Lessons From Arne Duncan's Back-to-School Bus Tour

A pupil holds up an arm to ask a question to a teacher in a classroom at the elementary school on September 4, 2012 in Paris,
A pupil holds up an arm to ask a question to a teacher in a classroom at the elementary school on September 4, 2012 in Paris, after the start of the new school year. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/GettyImages)

As Secretary Arne Duncan travels the country on his Back-to-School bus tour, he has refocused his attention on the community schools strategy as a vehicle for implementing a Broader Bolder Approach to Education. Speaking in Kansas City, he described our public schools as community assets that should be open evenings and weekends, and where all individuals and organizations concerned with student success should be working together to help students and support their families.

The Secretary's visits include Redwood City, CA; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Evansville, Indiana, which already have full-service community school strategies in place; and today the Secretary is in McDowell County, West Virginia, where the American Federation of Teachers has taken the lead in bringing a comprehensive set of educational and economic development resources to McDowell County.

Redwood City's community schools were launched through Redwood City 2020, a partnership among the city's elementary and high school districts, Stanford University and several health organizations. Five elementary level community schools now offer family engagement, extended learning and support services for students and their families that complement student instruction. Partners include a local community college, office of parks and recreation, the police and sheriff's departments, Citizen Schools, the Peninsula Boys and Girls Clubs, and county health and mental health agencies.

The Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation started from one community school to establish a district-wide strategy. The full-service community schools focus on strengthening ties between families and schools and ensuring that all students' physical, mental, and emotional health needs are met. Together, these efforts, which leverage a range of community resources, result in better results for students and schools. Among the improvements seen since the start of this effort are increased early literacy due to the focus on early childhood development, better behavior among students who access mental health services, and better attendance and grades among students who participated in high-quality afterschool and summer programs.

In McDowell County, parents, teachers, and community leaders have recognized the need for intensive intervention if its students are to succeed. The county has consistently ranked last in education in a state in which educational attainment levels are already low. The majority of students currently live in homes without an employed parent, and deaths due to drug overdoses are common. Led by the local teachers' union, a coalition of business, foundations, government, nonprofit agencies and labor signed a covenant to develop policy and programmatic solutions to these interconnected problems. Education is at the core of the effort, with social services at school sites a key piece of the plan. Lack of affordable housing is recognized as a barrier to recruiting effective teachers that must be addressed. In all, the coalition brings together the diverse groups and perspectives needed to tackle deep-seated impediments to learning and to community economic well-being and commits to the patience and perseverance needed to address them.

All of these communities recognize that poverty-related impediments to learning are real yet can be alleviated through the organization of community schools as part of a Broader Bolder Approach. In each of them, a different type of organization has taken the lead, yet the coalitions have many common partners, and they share similar goals and seek similar outcomes. In all three, the district and teachers union have joined forces to ensure that all children are supported to enable them to learn effectively and thrive.

With our nation more focused on the impact of poverty on education as a result of the Chicago teachers strike, the communities that the Secretary visited exemplify effective, meaningful, lasting reform that can weaken the poverty-school attainment link that impedes learning in too many schools across our country. They demonstrate that schools and communities thrive when they work together, and that these approaches must become the norm, rather than exceptional examples.