student success. So how can schools engage families in ways that really move the needle on improved student outcomes?

6 Effective Practices for Family Engagement

Family engagement practices occur on a spectrum, from participation to partnership. Participation includes many traditional methods of engagement, like volunteering the classroom, participating in school site councils, or attending events. However, focusing on authentic partnerships between teachers and families can do more to ensure academic success for students. These partnerships occur, and have full impact, when family engagement activities are connected to student learning – and when there is capacity building and support for both families and teachers.

How do schools and school districts build systems of practice that foster meaningful partnerships between teachers and families?

1. Districts and school communities adopt a strengths-based vision.
A strengths-based vision acknowledges that each family has something powerful and positive to offer their children, and respects that each family is its child’s first and most influential teacher.

2. Teams (not individual staff) are responsible for planning, design, and quality assessment.
A representative family engagement team includes a school administrator, 1-2 teachers, 2-3 parents, all staff members in coordination of services roles, and at least 2 students in high schools.

3. Family engagement activities focus on student success.
The family engagement team leverages their common interest in student success, using student data to create goals and assess the impact of its activities based on movement toward these goals (e.g. success is measured not by how many people show up, but on whether students are doing better and continue to improve).

4. Family engagement efforts are rooted in continuous improvement.
Family engagement teams develop and test an annual plan through a cycle of inquiry. Using student outcomes to assess the impact of activities, family engagement becomes a central strategy for academic success.

5. Capacity building for teachers and other school staff is a priority.
Employing a strenghts-based approach, teachers are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to actively and effectively engage families. Family engagement is a priority in the overall plan for teacher professional development, and the district commits the necessary resources to build this capacity, including making investments in training and coaching.

6. Capacity building for families strives to address unequal power dynamics.
Capacity building for families is focused on leveraging the assets each family brings to the table. Families are provided the knowledge and tools they need to support their own child’s education at home and at school.

Whenever possible, teachers and families are trained together to promote partnering through equal access to information and to build a sense that everyone is working as a team to support students. Developing authentic partnerships between families and school staff takes a real commitment, and can feel like a daunting task. But with training, coaching, and support, teachers and families can partner in ways that have a tangible impact on student achievement.

For more information, additional resources, and citations for stats provided above, please see our short chapter: Why Family Engagement Matters, co-authored by High Expectations Parental Service and Partnership for Children & Youth.

Think Outside the Survey Box: Creative Ways to Solicit Youth Feedback

Break out of the survey box! There’s more than one way to learn what youth think, care about, want to do, or have learned in your program… so let’s use them! Check out our hands-on guide for youth practitioners to learn about verbal, kinesthetic and visual ways to solicit young people’s input. This guide will teach you to identify creative strategies for data collection in your programs, and understand the pros and cons of these strategies.

Rocking Your Community Needs Assessment – Fact Sheet

Does the term “needs assessment” send chills down your spine? Wondering how you’ll complete the community needs assessment for your next grant proposal? We’ve got you! See our fact sheet about web sites with easy-to-use data about communities. Download this list of the sites we like the most.

Rocking Your Next Needs Assessment – Webinar

To get started on a community needs assessment for your next grant proposal, watch this recording of Public Profit’s 1-hour webinar about easy-to-access data sources. This webinar was hosted by Public Profit on February 24, 2017 specifically for the California Community Schools Network, looking toward the upcoming release of the Request for Proposals for the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund: Learning Communities for School Success (Prop 47) grants. Learn about how to access and use publicly available data to help support your next needs assessment!

Making Data Work in California

This brief is designed to help district decision-makers in California think about how they might collect and use chronic absence data, with an emphasis on leveraging their Student Information Systems (SIS) to support this work. It lays out approaches to maximize the opportunities presented by recent changes at the state and federal level, including CALPADS new attendance data collection for 2016-17 school year, and new chronic absence reporting requirements in the Every Student Succeeds Act. The brief also provides suggestions for how to best leverage SIS providers for tracking, analyzing, disseminating, and using chronic absence data to develop strategies to reduce chronic absenteeism among students.

Grant Opportunity: Get out your data and start planning now!

Back in September, the Governor signed into law Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund: Learning Communities for School Success. This program takes savings from Proposition 47 and creates a grant program for school districts to implement research-based strategies to improve school climate and mitigate the school-to-prison pipeline.

The focus of these grants is to support “evidence-based, non-punitive programs and practices to keep the state’s most vulnerable students in school.” Using a community schools approach – integrating comprehensive services into schools through community partnerships – is explicitly named as an eligible strategy. Districts interested in launching a community school initiative should consider applying.

For districts that are ready for deeper dives into more targeted strategies, the list of eligible activities also includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Strategies to improve attendance and reduce chronic absenteeism
  • Restorative practices, restorative justice models, or other programs to improve retention rates, reduce suspensions, and reduce student contact with law enforcement agencies
  • Social-emotional learning, positive behavior interventions and supports, culturally responsive practices, and trauma-informed strategies

The California Department of Education (CDE) will be administering the grant program. The request for proposals is expected to be released in early 2017. Local education agencies (school districts, county offices of education, or charter schools) may apply for a grant. Funding levels are still being determined, but we know that grants will be for three years of funding. Grant recipients must make a matching expenditure of cash or in-kind contributions that equal at least 20 percent of the total grant awarded.

There are some good reasons to get started early in planning for your application. The RFP is expected to come out in early 2017 – January or February at the latest. And because funds must be expended in the current fiscal year, we are anticipating a quick turnaround time. In addition, planning timelines will be compressed as grant recipients will be required to align their funded strategies with their goals in their local control accountability plan (LCAP).

Who will receive these grants?

In selecting grant recipients, CDE will give priority to LEAs based on the following criteria:

  • High rates of chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension, and school dropout
  • Located in a community with a high crime rate
  • Have a significant representation of foster youth among its pupil enrollment

Get started now:

Based on these priorities, we encourage you to start your proposal planning process now so that you’re ready to go when the RFP comes out in the new year.

  • Gather your relevant student and neighborhood data.
  • Think about which strategies will make the biggest impact for your vulnerable student populations.
  • Think about which of your community partners can help to implement your strategy.
  • If you need additional assistance in thinking through how this grant can be most useful to your students, please contact us and we’ll help you or connect you to an organization that can.

For more information, contact Deanna Niebuhr at Partnership for Children & Youth: or 510-830-4200 x1605.

The above information was provided by Children Now. Click here for their summary.

New Grant Opportunity for Schools and Communities to Improve School Climate

On September 23, 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund: Learning Communities for School Success program into law. This new program will provide grants to local school districts to implement research-based strategies to improve school climate and to mitigate the school-to-prison pipeline.

Get Ready to Apply:

We encourage school districts and community organizations to start preparing now for this competitive grant opportunity.

A Request for Proposal process is expected to begin in early 2017.

Count me in! Paperless Enrollment in School Meals for Students in Medi-Cal Households

By Elyse Homel Vitale, Senior Advocate, California Food Policy Advocates

As community schools build out their comprehensive support for students, it doesn’t hurt to go back to the basics: Is everyone who’s eligible getting free school meals? And are we doing all we can to make it easy and welcoming for students to sign up?

Here in California, 3 in 5 public school students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price school meals. However, on an average school day, nearly one million or about one-third of eligible students miss out on the health benefits of school lunch. The numbers are worse for school breakfast. Two million students, about two-thirds, miss out on breakfast. Access to school meals matters – well-nourished kids are better-prepared students; they are able to learn, grow, play, and achieve to their fullest potential.

So what can we do to improve access? For a student to receive a free or reduced-price school meal, they must first be certified as eligible for the program. There are a couple of ways school districts can certify students as eligible, including paper applications and direct certification. California’s existing direct certification process uses other entitlement program data, such as CalFresh, to identify low-income students and certify them for free school meals – no separate paper application for meals is required. With 1 in 3 Californians now enrolled in Medi-Cal, there is a ripe opportunity to get students signed up by leveraging the reach of Medi-Cal.

Medicaid (Medi-Cal) Direct Certification is a powerful tool that school districts will be able to use to increase their paperless enrollment in school meals. It is believed that if fully adopted across the state, an additional 500,000 students OR MORE will be paperlessly enrolled in school meals. Students in Medi-Cal households will be identified through a secure data matching process; school districts will be notified of these matched students; and eligible students will be paperlessly enrolled in free and reduced-price school meals.

For the coming school year, California’s public school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools are approved to participate in Medicaid Direct Certification, upon completion of a required training.

Medicaid Direct Certification has important benefits for students, families, and school districts alike. Here’s how:

First, decreased application burden and decreased error rates. The burden – for both schools and parents – of submitting and processing a paper application will be removed when a student is directly certified. The error rates associated with paper applications also decreases as direct certification increases.

Second, increased school funding. Previous pilots of Medicaid Direct Certification show that the program is likely to result in more students actually consuming school meals, on top of just being enrolled. As school meal participation increases, school districts draw down the associated additional federal and state-funded reimbursements for meals served. Furthermore, as additional eligible students are identified through Medicaid Direct Certification, schools can leverage increased education dollars through the Local Control Funding Formula.

Lastly, improved access to healthy school meals. In addition to more students being identified as eligible, increasing direct certification is related to the number of schools and school districts that qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). CEP is an option that schools serving communities with high rates of poverty can utilize to make breakfast and lunch available to all students free of charge. When CEP is used, alternative models of serving meals, like Breakfast After the Bell, work best and reach even more students.

Medicaid Direct Certification is a well-tested, efficient, and effective tool for increasing enrollment in school meals. We know it works, and we know that there are benefits for schools and families alike. While Medicaid Direct Certification is not yet available statewide, it is coming, and there are steps you can take to make sure there is a smooth and quick rollout: (1) Ask about direct certification in your schools (Is your district regularly conducting direct certification? Do they plan on adding in Medicaid Direct Certification when it becomes available?). (2) Initiate conversations with district, school board, and community leaders about this exciting opportunity and how it aligns with your vision of integrated health, services, and academics.

Additional resources:

CFPA’s fact sheet on Medicaid Direct Certification.
Check out the infographic.
Learn more about CFPA’s school meal enrollment advocacy.
Why School Nutrition Matters by CFPA & Partner for Children & Youth
Note: The California Department of Education has agreed to announce the required training dates in spring 2017 and is committed to making Medicaid Direct Certification available statewide in the 2017-18 school year.

Elyse Homel Vitale, Senior Advocate, California Food Policy Advocates at or 510-433-1122 ext. 206