Students from rural and small-town districts represent nearly a third of the nation’s public school enrollment. Forty-one percent of U.S. schools are located in these areas. The economic forces changing these districts offer school leaders the opportunity to rethink how schooling is done, and how to connect with families, mobilize partners, and address changing needs. Already, schools are often the hub of smaller communities. Now, they’re becoming more strategic. They’re becoming community schools.  

In Massena, New York, on the border with Canada, Superintendent Patrick Brady reflects on the changes in his communitythe city had been the economic center of St. Lawrence County. It houses the New York State Power Authority and the Moses-Saunders power dam. It was a manufacturing town with General Motors and Reynolds Metals, a major producer of aluminum. However, the decline of manufacturing and other economic changes have led to an increase in the poverty rate and its associated challenges. The connection between the well-being of children and families with student success was underscored as educators found themselves responding to complex barriers to learning. The district knew it had strong organizations and neighbors in the community that could help, but they found themselves reacting to crises and without a strategy to address the changing needs of schools and families. 

That’s when school leaders learned about New York state’s support for community schools. They hired a district community school director, mobilized partners into rapid response teams, aligned partners around a strategic vision, and made schools the centers of their community. As Community Schools Director Kristin Colarusso said, their community schools initiative has “taken away the walls that separate the school and the community. It’s brought everybody together.”  

On a visit to learn more from the state Department of Education about community schools, Principal Douglas realized that by becoming more intentional about her partnership approach and maximizing local assets, she was creating a community school. With state support and funding from the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, Harford County Public Schools is now expanding its community school strategycreating new community schools and a district-level steering committee made up of partner organizations. 

It turns out that community schools are not too different from the way schools in smaller and more rural districts operate. The difference? School leaders and their communities now know what to call their approach: community schools. The approach adds intention and strategy by mobilizing the resources in these communities, uniting school, business, faith, and community leaders together with families and residents to create learning and other opportunities for their students. 

Read the full article about small, rural schools by Reuben Jacobson at Brookings.