Food deserts. Poor housing conditions. Lack of community investment.
These challenges don’t always come to mind when people think about how to improve America’s public schools.
But when my colleagues and I studied the 21st Century School Buildings Program, a $1.1 billion school building and renovation initiative in Baltimore, these were the kinds of issues that staff from community organizations, schools, philanthropic organizations and municipal agencies hoped to resolve through improved school facilities.
Schools are the “hubs and hearts” of neighborhoods, as one community member told us during our research in the Southeast, Southwest, and Cherry Hill sections of Baltimore. If, as one community school coordinator shared, schools want to achieve their goals of educating students, they should strengthen the communities around them.
Our research suggests four ways schools could play a more meaningful role in supporting community development:
1. Open schools to the wider community
Making schools accessible to residents can strengthen the connection between schools and neighborhoods.
In the Southeast, a school included space to host programs for newcomers to the United States. These programs offered English lessons to students, as well as academic and social support to help students and their families understand the culture of American schools.
As one community school coordinator in Cherry Hill told us, “We can promote events, workshops and services throughout the community because they all happen here. »
However, even though the schools in our study were theoretically open, they were not always easily accessible. Organizations have sometimes encountered obstacles, such as the need to obtain permits or pay fees to cover guards or security, to organize public events in schools. Our research suggests that collaboration between school districts and other city agencies can help make shared spaces more accessible by using a broader definition of community beyond just the school community, such as parents and teachers. . They can also eliminate required permits and fees.
2. Respond to community needs
The schools in our study have partnered with community organizations and government agencies to provide services that meet the needs of their community.
In the Southwest, a school has partnered with local organizations to provide families with a pantry and adult education, including GED preparation.
In Cherry Hill, where access to full-service grocery stores is limited, a community school coordinator contacted a local organization to host a morning produce market at the school once a week. A representative from the municipal housing authority also visited the school to make it easier for families to file complaints about poor housing conditions, such as mould.
3. Engage the community
In all three communities, officials sought feedback from students, families and residents on renovation plans or designs for new schools. They also provided updates on the construction process.
Other projects included creating a walking school bus – where adult volunteers walked with children to school – in the South West to help students get to and from school safely .
In the South East, parents’ advocacy for improved school facilities – such as heating and air conditioning systems – has helped them become more involved in their neighborhood. School families participated in neighborhood beautification projects, community clean-ups and other activities.
However, a strong commitment from the family and the community is not guaranteed. Successful partnerships also require trust between schools, families and community members. In the southwest, the construction of a school led to the closure of another school. Students from the old school would be sent to the new school. The families of the closed school saw their school as a safe haven and fought to prevent it from closing. According to a community advocate, the school closure process has led some families to lose faith in community organizations, the school district and city agencies.
4. Attract new residents and development
Many stakeholders we spoke to saw new and renovated schools as a way to attract new residents, businesses and development to their communities.
In the Southwest, one responder told us that the new school building has sparked greater interest among residents to invest in the neighborhood. “There are a lot of residents who are getting organized and involved in these neighborhoods. They say, ‘Hey, we have a new school. Let’s build this neighborhood.’ Likewise, families in the Southeast have become more enthusiastic about the renovated schools. A non-profit representative said: “We see it on Facebook feeds. Because we put the [school] as much as we can, they start thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll put my kid in there.’ »
However, as the schools brought in more residents, residents of Cherry Hill and the Southeast wanted to ensure that existing residents were not evicted. In both neighborhoods, school and community partners are creating pathways to help existing residents purchase homes in their neighborhoods. This includes homeownership advice and loan programs for eligible residents.
Education will always be the primary function of American public schools. But as our research suggests, schools should not only be concerned with what happens in the classroom, they can also play an important role in improving conditions in the surrounding community.

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