Boise's Adaptive Approach to Community Schools
BY COBY DENNIS AND DON COBERLY/School Administrator, August 2019

Like many urban communities, Boise, Idaho, is challenged to meet the needs of a growing student population that struggles with the effects of poverty. Approximately 800 children in the 26,000-student Boise school district are homeless or unaccompanied minors. About 42 percent of all students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Nearly 1,200 are refugees.

To fulfill our district’s mission to increase opportunities and facilitate success for our students and their families, we began to explore the concept of community schools. Salt Lake City, Utah, and Vancouver, Wash., school districts had established models, so about five years ago, we visited both districts to learn all we could about the needs of their communities, what services the districts offered to meet those needs and how the community school concept was structured.

We determined that Vancouver’s model was an especially good fit for our community. We wanted to embed community schools within the Boise district in such a manner that we could sustain the model and support our strategic goals to provide educational opportunities for all students and to build a mutually beneficial relationship with our community.

We researched the existing resources in our community and explored ways we could work with community organizations without duplicating services. Tamara Shoup, Vancouver School District’s executive director of community school support services, and Jan Redding, the district’s director of public engagement, helped guide the way, sharing informational resources, templates, job descriptions, communication tactics and community relations strategies, as well as ideas for designing physical spaces.

Coby Dennis (center) is invested in the community school model as the new superintendent in Boise, Idaho.

Community Service
Six of the 50 schools in Boise have been designated as community schools — one high school and five elementary schools. Our community schools offer a variety of services based on the needs of the particular community.

Each school has dedicated space and a coordinator who plans and implements the community school model in a way that best serves that school and its families.

School personnel meet basic needs by helping provide access to food, clothing, medical care, hygiene kits and school supplies. They help families navigate the bureaucracy to get health and medical benefits and provide parenting information, early childhood resources and English language classes. They also promote volunteer opportunities for community members.

Additional resources may include resume writing and job-seeking skills, computer and WiFi access, tax preparation, cooking classes, mindfulness training and referrals to local human service agencies.

We conduct yearly needs assessments at each school to ensure we are responding to the individual needs of the students and their neighborhoods. One community school might be more heavily focused on health and social services, while another might be focused on family engagement based on the needs of the community. The program’s strategic community coordinator solicits partners to help fill those needs.

Essential Partnering
Through our community schools initiative and partnerships with social services, food banks, health care providers and faith-based organizations, we have seen improved attendance, improved health, decreased disciplinary issues and better outcomes for our refugee families, as our services help them to learn English and fill out job applications.

A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development and family engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities.

Community schools, along with the active participation of local businesses, individuals and organizations, are a proven strategy for effectively addressing our students’ most pressing needs.

COBY DENNIS is superintendent of Boise School District in Boise, Idaho. Twitter: @BSDEducation. DON COBERLY retired as Boise superintendent in June.