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Building a Community Schools Future in Arkansas

by Cory Biggs, Associate Director at ForwARd Arkansas

This spring, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law Act 744 of 2021—the Community Schools Act, providing a road map for Arkansas schools wishing to pursue community school strategies, which include integrated student supports, expanded learning time, active family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership practices. By leveraging these resources, schools will be better positioned to meet students’ needs. The act also allows the state’s Department of Education to aid in the implementation of community school approaches and empowers the Arkansas State Board of Education to require public school districts classified as in need of the highest level of state support to develop a system of whole-child supports through a community school plan.

While this new law is an important step forward for the community school movement in Arkansas, it came amid some confusion around what the community school approach is, what it means for schools, and how community schools benefit students and families. Here are three lessons learned you may find helpful when pushing for your own community school:

SHOWCASE THE BENEFITS
The community schools approach is a proven way to better connect schools with their communities in order to improve outcomes for students. Research shows that community schools—even in places where access to resources is historically inequitable and where low student academic success has been intractable—have higher attendance and college-going rates, fewer discipline problems, and students more bonded to their communities.

KNOW THE FACTS
The concerns put forward in Arkansas were on matters of serious import, though they were misplaced as pertaining to this new state law. While moving the bill through the legislature, we learned that state representatives were beset by concerns over parental rights. Be prepared to correct misinformation with the truth. Parental consent is already required for every service community schools offer. And nothing about a community school approach changes the way student data is protected. Schools cannot waive the privacy rights of any student; only parents or guardians have the authority to do that.

KEEP IT LOCAL
There were concerns over the role of the federal government in the creation of community schools. Yes, it is true that federal funds are commonly available for community schools, including grant funds set aside for the U.S. Department of Education’s Full-Service Community Schools Program (FSCS). But, it is entirely up each local school and district as to how to administer federal funds received and similarly up to local school leadership whether to apply for FSCS grant funding. Critically, it is important to emphasize that community schools do not change a school’s governance structure.

As each misunderstanding was cleared up by advocates on the ground in Arkansas, the legislation overcame initial pushback and was approved by a healthy vote margin on its way to the Governor’s desk, opening the door for more Arkansas schools, families and communities to work in closer, authentic partnership to best serve students.

To learn more about the community schools strategy and how Arkansas is implementing it, visit our website at https://forwardarkansas.org/blog/closing-gaps-opening-doors/.

Watch this short video below on Batesville School District where community school implementation is already underway:

Community Schools - Batesville

The NEA Foundation is committed to featuring diverse voices and perspectives about critical issues facing public education, students, and educators. These views do not necessarily reflect those of the NEA Foundation.
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