(This column has been adapted from a Feb. 1 City & State op-ed.)
If ever there was a time when the need for schools to serve as community centers was self-evident, it is now. The COVID pandemic proved their value beyond measure. Our union’s United Community Schools initiative, now nearly 10 years old, serves as a lifeline for thousands of students and their families.
Our program has helped bring academic, social-emotional and health services for children, along with initiatives like English as a second language instruction and employment assistance for adults, to underserved communities around the city.
We need more community schools. The program works by funding a community schools director in each building who can work with local social service providers and other partners to bring their services directly into each school, giving families a one-stop location for a wide range of help they may need.
For the 2022–23 school year, we plan to connect more children to mental and behavioral health resources, intensify academic programming to help students deal with pandemic learning loss and focus staff professional development around trauma recovery, social-emotional learning and culturally responsive education.
We are asking Albany for more support — $4 million for our own program; a $5 million special fund to help us scale up the program, making our expertise and technical support available to more schools; and a $100 million allocation for new categorical aid for schools around the state that want to follow our model by hiring a community schools director.
During the 2021–22 school year alone, the union’s Community Learning Schools coordinated more than 10,000 health clinic visits, fed more than 6,000 families and provided more than 1,500 counseling and wellness check-ins with social workers, counselors and health care professionals in our school-based health centers.
The Bronx Writing Academy and the health care provider MetroPlus sponsored a Vaccination Day and Family Festival in June 2021. On Staten Island, families of Curtis HS who don’t have stable housing now have access to laundry facilities without stigma thanks to the school’s partnership with a laundromat chain. At PS 40 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a chapter leader shared with her students breathing techniques and mindfulness exercises she learned through one of the partner organizations of her community school. These examples are just a small sample of all the ways United Community Schools serve families in their moment of need.
An independent study of the program found that nearly two-thirds of responding parents believed their United Community School students experienced significant changes in their interest in learning and their problem-solving skills because of the programs, services and support they received. The union’s own analysis shows that every $1 we invest in these schools brings in $6 in additional outside resources from our community partners.
In October 2019, the U.S. Department of Education described United Community Schools as a “nationally significant” education program and awarded it one of eight national grants to provide additional mental health services, restorative practices and after-school programming at three of its Bronx schools.
Strong schools and strong communities go hand in hand. And we know by expanding this worthy program, we can better expand the benefits of our community school model not just to other New York City schools, but to schools and families across the state.