Schools’ missions shifted during the pandemic with health care, shelter and adult education

The term “community school” generally refers to a school that provides a cluster of wraparound services under one roof. The hope is that students living in poverty will learn more if their basic needs are met. Schools that provide only one or two services are likely among the 60% of schools that said they were using a community school or wraparound services model, but they aren’t necessarily full-fledged community schools, Department of Education officials said.

The wording of the question on the federal School Pulse Panel survey administered in August 2023 allowed for a broad interpretation of what it means to be a community school. The question posed to a sample of schools across all 50 states was this: “Does your school use a “community school” or “wraparound services” model? A community school or wraparound services model is when a school partners with other government agencies and/or local nonprofits to support and engage with the local community (e.g., providing mental and physical health care, nutrition, housing assistance, etc.).” 

The most common service provided was mental health (66% of schools) followed by food assistance (55%). Less common were medical clinics and adult education, but many more schools said they were providing these services than in the past.

A national survey of more than 1,300 public schools conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that a majority are providing a range of non-educational wraparound services to the community. Source: PowerPoint slide from an online briefing in October 2023 by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The number of full-fledged community schools is also believed to be growing, according to education officials and researchers. Federal funding for community schools tripled during the pandemic to $75 million in 2021-22 from $25 million in 2019-20. According to the  education department, the federal community schools program now serves more than 700,000 students in about 250 school districts, but there are additional state and private funding sources too.

Whether it’s a good idea for most schools to expand their mission and adopt aspects of the community school model depends on one’s view of the purpose of school. Some argue that schools are taking on too many functions and should not attempt to create outposts for outside services. Others argue that strong community engagement is an important aspect of education and can improve daily attendance and learning. Research studies conducted before the pandemic have found that academic benefits from full-fledged community schools can take several years to materialize. It’s a big investment without an instant payoff.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether schools will continue to embrace their expanded mission after federal pandemic funds expire in March 2026. That’s when the last payments to contractors and outside organizations for services rendered can be made. Contracts must be signed by September 2024.

Edunomics’s Roza thinks many of these community services will be the first to go as schools face future budget cuts. But she also predicts that some will endure as schools raise money from state governments and philanthropies to continue popular programs.

If that happens, it will be an example of another unexpected consequence of the pandemic. Even as pundits decry how the pandemic has eroded support for public education, it may have profoundly transformed the role of schools and made them even more vital.

This story about wraparound services was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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