Cultivating Community Schools
Partnerships and collaboration with the district at the hub for improving school readiness, closing gaps and lifting hopes and opportunities
/School Administrator, August 2019

Steve Webb
Tom Hagley
Reaching our goal — all students future-ready — requires a comprehensive approach to the education and well-being of every young person. It also takes a broad commitment from all stakeholders to meet the needs of the whole child.

That’s why Vancouver Public Schools is implementing the community schools framework as advocated by the Coalition for Community Schools, a national resource for uniting families, educators and community partners behind academic and nonacademic support for students.

Recognizing Challenges
Vancouver is located in Washington state, just north of Portland, Ore. Similar to trends in cities across the U.S., Portland is revitalizing its urban neighborhoods, and gentrification is causing poverty levels to rise in the outlying suburbs.

Nearly 24,000 children attend Vancouver schools, and about 48 percent qualify for federally subsidized meals. In our inner-urban neighborhoods, the poverty impact is even greater with more than 80 percent of students at some core schools eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

While poverty is not a learning disability, it presents real barriers to student success. Consequently, too many of our students struggle to meet academic demands, and schools are hard-pressed to raise their achievement scores.

Applying Solutions
We addressed the performance discrepancy head-on with our district’s strategic plan, developed with extensive public engagement and focused on excellence and equity for all students.

As a key component of the plan, we created an Opportunity Zone with elementary, middle and high schools serving high concentrations of students affected by poverty and mobility. While we faced $20 million in budget cuts from the state during and after the Great Recession, we redirected approximately $2 million per year in categorical and basic education funds from lower-priority budget areas to assist the Opportunity Zone schools.

Along with other strategies to accelerate student achievement, family-community resource centers have been established in 18 Opportunity Zone schools. The coordinators at these sites have worked with partners to support basic needs (food, housing, physical and behavioral health care, dental care, etc.); parent and family support (transportation, workforce training, language classes, legal services); early childhood education; out-of-school-time programs; and outreach to homeless and chronically absent students.

Our district also has purchased and equipped two commercial vehicles as mobile family-community resource centers to assist children and families at non–Opportunity Zone schools and in underserved areas of the community year-round. Our nonprofit Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools, with more than $6 million in total assets, has made a long-term commitment to raise money for expanded support.

The resource center initiative has encouraged schools, families and communities to interact as partners to strengthen opportunities for all children to learn and grow. And it has forged strong partner relationships on which our schools and families can depend when a crisis occurs.

Educational Service District 112 partners with several schools in Vancouver, Wash., including Minnehaha Elementary School, to pro-vide an enrichment program for parents and their young children.

Emergent Situations
In December 2014, residents of a 151-unit apartment complex in one of our highest-need neighborhoods began receiving 20-day no-cause notices to vacate. The complex had been sold and was slated for renovations. After making improvements, the owner had planned to increase rent beyond what the residents could afford to pay.

Many of the tenants were the hardest to house. They had modest incomes, were disabled, or were embattled by debt and a history of poor credit, substance abuse, mental health issues and/or criminal backgrounds. After hearing about the vacate notices, our staff convened a community meeting, bringing the residents to their neighborhood school.

A faith-based organization served dinner for the families. Other partners connected residents with food and housing resources. Legal advisers provided free services. A nonprofit moving company relocated people at no cost. District and school staff members, police and community health workers assisted, too.

Over the next six months, the staff of our family-community resource centers and partners helped families find new places to live. Nearly $100,000 was raised to support this effort. Because relationships were cultivated beforehand in a purposeful way, we were able to rally the community into action. Heightened public awareness about the dearth of affordable housing compelled our city council to make important policy changes, including an extension of the requirement for no-cause notices from 20 days to 60 days, and earn voter approval of an affordable housing levy.

Collective Impact
Across a range of metrics, the schools with family-community resource centers have shown remarkable progress in increasing community engagement, serving more families and improving student outcomes. Center-related partnerships have increased from two dozen to more than 750. Partner support now generates $7 million annually in community resources, public services, cash and in-kind donations, leading to an estimated 4:1 return on our resource centers investment.

Scaling up also has led site coordinators to improve and expand parent engagement at each school.

The collective impact has been significant. Vancouver’s on-time graduation rate has risen from 64 percent in 2010 to 85 percent in 2018, with the largest gains made by Latino and African-American students. In kindergarten readiness, proficiency has increased by 22 points. Poverty-affected students enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course have increased by 250 percent. Nearly two-thirds of juniors and seniors have enrolled in dual credit courses.

Learning Lessons
In scaling up our community schools, we have learned three vital lessons:

» Cultivate engagement and share ownership.
Begin with a strong foundation of participation and buy-in from community and district leaders. An unwavering commitment at the board and executive levels can enable districts to make strategic investments despite limited resources and competing priorities. It also paves the way for greater collaboration among agencies, as we have experienced in producing data-sharing agreements, memoranda of understanding and other formal documentation of partnerships.

» Build capacity over time.
A district investment in well-qualified staff to perform the community schools site coordinator role is crucial. Coordinators serve not only as points of connection for families, partners and volunteers, but also as problem solvers for school administrators and teachers, enabling them to focus on instruction. Community partners, too, must garner the resources they need to support schools and families, and educators must be sensitive to their limitations. Scaling up too quickly can put a strain on partners and your relationship with them. Go slow to go fast.

» Perfection is not required.
Do what is possible with the available resources, even if it’s not a full-service community school or the ideal replication of a model that is already showing success. While facility space for partnerships can be an asset that enables a school to house a food pantry, a clothing closet or even a community health center, it isn’t a prerequisite to creating a community school, which is both a place and a set of partnerships.

Owing to voter support for a $458 million bond measure, Vancouver is building dedicated spaces for family-community resource centers in our new and remodeled schools, but some of our resource centers operate successfully in hallway alcoves and custodial closets.

Two students from Lieser Campus in Vancouver, Wash., unload fresh fruit and vegetables delivered via one of the district’s two mobile family community resource centers.

Sharing Experience
As educators, we have a responsibility to help advance the community schools movement and share our experience with others. Eight other school districts in southwest Washington now operate family-community resource centers as a result of the success shown in Vancouver.

After we were named Education Week Leaders to Learn From in 2016 for scaling up our centers, Vancouver Public Schools became a destination for dozens of district leaders throughout the the U.S. who wanted to learn more about our efforts to develop community schools. Among those visiting were representatives from Boise Public Schools and its partners (see related story).

We also were honored to host policy analyst Elaine Weiss and education researcher Robert Barr, who conducted extensive interviews of our students, parents, staff and community members for their respective book projects. Martin Blank and Jose Munoz, the former and current directors of the Coalition for Community Schools, have joined us for site visits as well. Vancouver Public Schools also was highlighted in 2017 at a UCLA conference on reimagining schools and school systems hosted by Pedro Noguera (see additional resources below).

Increasingly, America’s educational leaders are discovering they must take a whole-system approach to engaging families along with business, governmental, higher education, faith-based, nonprofit and philanthropic partners by identifying and mobilizing resources that remove barriers to learning. Community schools are gaining national momentum and they are producing dramatic results in Vancouver and elsewhere.

Focused on improving school readiness, transforming student trajectories, closing achievement gaps and preparing future-ready graduates, community schools cultivate hope, create opportunity and build agency in students and their families.

STEVE WEBB is superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools in Vancouver, Wash. Twitter: @SuptVPS. TOM HAGLEY JR. is the district’s chief of staff.

Additional Resources
To learn more about the community schools initiative in Vancouver, Wash., visit and

These additional resources address the community schools model:
» Broader, Bolder, Better: How Schools and Communities Help Students Overcome the Disadvantages of Poverty by Elaine Weiss and Paul Reville (Harvard Education Press, 2019)

» Building a Culture of Hope: Enriching Schools with Optimism and Opportunity by Robert Barr and Emily Gibson (Solution Tree Press, 2013), and an upcoming Solution Tree book by the same authors on poverty, hope and the resilient school

» Creating Engagement between Schools and their Communities edited by Ted Purinton and Carlos Azcoitia (Lexington Books, 2016)

Other informational resources:
» Coalition for Community Schools, an initiative of the Institute for Educational Leadership

» Community Schools Playbook, a project of the Partnership for the Future of Learning

» UCLA Center for Community Schooling, a campus-wide initiative to advance university-assisted community schools