Rural Trust's Doris Williams Authors National Report on Community Schools

Last Updated: October 26, 2010

This article appeared in the October 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

“Community is a place where people and institutions collaborate to build social capital that in turn strengthens families, institutions — including the school, and the community itself,” says Doris Williams, Executive Director of the Rural School and Community Trust and Director of the Trust’s Capacity Building program. Williams is author of a report on rural “community schools,” co-released last month by the Center for American Progress and the Rural Trust.

The report, The Rural Solution: How Community Schools Can Reinvigorate Rural Education, addresses the potential of the community school movement to concentrate supports and resources in low-wealth rural schools and build the kind of community-school partnerships that help children, their families, and the school and community succeed and thrive. The paper also includes profiles of three communities that have applied the concept in their schools.

What is a Community School?

Williams points out that it is necessary to re-claim the language of “community” and notes that sometimes the words “community school” or “neighborhood school” are code for school re-segregation along racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic lines. “We need a broader and more justice-oriented understanding of the concept of “community,” she says.

The Coalition for Community Schools defines a community school as “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 community engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities. Schools become centers of the community and are open to everyone — all day, every day, evenings and weekends.”

But the concept of community schools as developed in The Rural Solution is about much more than co-locating services. “It’s about shaking people out of the bushes, getting them to the table,” laughs Williams. “It’s a process for connecting resources and initiating community dialogue that engages grassroots community residents in authentic ways and integrates educators in that process.”

A community process of planning for community schools will help ensure that the programs and services offered at the school are appropriate for the specific place. Typically programs offered through a community school might include pre-K classes, extended school day and year, and a range of child and family supports including health care, social services, and adult education. Programs usually have a variety of avenues for parent and family engagement and strengthen the community through place-based academic initiatives and partnerships between the school and local groups.

“In community schools, ‘engagement’ becomes the act of investing in, co-creating, and owning the school,” Williams observes, referencing work by Peter Block. “There is a conscious effort to ensure that services are integrated in a way that increases the social capital that goes into overcoming or removing the barriers to student, family, and community success and citizenship.”

Potential of Community Schools for Rural Places

The community schools concept offers particular possibility for many rural communities. Across the country low-wealth, smaller, or more isolated rural communities typically lack access to health clinics, formal social services offices, and sometimes institutions like public libraries. Public services tend to be concentrated in larger towns and county seats, often inaccessible to distant rural residents and those with transportation challenges.

By locating services in the rural school, it brings them to a place where they not only serve students but become available to other residents as well. “Community schools are a way to address the issue of scale in rural places,” says Williams. “By concentrating services together and by treating the child as whole person with connections to family, community, faith-based or other groups, you get to scale.”

Community schools also offer a way to bring the community’s strengths and assets into the school. Rural communities usually have rich networks of interpersonal connections, important cultural traditions, and residents with a range of expertise rooted in formal education and/or local knowledge and awareness.

“Community schools offer one way for schools to expand their teacher base,” says Williams. “Communities and schools can develop ways to ‘certify’ local residents to work with students directly.”

And although many communities have few chartered non-profits, almost all communities have more or less formal groups like volunteer fire departments, alumni groups, sewing circles, reading groups, seed exchanges, and a variety of faith-based organizations and programs that are interested in improving community life and opportunities for children.

As a Potential Turnaround Model

The report underscores the reality that the poorest rural communities tend to be concentrated in geographic regions where there may be little political will to improve education for low-income children, especially children of color. In such circumstances, it can be hard to get approval from the school board to initiate a community school approach.

In these cases especially, an external investment, such as a federal program to encourage cross agency collaboration could make a big difference in bringing resources to rural low-income communities and better educational opportunities to children. But such federal investments are currently too small to match the need, the report notes.

The community school approach could also be an option for schools that have persistently struggled for academic achievement. With supports available to address students’ out-of-school needs, teachers can focus more time and energy on teaching, and teaching could be less stressful. That might help rural low-wealth schools recruit and retain teachers, one of their ongoing challenges.

“The turnaround models currently offered through federal initiatives don’t really work for most rural places,” says Williams. “If school closure or turning a school over to a for-profit company are options for struggling schools, why not make community schools an option? It is a way to make sure that low-wealth communities and their children have access to the supports that middle class families rely on and take for granted.”

Challenges, Recommendations, Examples

The Rural Solution identifies several challenges facing many rural communities in the implementation of the community school concept, including finding the will to educate all children, especially children of color in the rural South; attracting and retaining teachers; making better use of facilities; negotiating agreements and reducing risks among community and agency partners; establishing community consensus; and making federal turnaround models and federal funding relevant and available to rural schools.

The report’s three examples of communities that have initiated community schools — Owsley County, Kentucky; Bennington, Vermont; and Noble, Maine — provide a rich overview of community school approaches. The three communities face different local circumstances, used different processes for developing partnerships, and created different kinds of programs. But all three communities came up with models that address local circumstances and improve education and quality of life in the community, thereby improving prospects for students and other residents.

Education as a Civil Right

“Understanding community as a place where people and institutions collaborate to build social capital implies that community schools are centers where the basic principles of a democratic society are practiced,” says Williams. “In this way, schools become places where a sense of isolation is removed and where ‘service providers’ see themselves and are seen as community members guided by those same principles.”

Williams continues, “A commitment to the principles implied by this broader understanding of community is an opportunity to change the discourse and direction of the education of rural children. It provides an opportunity to confront the issues of race, power, and injustice as they have impacted education, obstructed the success of children and families, and threatened the security of our nation as a whole.”

Williams observes that community schools, rooted in this deeper meaning of community, may be unrivaled in their potential to provide quality education for all children whether urban or rural.

 “This really is a civil rights issue,” Williams concludes.

The report, The Rural Solution: How Community Schools Can Reinvigorate Rural Education, is available through the Rural Trust  at


Read more from the October 2010 Rural Policy Matters.