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Evidence Matters | Making the Grade: Strengthening Schools Through Community

Last updated August 10, 2023

By Kelly Gregory

August 10, 2023

Our Making the Grade series has discussed how evaluating a school’s effectiveness and quality comes with a wide array of challenges, particularly when assessing schools that serve larger populations of disadvantaged students. As we highlighted in our last post, to evaluate school quality, we have to account for disparities from the outset and find measures that factor these in. But in addition to accounting for disparities in our assessment, we also have a societal obligation to address them. Many barriers students face don’t originate in schools and can’t effectively be addressed through services offered by a traditional model. Research suggests that we may need to rethink the school model and broaden it to that of a “community school,” which offers a wider set of services and opportunities that benefit students and families.

The National Education Association defines community schools as “public schools that provide services and support that fit each neighborhood’s needs.” These schools bring educators, families, and community members together to leverage supports and resources to help all students thrive. This model is structured around four pillars:

  • Integrated student supports
  • Expanded learning time and opportunities
  • Family and community engagement
  • Collaborative leadership and practice

By addressing specific barriers to learning and achievement—such as health-related factors and reduced learning opportunities—research has shown that community schools improve educational outcomes of students in high poverty schools. The Learning Policy Institute reviewed 143 research studies on each of the four pillars and found that the evidence base on community schools justifies the use of community schools as both a means to closing the opportunity gap for low-income families and also as means for school improvement.

A 2020 RAND study found multiple positive effects for students who attended community schools in New York City. Researchers found that New York City community schools had a positive impact on student attendance during all three years of the study; results also showed a positive impact on on-time grade progression and on high school graduation rates, teacher reports of shared responsibility for student success, and a reduction in disciplinary incidents. In 2019, a case study conducted in Albuquerque, New Mexico demonstrated a $7 return on investment for every $1 invested in a full-time community schools coordinator salary.

These results, along with results from other community schools, suggest that many of the services offered by this model may help reduce barriers to learning that are typically experienced by economically disadvantaged students. As barriers to learning are removed, schools experience an increase in effectiveness—or, in the case of school report cards, the “quality” improves.

Every child deserves the opportunity to achieve success, both in school and in life. When we invest in our schools and their surrounding communities, we invest in the future of our society. Supporting—not punishing—all schools, especially those serving students with the least access to external opportunities, inches us closer to the ideal of the American dream, where all children, no matter their zip code, have the chance to flourish. While it’s important that everyone gives their best effort when running the race, it’s also important that we all begin at the same starting line.

Other posts in this series:

Making the Grade: A Series on the Complexities of School Report Cards

Making the Grade: The Socioeconomic Achievement Gap

Making the Grade: Can an Early Start Lead to a Better Finish?

Making the Grade: The Quest for Quality Measures

Kelly Gregory is the Riley Institute’s Director for Public Education Partnerships and Projects and previously taught for 11 years in South Carolina public schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Special Education. She also holds a National Board certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist. She can be reached at