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

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.

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