Research on Education Strategies to
Advance Recovery and Turnaround

The vital role of community partners in urban district recovery efforts

Akisha Osei Sarfo, Ph.D.
6 min read
students in an outdoor afterschool activity helping hands

Akisha Osei Sarfo, Ph.D. is the Director of Research for the Council of Great City Schools. Founded in 1956, the Council brings together 78 of the nation’s largest urban public school systems in a coalition dedicated to the improvement of education for children in the inner cities. Dr. Sarfo leads the Council’s research work, facilitating the collaboration between district research departments while also spearheading the production of novel research, resources, and data tools for use by member districts.

The RESTART Network sat down with Akisha, who serves on the RESTART Network’s advisory board, to discuss ways community partners supported urban districts in the wake of the pandemic.

What role did community partners play in helping districts bridge learning gaps caused by pandemic-related disruptions?

Akisha Osei Sarfo: As the pandemic hit, community partners were not shy to jump in and provide valuable support and solutions to the increased problems faced by school districts. The practice of partnering with community agencies to provide additional support and wraparound services is not new, especially for urban school districts, but it surfaced as an important part of urban district recovery efforts throughout the pandemic.

We now know, for example, that compared to non-urban districts, urban districts were significantly more likely to use community partners to support recovery efforts, including providing instructional and logistical support for summer programming. In fact, more than three-quarters of urban districts’ 2023 summer programming involved partnerships with community-based organizations compared to about half of non-urban districts1. Additionally, community partners have helped establish health clinics, mental health supports, and other wraparound services focused on the whole-child’s health. Finally, community partners helped gather feedback and insights on the needs of the community and its students and how best to spend ESSER dollars.

How are urban school districts currently working with community partners to address unique challenges resulting from the pandemic?

Akisha Osei Sarfo: Urban school districts have seen significant increases in absenteeism throughout the pandemic, which are slowly declining. The Council recently administered a survey designed to understand strategies large urban districts employ to reduce chronic absenteeism2. Early survey results indicate that 33.3% of districts reported partnering with community-based organizations to aid in their efforts to increase engagement and attendance in urban schools. These urban school districts were able to utilize supports from these partners to build nurturing learning environments that create conditions for positive attendance. Partners also worked with urban school districts to co-develop strategic initiatives to improve attendance, including attendance challenges, parent outreach, and mental health supports.

How, if at all, did the community inform decisions around ESSER-related strategies or funding?

Akisha Osei Sarfo: Urban school districts not only leveraged formal community partners to aid in recovery efforts, but also community voice and relationships. While it is common practice to engage community voice in board meetings and district strategic planning efforts, many urban districts were intentional about including community feedback in their decision making for the use of ESSER funds. Recently the Council administered a survey on the use of ESSER funds and found that the majority of urban districts reported engaging their families or communities in decision making on the use of ESSER funds (86%)3. Districts reported that community and family voice were collected via stakeholder surveys and committees, townhall meetings, and school board presentations related to the use of ESSER funds. 

What do you want districts to know about working with community partners?

Akisha Osei Sarfo: When discussing recovery efforts, it’s crucial that we acknowledge the invaluable role played by community partners. Their involvement allows for the implementation of more authentic, localized supports, and initiatives that speak to the specific needs of urban school districts.

The contributions of community partners and stakeholders are essential pieces in the journey towards recovery.  As we continue our post-pandemic recovery, it’s important that we not underestimate the support and resources provided by the community. Working with the community and community-based partners provides a lens into the families urban districts serve and helps school districts effectively tailor their programming to meet the needs of their students.

Building relationships with community partners and leveraging community voice will continue to aid district recovery efforts and help to provide our students and families with the programming and support they need for success in school and beyond.


Akisha Osei Sarfo, Ph.D. is the Director of Research for the Council of Great City Schools. Akisha uses her years of experience and interest in program evaluation, experimental and quasi-experimental research design, urban education, race and equity in education, education policy, teacher quality and school accountability to help guide and support research and data use in Council districts. She earned a bachelor’s in Political Science and a master’s in Educational Research Methods from the University of Michigan. She also received her Ph.D. in Education Evaluation, Measurement, and Statistics from the University of Delaware and is an AERA Dissertation Fellow. 


1 These survey results are from the American School District Panel. The American School District Panel is a research partnership between RAND and the Center on Reinventing Public Education. The panel also collaborates with several other education organizations, including the Council of the Great City Schools and Kitamba.

2 The results from this survey administered by the Council of Great City Schools are not yet publicly available.

3 The results from this survey administered by the Council of Great City Schools are not yet publicly available.


Photo Credit: @childrennaturenetwork