Going beyond instruction, community schools serve as ‘hubs in the community’

Selena Davis, left, 8, and Mariah Long, right, 7, play in the mini-diner that is part of the Lilliput Play Homes in the library at Duquesne K-8, on Dec. 12, 2023. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Community schools around Pittsburgh work to reduce violence, fight food insecurity and support student mental health.

by Lajja Mistry and Tanya Babbar, PublicSource

Every Friday, at 1:53 p.m., Sha’Ron Kennedy helps his classmates at Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Langley K-8 prepare bags filled with food. First, he slips in some instant noodles, and then he adds green beans, corn and tomato sauce. Sometimes he also adds breakfast oatmeal and fruit. 

Once all bags are prepared, Kennedy leads the students to different classrooms. 

At each class, they knock on the door saying, “Blessings in a backpack!” then deliver the bags to other students. 

Kennedy is a seventh-grader in Langley’s autistic support class where he volunteers to work in the school’s Blessings in a Backpack program. The program is part of Langley’s community school model, providing food for students experiencing food insecurity. 

A kid standing in front of a room full of food.
Seventh grader Sha’Ron Kennedy demonstrates packing food for the “Blessings in a Backpack” program that provides food for students experiencing food insecurity at Pittsburgh Public Schools Langley K-8 on Nov. 30, in Sheraden. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

PPS Langley is one of nine schools in the district that are designated as community schools. Unlike traditional neighborhood public schools, the community public school model focuses on providing services that support the neighborhood’s needs by involving parents and other community members. They often partner with local businesses and organizations and have an integrated focus on learning opportunities, health and fulfilling basic needs. 

The pandemic reinforced the importance of community schools, when schools needed to meet a range of needs outside the classroom. The Coalition for Community Schools estimates there are about 5,000 community schools in the country. 

Students run through the tiny town made of Lilliput Play Homes in the library at Duquesne K-8, on Dec. 12, in the city of Duquesne. The town features a child-sized veterinarian office, gym, bookstore, trolley and other Main Street mainstays in which students and library visitors can engage in dramatic play. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Outside the city, Communities in Schools of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County [CISPAC] is helping districts build community schools across the region. Last year, they began implementing the full-service community school model across eight school districts in Allegheny County. 

Community schools across Pittsburgh serve as hubs of the neighborhoods in which they operate. Many go far beyond delivering instruction and offer resources such as food, clothing and after-school programs with a focus on mental health and reducing violence in the community. 

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