“Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are home to more than 322,000 students who attend 635 schools. In its nearly 200-year-long history, Chicago’s schools have faced segregation, fiscal crises, and calls for “real equity.” In order to make strides in supporting student success, CPS has invested in the community schools strategy to connect the dots among community partnerships, strong school leadership, and academic achievement. Community schools aim to transform schools and accelerate student success based on the unique priorities and strengths of local communities. As community school strategies have grown in Chicago, independent evaluations have shown improvements in school-day attendance, academic achievement outcomes such as GPA and NWEA scores, school-related behaviors, and outcomes related to school climate.
Chicago’s landscape of community schools has evolved multiple times since 1998, when 50 schools adopted the strategy through a braiding of resources, investment in relationships, and shared visions. Insights from leaders reveal how these community schools evolve, survive, and thrive as implementation unfolds and as funding shifts.
By 2001, CPS deepened their commitment to the strategy by increasing the number of community schools to 150 within three years. In the subsequent decade, Chicago had expanded to 205 community schools before school closings and funding shifts resulted in a decrease to 117 schools.
Due to a variety of increases in funding streams ranging from the local Sustainable Community Schools (SCS) Initiative, federal Full-Service Community Schools grant program (FSCS), and yearly federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers Grants, the total number of community schools are increasing again. This major increase in federal funding for community schools has led to a resurgence occurring not just in Chicago, but nationally.
Community schools in Chicago have been bolstered through a number of processes and inputs, including partnerships with institutions of higher education, such as the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Reform and its School of Social Work, which no longer exists, but developed an explicit certification and learning process for community school coordinator and resource manager positions. Community-based organizations in Chicago, in partnership with the Coalition for Community Schools and the now defunct Public Education Fund, also co-developed a foundational set of pillars that contributed to national strategy.
Additionally, the SCS Initiative, included in the Chicago Teachers Union contract of 2016, was a critical input that emerged from the hunger strike to reopen Walter H. Dyett High School, the last open-enrollment high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Some of the original local community-based organizations who were involved are still working with community schools in the city today, such as Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Enlace, Youth Guidance, and Blocks Together.
One of the most important ways a school leader can move toward implementation is by establishing a shared vision for school success. Autumn Berg, manager for the Community Schools Initiative in CPS, emphasized the importance of a comprehensive community school strategy that makes shared leadership, whole-child teaching, and learning central, reimagines how school buildings are being used, and includes communities to inform student learning and connectedness. For Berg, strong school leadership means engaging with parents and students, community members and organizations, local businesses, and educators when making decisions and creating strategies.”
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