In numerous polls and surveys, Americans identify education as one of the leading domestic challenges of the twenty-first century. Specifically, the challenge is not just to reform public schools but also to achieve the goal of academic success for all students. Many educational experts agree that reaching that goal will require increased cooperation among the schools themselves and a new kind of collaboration with the families and communities served by the schools.
Community education offers a structured, effective way to respond to the challenge to improve public education because it expands the school's traditional role and creates a mutually interdependent relationship among home, school, and community. Community education has three basic components–lifelong learning opportunities, community involvement in schools, and efficient use of resources–and is based on a set of ten broad principles:
- Lifelong learning. Education is a birth-to-death process, and everyone in the community shares in the responsibility of educating all members of the community. Formal and informal learning opportunities should be available to residents of all ages in a wide variety of community settings.
- Self-determination. Community residents have a right and a responsibility to be involved in assessing community needs and identifying community resources that can be used to address those needs.
- Self-help. People are best served by their leaders when their capacity to help themselves is acknowledged and developed. When people assume responsibility for their own well-being, they achieve some degree of independence.
- Leadership development. Training local leaders in problem solving, decision-making, and group-process skills is essential to community improvement efforts.
- Institutional responsiveness. Because public institutions exist to serve the public, they are obligated to develop programs and services that address constantly changing public needs and interests.
- Integrated delivery of services. Organizations and agencies that operate for the public good can best use their limited resources, meet their own goals, and serve the public by collaborating with organizations and agencies with similar goals and purposes.
- Localization. Community services, programs, and volunteer opportunities close to people's homes have the greatest potential for high levels of public participation.
- Maximum use of resources. The physical, financial, and human resources of every community should be fully available and rationally interconnected if the diverse needs and interests of the community are to be met.
- Inclusiveness. Community programs, activities, and services should involve the broadest possible cross-section of community residents without segregation by age, income, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or other characteristics.
- Access to public information. Public information should be shared across agency and organization lines because an effective community not only has "the facts," but it also knows what those facts mean in the lives of the diverse people who make up the community.
A Comprehensive Plan
The current lack of confidence in public education has been more pervasive and prolonged than the crisis in confidence that followed the launch of Sputnik in 1957 by the Soviet Union. Community education has become the approach of choice of many educators who are determined to improve the public confidence in schools and to build partnerships in support of public education.
Community education is a way of looking at public education as a total community enterprise. A community education program is a comprehensive and coordinated plan for providing educational, recreational, social, and cultural services for all people in the community. The following strategies provide a framework for developing such a program. The strategies have overlapping characteristics and functions, but taken together, they outline a comprehensive action plan.
Strategy 1. Encourage increased use of community resources and volunteers to augment the basic educational program. Every community has human, physical, and financial resources that can be used to enrich and expand traditional education programs. Community resources and volunteers have been used to expand curricular options, conduct field and study trips, offer various kinds of tutoring, sponsor student-based enterprises, and support experiential learning.
Strategy 2. Develop educational partnerships between schools and public and private service providers, business and industry, and civic and social service organizations. Complex, often interrelated, social and economic problems create a broad array of service needs in many communities, and meeting them effectively is likely to require more resources than any single agency or organization can provide. The development of partnerships for cooperative use of available resources will help prevent unnecessary duplication in the delivery of such services as child care, after-school programs, drug education and treatment, literacy and remedial programs, internships and work-study programs, and career awareness activities.
Strategy 3. Use public education facilities as community service centers for meeting the educational, social, health, cultural, and recreational needs of all ages and sectors of the community. Since community attitudes and support affect the schools' ability to carry out their mission to educate all children, educators must consider the needs and concerns of nonparents in the community. This strategy encourages keeping school buildings open on a planned, organized basis at hours beyond the regular school day. It takes advantage of the strong support community centers generally receive, as well as the economic benefits to the community of more efficient use of public facilities.
Strategy 4. Develop an environment that fosters lifelong learning. This strategy acknowledges learning as a lifelong process. It recognizes that learning takes place, both inside and outside the school setting, without formal instruction. It encourages the development of education programs to meet learning needs that change over a lifetime, including the need for new skills and knowledge. Lifelong learning programs and activities may include early childhood education, extended-day and enrichment programs for school-age children, adult education, vocational training and retraining programs, leisure activities, and intergenerational programs.
Strategy 5. Establish a process for involving the community in educational planning and decisionmaking. The total community has a stake in the mission of educating community members. Individual community members, therefore, have a right and a responsibility to participate in determining community needs, setting priorities, and allocating resources. The cyclical process of planning, evaluating, and changing takes advantage of a basic fact of human behavior: Those who participate in planning and decision-making develop feelings of ownership. Encouraging the broadest possible involvement capitalizes on another fact: The greater the number and diversity of people involved, the greater the likelihood that diverse needs will be met. Involvement opportunities should range from participation in ongoing advisory councils to membership on ad hoc task forces and committees.
Strategy 6. Provide a responsive, community based system for collective action by all educational and community agencies to address community issues. Many community problems are so complex that resolving them requires cooperative use of a broad range of resources. Seeking the involvement of nonschool agencies can help schools address such social, health, and economic issues as substance abuse, housing, child abuse, mental illness, violence, crime, vandalism, teen pregnancy, and various kinds of discrimination.
Strategy 7. Develop a system that facilitates home-school-community communication. Research shows that schools that involve all their publics and keep them well informed have community support, and that those that fail to reach beyond the parents of current students do not. Effective home-school-community communication goes beyond news releases, speeches, newsletters, and open houses; it includes use of the media, home visitations by teachers and administrators, school displays throughout the community, and special community outreach programs conducted both in the schools and at other sites in the community.
The term community school designates a school site where the concept of community education is put into practice. Community education may also be implemented in community agencies and organizations, but the most common site is a public school.
A community school departs from a traditional public school's schedule and curriculum. A community school is open year-round, eighteen hours or more a day, often seven days a week. The school thus becomes not just a place to teach children but a community learning center with multiple uses.
In a community school, the concept of public education is extended beyond the traditional K–12 program to include the provision of learning opportunities for the entire community. The traditional schedule is expanded through extended day programs (including before- and after-school activities and care), and recreational, social, and educational programs for community residents of all ages. Activities and programs may not be limited to the school building, itself, as the school extends itself into the community, turning agencies, factories, businesses, and the surrounding environment into learning laboratories.
By organizing programs and activities that serve all ages and populations, a community school encourages disparate elements of the community to come together to work toward common goals. It provides a physical setting as well as an organizational structure for school-community collaboration.
Impact on Education and Communities
Because many community problems ultimately affect a community's ability to educate all children, educators in some communities are taking a leadership role in the search for solutions to community problems. From a problem-solving point of view, a community school can be a support center for a network of agencies and institutions committed to addressing broad community needs. Using schools as community centers is a cost-effective, practical way to use one of the community's largest investments–its school buildings. The community school reaches out to the community and works as a cooperative partner to address community needs, including educational needs.
The possible benefits to schools and communities from a well-designed and carefully implemented community education program have been described in a variety of studies, including the U.S. Department of Education's Strong Families, Strong Schools (1994) and Safe and Smart, from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice (1998). Documented improvements include a better school learning climate, reduced violence and vandalism, more efficient energy use, increased family involvement, and broadened community-wide educational opportunities. Other studies show improved institutional responsiveness to the needs of parents and community members and increased public support for schools and other public agencies.
Community Education in Action
Community education takes advantage of local resources and capabilities and responds to an individual community's particular needs and wishes. Just as no two communities have exactly the same program, no community retains exactly the same program over a period of years. As a community matures, its institutions, population, assets, and problems change, and its community education program must be modified to reflect those changes if it is to remain successful.
Because every community education program is designed to reflect the current needs of a specific community and the resources available to meet those needs, there are literally hundreds of models of programs. The website of the National Center for Community Education has descriptions of exemplary models and case studies of community education programs in three model settings–school, district, or agency. The website of the Coalition for Community Schools profiles nine community schools (four elementary, two middle, two high schools, and one preschool).
See also: Recreation Programs in the Schools; Rural Education; Year-Round Education.
Decker, Larry E., and Boo, Mary R. 2001. Community Schools: Serving Children, Families, and Communities. Fairfax, VA: National Community Education Association.
Decker, Larry E.; Decker, Virginia A.; and Associates. 2001. Engaging Families and Communities: Pathways to Educational Success. FAIRFAX, VA: National Community Education Association.
Parson, Steve R. 1999. Transforming Schools into Community Learning Centers. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.
U.S. Department of Education. 1994. Strong Families, Strong Schools: A Research Base for Family Involvement in Learning. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Coalition for Community Schools. 2001. "What Is a Community School?" <www.communityschool.org>.
National Center for Community Education. 2001. "Models and Case Studies." <www.nccenet.org>.
National Community Education Association. 2001. "What Is Community Education?" <www.ncea.com>.
U.S. Department of Education. 1998. "Safe and Smart: Making After-School Hours Work for Kids." <www.ed.gov/pubs/SafeandSmart>.
Larry E. Decker
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