Community Schools


"That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond." —Senator Paul Wellstone — March 31, 2000


Community Schools: The Basic and Radical Way to Address Child Poverty


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Trip Gabriel’s story in this morning’s NY Times, 50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back, describes tiny towns left behind by years of jobs lost in the coal mines, the ravages of meth addition, and families bereft of opportunity in McDowell County— West Virginia’s poorest county.  Education has long been one of the sole paths for escape from the towns and villages of Appalachia, but the fact that those who can make it do leave has only compounded rural isolation and poverty.

Toward the end of Gabriel’s article, however, we learn about a Community School effort being developed to coordinate social services and family supports with the public schools:Reconnecting McDowell, led by the American Federation of Teachers…  is working to turn schools into community centers offering health care, adult literacy classes and other services.  Its leaders hope to convert an abandoned furniture store in Welch to apartments in order to attract teachers. ‘Someone from Indiana or Pennsylvania, they’re not going to come to McDowell County and live in a house trailer on top of a mountain,’ said Bob Brown, a union official.”

On May 18, 2013, Reconnecting McDowell was approved by the state board of education of West Virginia.  In West Virginia, according to a press release from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) the Community Schools plan became possible in 2012 after the state legislature established “collective innovation zones.”  Commenting on the formation of Reconnecting McDowell, AFT President Randi Weingarten declared, “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.”

In McDowell County, the Community School collaboration will include the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition to visit homes of new parents, IBM to increase the number of computers at school, Shentel Communications to reduce internet rates for families with children at school, and several job expansion efforts including a National Guard materials-repair program and a retraining effort of the United Mine Workers.  A Community Schools “vision” reflects the reality that parents’ employment helps children thrive.

According to the National Center for Community Schools, a division of New York City’s Children’s Aid Society, Community Schools are defined by three “interconnected support systems: a strong core instructional program designed to help all students meet high academic standards; expanded learning opportunities designed to enrich the learning environment for students and their families; and a full range of health, mental health and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning.” Community Schools are formal contractual arrangements among agency partners.  Usually a lead partner coordinates the services that surround the academic program and that secures and coordinates the funding streams that support all this activity.  Community Schools are open before and after school, on weekends, and during the summer with expanded learning experiences; they set out to engage the family in myriad ways.

In early April, the Washington, D.C.–based Coalition for Community Schools held its national forum in Cincinnati, Ohio, a school district that has worked closely with AFT to transform local schools into what Cincinnati calls Community Learning Centers.  (In Ohio, the legislature chose an Orwellian term for privatized charter schools—community schools—which has caused the Community Schools movement thriving today in Cincinnati to choose the name Community Learning Centers instead of the name used in the rest of the country for full-service, wrap-around schools.)  In a Cincinnati Enquirer column, Marty Blank, director of the Coalition for Community Schools, describes what has been quietly happening in Cincinnati: “During the 2012-13 academic year, 34 Community Learning Centers in Cincinnati mobilized more than 445 community partners to provide support to 17,898 students.  Extra personalized supports have gone to 3,290 students who demonstrated one or more risk factors, such as chronic absence, behavior problems or poor academic performance.”

Blank describes what he understands to be the core mission of the Community Schools movement: “provide a focal point for states, counties, cities, and private-sector agencies to work together with school districts to use resources more effectively, coordinate fragmented services, and break bureaucratic silos and gridlock to help children and youth succeed.”

Last Saturday in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reprinted a fascinating column by Brock Cohen, a California teacher and researcher who participated in the recent Cincinnati national forum on Community Schools.  “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 hope.”  Cohen doesn’t underestimate the challenges, however: “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.”

At the conference Cohen comes to know Eddy Estrada—also from Los Angeles,  a student at a Community School, and in Cincinnati to speak about his own experience as part of a panel.  “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…  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…  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 (high school’s) Community Schools coordinator Christina Patricio, has been a nurturing, unwavering, force in Eddy’s life.”

I urge you to read this column to learn more about what Cohen believes are the almost intractable challenges for public schools in very poor communities and to explore with Cohen how Community Schools can help.



Why community schools are part of the answer

By Valerie Strauss 
April 19, 2014 at 11:00 am


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 being timid.”

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 off.”

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.




Press Release

May 8, 2013


Janet Bass

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.

# # # #

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 ( 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



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