The basic concept of community schools is that by forming relationships with a variety of partners, the use of public schools can be maximized. Through partnerships, a school can remain open for everything from traditional after-school programming to family literacy night and potluck dinners, creating an enriching community space. Read more in this week’s post.

Some time ago I saw an interview in which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described what I thought was an interesting take on the future of education – community schools. The basic concept is that public schools, by leveraging relationships with a variety of partners, become community hubs — staying open in the evenings, on weekends and during the summer for everything from traditional after-school programming to family literacy night and potluck dinners. Kids have a multitude of support services available onsite and the cost and liability for providing such services gets divided by all the entities using the facility.

Last month, I had an experience that made me think more about the use of public spaces like schools in rural communities. I traveled to Western Bristol Bay as part of an outreach trip sponsored by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. The goal was to meet community members and to listen and learn about needs, particularly as they pertained to Trust beneficiaries.

My group traveled to New Stuyahok and Koliganek, communities of about 550 and 200 people located 50 and 65 miles northeast of Dillingham. Other outreach participants traveled to the communities of Twin Hills, Togiak, Manokitak, Aleknagik, Clark Point and Ekwok.

As we visited with our hosts, and later when the outreach group reconvened to share what we learned, a prevailing theme was the desire for additional public gathering spaces. It made me wonder whether any aspects of the community school concept would work in rural Alaska.

New Stuyahok has an impressive amount of infrastructure for a small community, but by far the nicest building in town was the Chief Ivan Blunka School which opened in 2010. The main entrance leads into an atrium with large windows for natural light. This open space can be transformed into a lunchroom or community space as needed. The gym was so well cared for it sparkled, and the library and classrooms were comfortable and welcoming. Yet this beautiful facility, and all its resources, closes in the summer and during holidays. This seems like a missed opportunity, especially when we heard community members say they were trying to find funding to renovate the old school building for public activities.

With the cost of constructing and maintaining facilities so high in rural Alaska and the tenuous availability of federal funding for new construction projects, it makes sense to use existing infrastructure to its full potential.

Sharing facilities would undoubtedly create logistical challenges, but more than 5,000 public schools across 44 states have found ways to work through these questions. Maybe it’s a concept worthy of discussion in Alaska.