That’s one of the questions at hand as Flint looks for a new model for public education. Community schools have deep roots in the City of Flint, and the city has, based on community input, identified reestablishing a strong community school system as a top priority for residents.
The vision of community schools is that they act as community hubs, bringing in outside organizations to offer a wide array of services for children and families, such as medical services and adult education. “The idea is that there will definitely be services that regular K-12 schools don’t have,” said Kevin Schronce, a Planner at the City of Flint’s Department of Planning and Development. In that way, the schools streamline service delivery while also acting as a small anchor institution that helps stabilize the surrounding neighborhood.
Flint Community Schools, the public school district in the city, has a long history of working hard to provide quality education to the city’s children. As the city has suffered large-scale disinvestment and population loss, though, the school system has also suffered. Today, 80% of Flint Community School (FCS) District students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and, in 2013, only 23% of FCS 11th grade students were proficient in reading, 3% in math, and 2% in science.  Attendance within the FCS system has plummeted from nearly 50,000 students in the 1960’s to less than 7,000 today. This population loss has forced the closure of 41 schools, many of which continue to sit vacant, negatively impacting the health, safety, and economic vitality of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Today, however, Flint is planning for the future. This past year, the city adopted its first master plan, Imagine Flint, in over 50 years, and has proposed a five-year plan for eliminating blight in the city. In alignment with these efforts, FCS is restructuring, administering its own deficit elimination plan, educational audit and strategic plan.
As a result, FCS and the team that developed Imagine Flint came together to create a working group on community education. The working group conducted the “Imagining Community Education Workshop” on June 7, 2014, engaging the community in constructing a new vision for community education, including how it could act in coordination with the city’s greater neighborhood stabilization goals. Nearly 300 residents attended the workshop, representing a wide variety of age groups, race, socio-economic class, as well as geographic diversity.
During the workshop, the planning team asked residents how community education could best serve their needs, seeking input on several key service areas including: expanded learning, parent engagement, adult education, health and social services, and early childhood education.
In addition, the planning team identified community and economic development as a key service area. The discussion guide created for the workshop explains that community education could give Flint “an opportunity to reestablish its existing schools as community anchors, both helping to stabilize devastated neighborhoods while drawing strength from committed residents … [C]reating a healthy environment both within the school and surrounding neighborhood is critical in ensuring positive school outcomes.” 
The hope is that these schools, acting as community-based anchor institutions, can help stabilize and even revitalize neighborhoods struggling with vacancy and disinvestment, because the presence of community schools will help deter residents from leaving, connect those residents to services they need, and even begin to attract residents back to the neighborhood. Altogether, the presence of a community school could help create strong and safe neighborhoods that serve children and families.
Community feedback from the workshop showed strong support for this idea of leveraging community education to support revitalization efforts. Job training emerged as the top community and economic development priority, but participants also identified blight elimination, community gardens, and neighborhood and community building as important themes. Furthermore, eliminating blight, repurposing closed schools, and beautification projects were all voted by the community as priorities for establishing schools as community hubs.
Community residents also strongly emphasized the need for immediate action. This fall, Flint is putting its plans to work.
FCS chose Brownell-Holmes STEM Academy, which opened in 2013, as the pilot school for the new community education model, with funding from United Way-Genesee County, the Crim Fitness Foundation, and the C.S. Mott Foundation. [Community Progress also receives funding from the C.S. Mott Foundation] Nearly 800 pre-kindergarten through sixth grade students attend the academy, which includes two buildings and, thanks to support from the C.S. Mott Foundation, now boasts a brand new STEM lab. The pilot program will start with just a few services, with plans to expand with the support of many partners as time progresses. The school hosted an open house, which featured free flu shots and vision assessments, on October 16th to get feedback from parents to plan for future growth.
Brownell-Holmes Academy is located in a neighborhood with relatively low vacancy, particularly in relation to the surrounding neighborhoods. It is in one of the most stable majority African-American neighborhoods in Flint, with only a smattering of vacant structures and lots. The area has eight large churches that are active in the community, as well as many small businesses. While an aging demographic characterizes the residential population, it is also a choice neighborhood for younger families.
Brownell-Holmes is also a tipping-point neighborhood. Though the condition of most of the housing stock is relatively good, Community Progress’ recent housing market value analysis of Flint suggests that the neighborhood market is weak. Some of the most heavily blighted and abandoned neighborhoods in the city are quite nearby. Thus, there are concerns that conditions in the neighborhood could deteriorate quickly, and indeed, some areas have already began to see some deterioration.
If Brownell-Holmes is successfully established as a community hub, it may be able to help tip the surrounding area back toward stabilization and prosperity instead of into further disinvestment. This new vision for community schools is just getting off the ground, but community education could be a strong neighborhood stabilization tool in the City of Flint.
Special thanks to Kevin Schronce, Planner at the City of Flint, for his help in the production of this piece. Imagining Community Schools Discussion Guide, Flint Community Schools and Imagine Flint, pg. 5.  Imagining Community Schools Discussion Guide, Flint Community Schools and Imagine Flint, pg. 13.