Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

The Community School Model- Just Imagine!

By David Chudnovsky

August 29, 2023

Imagine a small elementary school in a low income suburban community. The teachers are a mix of veterans and younger folks. It’s a really tough job as many of the students come to school hungry and have difficult home lives, but the teachers are enthusiastic and committed. Several of them have been teaching there for almost 30 years. They’ve all thought of looking for easier placements, but they can’t bring themselves to leave these kids.

There’s an evening program for adults – with courses in everything from belly dancing to introductory business skills to gymnastics – and there’s a ceramics studio with a kiln and slip and glazes that’s used by the kids during the day and adults at night.

Students work with a community curriculum developed by the teachers that reflects the experience of residents and neighbours.

Adult Basic Education classes are taught in a couple of empty classrooms during the day and in the kids’ classrooms in the evening – from basic literacy for people who can’t read or write to high school equivalency GED prep sessions. For more than 30 hours a week dozens of adults share the school with the elementary students.

A group of neighbourhood women meet in the school to organize a childcare centre and it’s just about to open in the community centre down the street.

A Community Newspaper is published four times a year through the school.

There’s a seniors group that meets monthly and organizes outings, and also arranges for older neighbours to volunteer in classrooms and interact with the elementary students.

In a portable in the parking lot behind the school is a re-entry program for teenagers who’ve been out of school for at least 6 months. The school recruits those students through local social service agencies, high school counselors and the media.

During the summer, a day camp runs using the school building and its facilities.

There’s a lunch program. Volunteers from the neighbourhood come into the school to make sandwiches or hot dogs – but it’s hard to get the money to make the program permanent.

There’s a community program run out of the school called Shape Up. A couple of the Shape Up staff will help you renovate your house, clean out your garage, landscape your backyard or do any one of hundreds of home improvement projects that keep getting put off. But residents have to contribute. Some help with the actual work of the project at their home. Some store the tools. Some make lunch and dinner for the workers. One guy sharpens and repairs the tools.

There’s an annual fundraising fair at the school, but it has to be scheduled for social assistance cheque week. If it isn’t, there’s no money to raise.  But when it is, the whole neighbourhood participates, they have a great time, and some funds are raised to support the programs.

The School Board employs a teacher to organize and facilitate all of this, plus a night school monitor (paid for out of the fees for the night school courses), and a part time secretary.  However, the real leadership is provided by a Community Board made up of neighbourhood folks who advise and decide on the various programs, advertise, and explain what’s going on at the school to their neighbours, and advocate to the School Board and other governments and agencies for the various programs and activities at the school. Some of them are parents of kids at the school. Some of them aren’t.

Sound good? A bit too good to be true? Pie in the sky? Not at all. That program – with a lot more elements – existed and flourished in a North Surrey neighbourhood for decades. I was lucky enough to be the Community School Coordinator – the teacher hired by the Board to run the Community School Program for close to ten years, and while it was a hard job, it was enormously exciting.

Neighbourhoods with Community Schools knew, and still know, that they are certainly cost effective, but more important, they build cooperation, educational and social success, and resilience.

The Community School model – with different characteristics in communities with different needs – came to an end in Surrey in the late 1980’s as a result of yet another budget crisis.  But it still exists in some jurisdictions.

What a wonderful experience –  using school resources and space to meet community needs. Those elementary school students learned so much from the range of people who themselves benefited from the school’s programs. The kids learned they were part of a community. They learned they could build and strengthen their neighborhood. They learned that seniors, and adults learning to read and write, and the fellow who lived down the street and sharpened tools, were all important parts of their lives. They learned what it means to be a citizen.

While you’re thinking about what was, imagine what could be. What if we added a Community Health Clinic and a Social Services Office to that Community School? What if the School Board meetings were held in each Community School once a year? What if the local First Nations were part of and  the programs at the School?

What if School Boards and the Province really understood the value of schools as part of the wider community, understood schools as the building blocks of stronger and more resilient communities? Imagine a renaissance of Community Schools across BC.

Just imagine.

David Chudnovsky worked in nursery, elementary and secondary schools and at the university level in England, Ontario and BC during his 35-year teaching career.  He is a past-president of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation and was an elected Member of the Legislative Assembly in British Columbia Legislature from 2005-2009.  David is co-author of the Charter for Public Education.