J4J Alliance Organizes Urban Parents to Demand Federal Dollars for Full-Service Community Schools

Throughout this autumn, we have been reading about loud protests at local school board meetings, protests against mask wearing and and honest teaching about slavery in American history.  These disruptive protests have been organized by groups like Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education, FreedomWorks, and  Parents’ Rights in Education. The strategy here is being scripted by far-right think tanks including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and the Manhattan Institute.

But another important community organizing initiative, supported by the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s Opportunity to Learn Network and coordinated from place to place by the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), has grown and solidified over the past decade. The Schott Foundation describes this work: “The Opportunity to Learn Network has been at the forefront of every major positive shift in public schooling for more than a decade: trailblazing education funding campaigns; kickstarting the school discipline reform movement, and establishing the community schools model as the future of the American schoolhouse. How do we win systemic change?  Through grassroots organizing.  Education justice philanthropy centers ‘on-the-ground’ organizing, building the power of the people closest to the problem, so they can transform the systems and structures that generate and reinforce racial injustice.”

A leader in this effort with the Schott Foundation is the Journey for Justice Alliance, which supports parent and student organizing in cities across the United States:

  • In New Jersey, the Camden Parents Union, the Concerned Citizens Coalition of Jersey City,  the Paterson Education Fund/Parent Education Organizing Council, and Parents United for Local School Education in Newark;
  • In New York, the Alliance for Quality Education, the Coalition for Education Justice, and the Urban Youth Collaborative;
  • In Pennsylvania, the Education Rights Network & One Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Student Union, Racial Justice Now, Youth On Board, and Youth United for Change;
  • In Michigan, the Detroit Life Coalition, and Keep the Vote No Takeover of Detroit;
  • In Illinois, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization of Chicago, and the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Chicago;
  • In Massachusetts, the Boston-area Youth Organizing Project, and Parents on the Move;
  • In California, the Oakland Public Education Network;
  • In Kansas, Kansas Justice Advocates;
  • In Wisconsin, Schools and Communities United of Milwaukee;
  • In Arkansas, Grassroots Arkansas; and
  • In Connecticut, the Middletown Racial Justice Coalition.

Earlier this week at the National Press Club, the Schott Foundation and J4J convened allies—the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD and Congressmen Jamal Bowman (D-NY) and Chuy Garcia (D-IL)—to support the Equity or Else Campaign and to advocate for the educational equity initiatives in President Biden’s proposed federal budget for the current fiscal year. Two of the most important items in Biden’s budget proposal are, first, doubling Title I funding, which supports public schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty, and second, allocating more than $443 million for full-service, wraparound Community Schools, a significant increase over this year’s $30 million investment.

The federal budget is always supposed to be passed by September 30, but Congress has, as usual, delayed the vote with a series of continuing resolutions. To avoid a government shutdown this week, Congress passed another continuing resolution until February 8, 2022.  The Equity or Else Commission will hold town hall meetings, undertake “listening projects with people in under-served communities across the country,” and organize local community members to advocate for President Biden’s education priorities.

In an article last summer for The Progressive, education writer Jeff Bryant explained why President Biden’s proposal to expand full-service Community Schools—which locate medical, dental, mental health, and social services right in the school—signifies a radical and much needed shift in the direction of federal public education policy:  “President Joe Biden’s first budget request for the U.S. Department of Education signals a significant departure from the education policy priorities of previous presidential administrations. And not just a shift from the priorities of the Trump Administration, which was expected, but also from those of the Obama years.  It’s a welcome sign that the era of blaming teachers for low test scores may finally be coming to an end… Obama’s first budget request for the Department of Education, submitted to Congress in 2009, was all about fiscal austerity and accountability. It called for cutting Title I funds—the federal government’s program to support high-poverty schools—and shifting $1 billion from that program to grants for highly disruptive federal interventions in ‘low-performing’ public schools (read schools with low test scores).”

Bryant continues: “The Obama Administration, through policies like Race to the Top, incentivized states to adopt a ‘no-excuses’ approach… that punished schools and teachers for low test scores…. During the Obama years, legislation to fund the Full-Service Community Schools Program was introduced in 2011 and submitted again in 2014, but it never passed out of committee. Then in 2015, two amendments to the Every Student Succeeds Act… authorized a full-service Community Schools grant program and made program coordinators an allowable use of federal funds. Under Obama the program’s budget was a mere $9.7 million in 2015 and $10 million in 2016… Under Trump, Congress managed to boost funding for the program to $30 million, where it stands today.”

Kudos to the Schott Foundation and the Journey for Justice Alliance for convening allies and organizing parents to demand support for the schools in our nation’s poorest communities. President Biden’s proposal to expand the federal budget for full-service Community Schools from $30 million to $443 million will, if enacted by Congress, be a ground-breaking investment to better equip public schools to serve families. Grassroots action by all of the member organizations of the Journey for Justice Alliance is urgently needed to ensure that this exciting expansion of Community Schools is fully realized.

Stunning New Report Shows Power of Wraparound Community Schools

Three organizations, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Coalition for Community Schools, and the Southern Education Foundation have released an in-depth and very significant report: Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools.  It is a primer for those who want to understand what a full-service Community School is and who want to know why such schools are today’s most significant policy development. The new report can also serve as a beginning guide for school districts that seek to transform their schools into Community Schools.

The new report profiles elementary, middle and high schools that are currently implementing a variety of strategies of successful Community Schools. “Their stories describe what these schools and districts were grappling with prior to becoming Community Schools, how they began to use a transformational strategy, what elements were implemented in what specific ways, and the amazing results that accrued.”

The essence of a Community School, according to the new report, is its whole child strategy—that schooling cannot be conceptualized or measured with a mere test score.  Community Schools are described as increasing attendance, decreasing suspensions and expulsions, creating healthy and safe communities, as well as improving academic outcomes.

A Community School is a set of formal partnerships with “the Community School Coordinator… part of the leadership team” and a Community School Committee including “parents, community partners, school staff, youth and other stakeholders.”  Such partnerships can be sustained by patching together a number of readily available funding streams, but the coordination and administration of the funding partnership must be sustainable for a Community School to thrive: “Community Schools require sustainable funding and resources.  This can be realized through a combination of resource provisions leveraged through partnerships; investment at the federal, state, and local government levels; and foundation and government grants.  For example, a site coordinator may leverage health and dental care, early childhood programs, before and after school learning programs, and/or restorative justice programs using free school space like an empty classroom, cafeteria, or gym after school hours.”  The public school is the primary site of such programs, which, “In addition to wrap-around services… bring a particular emphasis on high-quality teaching, deep learning, restorative justice, and authentic family engagement.”  “When schools become Community Schools, they become more than just schools; they become centers of community life.  Together, educators and community partners collaboratively address issues traditionally independently addressed by agencies like health and human services, parks and recreation departments, and housing agencies.”

At Webb Middle School, a struggling school in Austin, Texas, the threat of closure motivated teachers, parents, and the community to push for a Community School model beginning with an intensive needs assessment.  Partnerships now include after school programs provided by the Boys and Girls Club, college mentoring, a mobile clinic that provides free immunizations and physicals. “One interesting and beneficial outcome that Webb experienced by adding the mobile clinic was much greater participation on the school’s athletic teams.  Before the mobile clinic, few students participated in after school sports… because the district required that students receive a physical prior to participation in sports, which most students could not afford… Now participation rates on Webb’s athletic teams have soared, and their teams are winning.”  Families wanted the arts brought back to Webb, and the Community School staff helped bring back a band, an orchestra, and a dance troupe.  The Community School also brought English-as-a-Second-Language classes for parents, classes offered right at school for 2.5 hours three days a week.  Webb has become a desirable school; after five years as a Community School, Webb’s enrollment has grown from 485 to 750 students.

The greatest strength of this report is the set of stories of the transformation of schools across very different locations—Austin, Orlando, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Cincinnati; a county-wide strategy in Multnomah County, Oregon, and a statewide program in Kentucky.  I urge you to read these profiles carefully, for they demonstrate the complexity and the rewards of the transformations that have occurred.  At Evans High School in the very poor Pine Hills neighborhood of Orlando Florida, “students ha(d) gone without health care of any kind… With the help of their health and social service partners, Evans has been able to implement full service physical and mental health services located in their Wellness Cottage, a separate building on campus that is connected to the school… Much of this medical and mental health support is paid for through Medicaid.  The school provides assistance to students and families to fill out applications.”

Nine years ago when Baltimore’s Wolfe Street Academy became a Community School, it “was ranked 77th in the district in academic measures…. In 2014, after eight years as a Community School, Wolfe Street ranked an astonishing 2nd in the city academically, its mobility rate… down to 8.8 percent.”  “Baltimore has put together a quilt of funding sources to accomplish the funding of 52 Community Schools in the city.”  Funding streams are patched together from the City Government, philanthropic donations, and general school district funds controlled by each Community School’s principal.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, 43 of the city’s 55 schools now have Community School site coordinators and—importantly considering Ohio’s paltry investment in urban public schools—“no program has an impact on the public school system budget.  All services are leveraged and fully sustainable within themselves,” although, “Federal government Title One funds do… currently fund a portion of the Community Learning Center site coordinators.”  “Community engagement, neighborhood by neighborhood and site by site, from the very beginning led to Local School Decision-Making Councils… which constitutes the schools’ current governance. Because Cincinnati’s goal was to do this work at a district level, rather than school by school, it became necessary to embed the concept in policy to protect it for future generations… We’re now up to 43 schools…. This has lasted through four superintendents.”

Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools is such a positive report that it makes the formation of Community Schools sound easy.  Clearly the obstacles from community to community are overwhelming, but I urge you to read this report to understand just how such transformation can be accomplished.