Charter schools. Private school vouchers. The portfolio model. So-called “school choice” has become all the rage in the education world in recent years.

Even though it rarely actually improves education. Even though charter schools and vouchers drain funding from public school districts. Even though increasing “school choice” is especially harmful to low-income families and communities of color.

But there’s a new kid on the block. One that shows much more promise when you actually look at the data.

Community schools are public schools that partner with local communities to create the conditions students—and communities—need to thrive.

That means connecting schools with services provided by nonprofits and other public agencies, like mental health care. That means after-hours learning for students and parents, like culinary arts. Most importantly, that means more parent and teacher involvement in the school’s decision-making process.

The community school model isn’t new, per se. In a 1902 speech to the National Education Association, psychologist and education reformer John Dewey outlined a comprehensive approach that brought community resources in partnership with schools. Now, some 8,000 American public schools identify as community schools.

But research is revealing really how successful community schools can be as more and more open. Not only can they improve student educational outcomes, but community schools can also reduce racial and economic achievement gaps.

Just before COVID-19 hit, a four-year Rand Corp. study found that 113 community schools in New York City had improved attendance, increased graduation rates, and saw more students passing courses and advancing grades on time.

And what about during the pandemic? When New York City’s Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School closed back in March, staff mobilized to distribute Chromebooks to students and distribute daily breakfast and lunch to up to 500 families. They also offered virtual mental health support and helped families with housing and immigration issues.

Community schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, have migrated support online, including teletherapy, telemedicine, legal services, and early childhood education.

“Our schools were made for this,” said Curtiss Sarikey, chief of staff at the Oakland Unified School District, which became the nation’s first full-service community school district back in 2011.

All children deserve a great education. That means public education must be treated like a public good, not a market commodity. Unlike charter schools and vouchers, community schools make good on that promise.

Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

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