Why community schools are part of the answer
By Valerie Strauss
April 19, 2014 at 11:00 am
LAUREL, MD - APRIL 14:
Brock Cohen taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 12 years and is now pursuing a doctorate at the University of Southern California while working at the nonprofit Los Angeles Education Partnership as a schools transformation coach. He helps develop community schools, which build strategic partnerships with both public and private organizations to provide essential supports and resources that low-income and high-needs students often go without. Cohen says these schools share a moral imperative to remove barriers to learning so that disadvantaged children can thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. Here’s a new piece by Cohen on what a 17-year-old boy taught him and the value of community schools.
By Brock Cohen
“How’s Cincinnati so far?”
My question was directed at Eddy Estrada, a 17-year-old high school senior from East L.A.’s Esteban E. Torres High School. We’d already begun chatting it up during the keynote of the Community Schools National Forum’s dinner plenary, which was enough time for me to: a) realize that it doesn’t take me long to set a bad example, b) learn that Eddy was slated to co-facilitate multiple presentations, and c) seriously question whether, in talking with Eddy, I was moving rapidly beyond my own intellectual depth.
“It’s great,” he said, “but they’re only showing things they want us to see. The best way to really know a place is to see some of its worst spots.”
Eddy’s words turned out to be prescient. The big event was located within Cincinnati’s stylish hub, which was complete with vast outdoor meeting spaces and enough chic boutiques, hotels, and bistros to satisfy the steady sidewalk parade of hipsters and urbane professionals. But on the previous day, I’d walked a good part of the city and experienced something quite different: scarcely two miles beyond the forum’s epicenter was the appearance of a city in flux and despair. Like many 21st Century American cities, urban blight, homelessness and substance abuse had been pushed to the margins.
In addition to showing wisdom that more often reveals itself in adults twice his age, Eddy’s remarks resonated with me on a more personal level than he could possibly know. His reality-versus-perception dichotomy about our host city spoke to my growing uncertainty about the entire community schools movement, and whether my initial optimism from my participation in State Senator Carol Liu’s Pathways to Partnership bus tour across much of California last October was, in fact, lining up with reality.
As a doctoral student and former Los Angeles high school English
teacher, I had already become aware of the ways in which a child’s
learning trajectory is acutely impacted by social, emotional, and
environmental factors. Seeing the intentionality with which schools in
high-poverty rural and urban communities were leveraging partnerships to
cultivate programs and interventions for children gave me renewed hope.
It was the hope that the stubborn ethos of public education was finally
giving way to the research-based
reality that disadvantaged children, who are far more likely to
struggle academically, could succeed to heights at least as great as
their more affluent peers if given the right supports and resources.
In many ways, the tour aroused my own tendency to overestimate the
possibilities of powerful concepts that seek to promote equity. This is
not to suggest that the community schools campaign isn’t effecting
real, positive changes in students’ lives. But working with schools
across a tumultuous urban school district as an academic coach has given
me a broader view of the systems and attitudes that impede positive
change and, thus, threaten to undermine the movement.
For one thing, community schools must perpetually contend with the
widespread disinvestment of wealthier families from urban and rural
schools, which now serve highly concentrated populations of low-income
and minority students. In Los Angeles, 71 percent of our total student
body is low-income. Nationwide, the number of low-income students in
public schools has
increased by 32 percent since 2001. The reasons for this shift are sad
and complex, but it has resulted in a vast number of the nation’s
schools becoming warehouses of racial and socioeconomic isolation. If
income disparities continue to increase, the numbers of underprivileged
student populations in public schools will balloon to the point where
dwindling resources available from public and private partners trigger
an all-out scrum for whatever remains.
I’ve also witnessed the ways in which some schools resist change.
Despite an emerging national conversation over the need to provide
children with the learning experiences necessary for them to develop the
skills and efficacy needed to become goal-oriented, self-sufficient
adults, many principals (and some teachers) continue to be haunted by
the high-stakes accountability mindset that equates standardized test
scores and district benchmark assessments with student learning. In
these environments, teacher collaboration is perceived as an add-on and
fostering student exploration and investigation a luxury that only
occurs once the “real” instruction has taken place. Even with
community partnerships, these schools’ inability to build the capacity
needed to engender flexibility and innovation will likely thwart
additional efforts to improve learning outcomes.
But back to Eddy.
Our conversations over a three-day span – 2,000 miles away from our
home – made me realize that community schools can be impactful in ways
that are almost impossible to see. Loyalists probably find this reality
to be at once vindicating and frustratingly difficult to quantify.
Because of countless hardships and setbacks, both of Eddy Estrada’s
parents were unable to progress beyond elementary school; nonetheless,
Eddy will be attending Cal-State Northridge next fall, where he plans on
majoring in music education.
In addition to his love of music, I quickly learned that he also has
a driving passion for 20th Century literature. He attributes
this spark to the iconoclastic poetry of L.A.-native Charles Bukowski:
“In 10th grade, my teacher had us chose from a list of
poems to memorize and recite. I chose ‘Bluebird’ because I was
still very timid, and I felt it perfectly reflected my attitude about
Eddy’s fascination with Bukowski’s “gritty perception of the
world” makes sense.
His hometown of East Los Angeles is a living tribute to fierce
independence and resolve. It’s also somewhat of an enigma: a hotbed of
Latino American culture, it’s a reputed gauntlet for young people
trying to honor their heritage while also pursuing their version of the
American Dream. Torres, which is the first newly constructed school in
East L.A. in 85 years, shares geography with four rival gang territories
and a 7.5 square mile swath of real estate that has over 50 liquor
stores but only two supermarkets.
Skeptics might dismiss Eddy’s story as yet another case of a gifted
outlier defeating the odds, but he’s had a good deal of help along the
way. Specifically, Torres’ community schools coordinator, Christina
Patricio, has been a nurturing, unwavering, force in Eddy’s life.
(Full disclosure: Christina is a colleague of mine at the Los
Angeles Education Partnership, LAEP.) As Eddy spoke about Christina,
I got the distinct feeling that he may have otherwise struggled mightily
without her guidance. “I was a slacker for the first few years of high
school,” he said, “but Christina is the one who really pushed me to
do better. She doesn’t let any one of her students slack
Also born and raised on the Eastside, Christina says she noticed from
the outset that Eddy was given to lapses in motivation, which
contributed to some less than stellar grade reports. But both she and
Eddy seemed to agree that the youth mentorship council that Christina
helped to develop alongside a host of Torres students was integral to
Eddy’s maturation because it forced him to experience putting
others’ needs before his own: Now he was tasked with supporting the
growth and well-being of peers who were at risk of slipping through the
cracks in a community that’s largely devoid of safety nets.
During the Torres team’s presentation on youth leadership in
high-poverty communities, which Eddy co-facilitated alongside Christina
and equally stellar Torres seniors Laura Lazo and Jayna Ramirez, I also
learned that the school’s on-site health and wellness facility, which
was born of a joint partnership between Torres and local nonprofits
Inner City Struggle (ICS) and LAEP, had markedly cut into both teen
pregnancies and suicide attempts while making inroads with kids who had
previously been reluctant to self-report symptoms of mental illness.
When the presentation was over, not one audience member during the Q
& A inquired about test scores or performance assessments or
state-mandated curricula – Holy Grail indicators that we’ve been
brainwashed to use as proxies for successful student outcomes. Listening
to Christina and her students tell their Eastside story was likely all
the proof they needed that this thing can work.
May 8, 2013
West Virginia Board of Education OKs Community Schools Plan
For McDowell County Public Schools
Citing 'Reconnecting McDowell" Efforts,
State Board Also Votes to End State Control of McDowell Schools
Bradshaw, W.Va.—The West Virginia Board of Education today unanimously approved a community schools plan for the McDowell County Public Schools, marking one of Reconnecting McDowell's most significant efforts thus far to improve the education, health and well-being of the county's students and their families.
Reconnecting McDowell, a public-private partnership, was launched in December 2011 as a long-term effort to improve the floundering public schools and address unmet needs brought on by unrelenting poverty that affects student achievement. It now has more than 100 partners that contribute services, funding and/or expertise.
In another move signifying the progress being made by McDowell County schools, the state board of education also voted to relinquish the state's 12-year control of the county schools. At the state board meeting, state board President L. Wade Linger Jr. cited Reconnecting McDowell's work to improve the county's schools.
"In my mind, some of the credit for McDowell County Schools' progress to date, and progress yet to come, goes to the work of Reconnecting McDowell. It has been a driving force for positive, transformational change for schools, teachers, students and the community," Linger said.
Under the community schools plan, community organizations and agencies will provide programs and services that will be coordinated at every county school, based on the school's and families' needs, starting this fall. They likely will focus on academic intervention, extended learning, health and social services, family and early childhood support services, and parent and community engagement programs.
The McDowell County Public Schools, the American Federation of Teachers and AFT-West Virginia—all Reconnecting McDowell partners—developed the districtwide community schools plan, which received a 78 percent vote of support from school employees. Developing community schools in West Virginia was authorized under a 2012 state law establishing "collaborative innovation zones."
The Reconnecting McDowell board made other announcements that move the partnership's efforts forward, including IBM's donation of 10 computer centers for early childhood development programs throughout the county and Shentel Communications' offer of discounted internet rates for families with children in school.
AFT President Randi Weingarten said establishing community schools was a big priority for Reconnecting McDowell because of their wide-ranging potential.
"The evidence is clear that community schools greatly improve disadvantaged children's chances of success because the services and programs help overcome the ravages of poverty that affect academic achievement. A variety of coordinated services will wrap around schools to ensure that all kids are healthy and ready to do well in school," Weingarten said. The McDowell community schools plan was based on elements of successful community schools around the country.
The community schools approach has seen great success. For example, since every Cincinnati public school became a community school in 2001, student achievement and graduation rates have climbed, attendance rates have increased, and the achievement gap has narrowed. In Syracuse, N.Y., public schools use Say Yes to Education, a nonprofit foundation that links students and their families to needed services.
McDowell County Public Schools Superintendent Nelson Spencer said his teachers and other school staff will work throughout the summer with community groups to start establishing each school as a community school in time for the 2013-14 school year. "In addition to great instruction, the additional services and programs will be extraordinarily important to help students be successful, well-rounded and well-grounded," Spencer said.
Gayle Manchin, vice president of the state board of education and chair of Reconnecting McDowell, said the community schools strategy is a key achievement in the continuing progress of Reconnecting McDowell.
"We have said from the beginning that we need to take a whole-child and whole-community approach to turning around McDowell County. Establishing community schools is a big step toward fulfilling that goal," Manchin said.
Other Reconnecting McDowell accomplishments that were announced span education, summer activities for youth, economic development and housing:
IBM has provided 10 Little Tikes Young Explorer computer kiosks for county early childhood development programs. The computers are intended to help children learn and explore math, science and language concepts.
Shentel Communications is offering reduced internet rates to families with children in school. Shentel is in the final stages of providing internet access to nearly 10,000 households in McDowell.
Several partners have donated funds to sponsor 29 McDowell youth to attend a weeklong 4-H summer camp. Sponsors include the United Steelworkers, Women of Steel, West Virginia South Central Labor Council and the AFT.
Another partner, the National Guard, has received a tent-repair mission that will employ 15 people at the Armory in Welch to repair all military tents that have been used abroad, including those used in Afghanistan. The jobs are expected to begin in midsummer.
The United Mine Workers is training laid-off coal miners for jobs in other fields. At least 14 people have completed the training and are gainfully employed.
A consultant presented a report to the Reconnecting McDowell board on options for constructing teacher housing in downtown Welch. It is intended to encourage teacher recruitment and retention.
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The AFT represents 1.5 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; nurses and healthcare workers; and early childhood educators.
Monday, April 21, 2014
Mini Plenary: Dual Capacity-Building Frame for Family-School-Partnerships
By Jennie Carey, Community School Coordinator, Social Justice Humanitas Academy. Jennie joined the Coalition for Community School at the Community Schools 2014 National Forum in Cincinnati, Ohio last April.
The Community Schools National Forum was a roller coaster for me. Though inspired by the vision clinics in schools, youth creating videos, teachers sacrificing it all to reform their schools, and district and state level policies supporting our movement, it was difficult for me not to be a little self conscious.
Am I doing enough? Am I being effective?
With roadmaps in hand from all of these promising, effective practices, the work still didn’t feel 100% doable, it didn’t feel that simple. I didn’t feel like I could just go home and put them in place. It didn’t align with my approach to my work, but I also didn’t want to be “that person.” You know, the one who says, “that may work in your community, but not in mine.”
That was until I heard Dr. Karen Mapp’s mini plenary session about her story of how she and the Department of Education have wrestled with the question of why it has been so difficult to cultivate and sustain effective partnerships.
The answer: it’s all about capacity. It’s all about having a compass, not a roadmap.
When I heard that, I began to feel relief for the first time since the National Forum had started. Yes, this is the challenge I’ve been facing. Inspirational programs, people, and policies aside, the issue of capacity is the real challenge I wanted someone to address at this forum.
Dr. Mapp provided me with validation. Capacity IS the overarching challenge of partnership building in 2014, a challenge that gets me past whether or not a strategy or program will work in your community or in my mine. Naming the challenge as being one of capacity building is the reframing that that the community schools movement needs.
So, as I left the National Forum, I felt like perhaps the roller coaster of emotions finally slowed down. Having heard from Dr. Mapp and her colleagues, and having been introduced to the framework, I felt like I didn’t have to worry about the question of whether or not I was doing enough. The question was more about “how” I was doing the work—changing processes, redistributing power, building capabilities, connections, cognition, and confidence. The DOE’s new framework (http://www2.ed.gov/documents/family-community/partners-education.pdf) could be my compass in school-family partnerships, and ones with the community too.
And, if I had any other questions, well, apparently I’m supposed to turn to twitter: Dr. Mapp now has one of those too. Be on the lookout: my new community school coordinator twitter handle is coming soon.
Posted by Coalition for Community Schools at 11:48 AM