California Community Schools in Action:

A Blog Series

Learning as Transformation

California community schools are embracing a crucial lesson: a robust student support system cannot substitute for a strong core instructional program that responds effectively to the individual development and learning needs of each student (Quinn and Blank, 2020). Indeed, California community schools are committed to transforming the classroom environment and learning experiences of our young people–creating learning spaces that are inclusive, racially just, relationship-centered and that prepare all youth for positive social and emotional development, engaged citizenship, and deep learning.

To achieve this goal, California community schools are guided by how young people learn and develop best. According to the science of learning and development, students thrive in environments that are safe, supportive, and rich in relationships. These environments provide engaging, relevant learning opportunities by linking classroom instruction to the broader community. Often project- or problem-based and interdisciplinary, this learning approach is rooted in the rich assets of students, families, educators, and local community members, making it “community-based.” Community-based learning is a powerful instructional approach that is responsive to local history, knowledge, values, language, literature, institutions, and culture. It enables young people to connect their learning to the world around them, thereby improving their sense of ownership and agency (see this example of community-based learning in action). In alignment with the California Community Schools Framework, community-based learning provides the necessary conditions for deep student learning through culturally rooted and sustaining instructional strategies. Engaging and relevant curriculum, well-scaffolded instruction, and ongoing formative assessments that provide feedback to both students and teachers on progress, strength, and areas for improvement all form critical elements of community-based learning. 

This blog post explores the progress of California Community School Partnership Program (CCSPP) grantees as they work to transform the classroom experiences and improve the learning outcomes of our young people. We examine the implementation of community-based learning strategies across the 450 schools that comprise the first cohort of grantees, based on Annual Progress Report responses. We also highlight some bright spots across the state that are prioritizing community-based teaching and learning in their community schools.

What does the Annual Progress Report tell us?

School sites were asked to assess their progress in building the capacity of interest-holders–administrators, practitioners, partners–in establishing and implementing community-based learning practices. In their first year of implementation, most school sites (62%) reported that they were beginning to explore community-based learning strategies. These schools indicated that they were in the “visioning” stage, meaning that they were working to develop a shared understanding around the core principles of community-based learning and establishing the supportive conditions that enable students to better engage in learning and cognitive processes (e.g, relationship-centered practices, social-emotional skill development, restorative practices). Approximately one-third of schools indicated that they were “engaging” in community-based learning practices, wherein educators’ are developing and deepening their skills and self-efficacy to implement these strategies, providing supportive learning environments through robust, teacher-led professional learning, collaborative planning, curated learning resources, and structures such as advisory. Only 4% of schools, statewide, felt that they were in the “transforming” stage of implementation wherein community-based learning forms the basis of the school’s academic program. These schools use multiple, non-traditional and holistic measures to monitor student progress, wellbeing and growth.

These findings demonstrate that this is an important area of growth for grantees. Creating the conditions for community-based learning by establishing welcoming learning environments was identified as a priority in the implementation plans or needs and assets assessments (NAA) of many schools. For example, providing positive behavioral supports, practices that help prevent, reduce and eliminate exclusionary discipline, and practices and programs that teach social-emotional skills were part of implementation plans or the NAA for 87%, 84%, and 86% of grantees, respectively. Fifty-three percent of grantees incorporated an advisory system, ensuring that every student has a home-base/family group and an advisor who knows them well.

Fewer grantees, however, identified core components of community-based learning as a priority in their implementation plans and/or NAA. Sixty-three percent of grantees indicated that developing a culturally sustaining curriculum was part of their implementation plan or needs and assets assessment. Less than half of grantees indicated that project-based learning (46%), community-based curriculum, pedagogy and projects (44%), and performance assessments like capstone projects and portfolios were part of their implementation plans or NAA (48%).  

What does community-based learning look like in California Community Schools?

To assess their progress in centering community-based learning in their implementation efforts, schools referenced a range of evidence and artifacts including unit and lesson plans (referenced by 50% of grantees), performance or self-assessments (32%, respectively), a vision for teaching and learning co-created by school staff (32%), increased reports of student engagement (28%), and site-level frameworks for community-based teaching and learning (18%). Though most Cohort 1 community schools are just beginning to build their capacity for developing community-based curriculum, examples of their efforts to connect students’ learning to the world around them are encouraging. One grantee shared:

“Classes across the school focus on curricula that engage students with [community]-centered history and community-centered approaches. For example, students in English engage in a portrait photography exhibit entitled Faces of the Town, in which each student interviews someone from their community about their experiences in [community] and then composes a portrait of the interview subject. Students in US History engage in an interview project focused on migration movements to [our community]. Students in government classes partner with community programs like East Bay Young Scientist and Frontline Catalyst to test soil samples and monitor lead in their soil.”

Another grantee who indicated that they had a site-level framework in place for community-based teaching and learning shared, …We incorporate district heritage resource guides into classroom instruction and lesson plans to center community-based learning. Our community partners provide school day, afterschool, and lunchtime activities that promote student engagement with our local partners on and off campus. Scholars also help provide morning announcements to uplift community-based learning that is scholar-led and facilitated.” Other grantees shared how the introduction of community-based curriculum and pedagogy, such as “ethnic studies and restorative justice for 9th graders” has enriched the learning experience. One grantee shared that, “Student-led conferences and partnerships with organizations…further connect students to real-life experiences, enhancing their sense of ownership and agency.”

Finally, grantees shared that deepening and enhancing these learning experiences for students requires a shared commitment from school and district staff through the provision of professional learning that is aligned with community-based curriculum and pedagogy, the allocation of time and resources for educators to develop curricula, and the expansion of partnerships “to bring authentic opportunities for student expression of learning.” A review of district or Local Educational Agency-level (LEA) APRs provided a few examples of how they are mobilizing support and resources to accomplish this. For example, one LEA detailed their development of Professional Learning Communities “to promote collaboration, reflection, and the development of collective expertise.” Anaheim Union High School District and West Contra Costa Unified School District, two of three Deep Dive Transformation Partners for the CCSPP,  are demonstrating their commitment to strengthening community-based learning strategies, districtwide, throughcommunity school teacher leads.” A community school teacher lead at each community school provides instructional support and leadership to ensure “a teaching and learning environment that includes social and emotional support systems; strong, relevant curriculum; high-quality teaching; and effective family and community engagement.” These districts recognize the critical work of teachers in community schools and understand that effectively breaking down the walls between the classroom and the community requires colleagueship, leadership, and support from all interest-holders.

What’s next? 

Transforming the classroom experiences, improving the learning outcomes, and ensuring the wellbeing of our young people is what community schooling is all about. To achieve the promise of CCSPP, California community schools are making significant commitments to establish the structures, develop the learning environments, and strengthen the practices that connect and prepare students for the world around them.

Our findings from the Annual Progress Report indicate that many schools are in the initial stages of implementing community-based learning strategies. Transformation will require time, resources, and long-term, system-level commitment that includes the provision of professional learning opportunities and support. 

In our next blog post, we describe the CCSPP landscape. In May 2024, the California State Board of Education announced the award of CCSPP implementation grants to approximately 1000 schools across the state. Our next post will provide detailed information about Cohorts 1-3, and the students and communities they serve.

Stay tuned for more!