November 10, 2005 - From the November, 2005 issue

Coalition for Community Schools Advocates Neighborhood-Centered Schools Across the Country

Though the challenge of providing quality public education may find different solutions in different cities, the Coalition for Community Schools maintains that small, neighborhood-centered schools should be a priority for every city. In the following interview, Coalition Staff Director Marty Blank explains the benefits of community schools and discusses the progress being made in implementing them throughout the country.

Marty Blank

Marty, you have helped lead the movement for community schools across the country. Why are community schools the centerpiece of your educational reform work? What are benefits for communities, schools, abd children and families across the country?

Today, we tend to think of schools only in terms of their academic focus, particularly in the context of No Child Left Behind. But if we go back to the history of schools, they've always been perceived as centers of the community, as places where families and community residents come together not only to support students but also to build a stronger community. I know from experience and from research that together, schools, families and communities are much more able to create all kinds of conditions that are necessary for kids to succeed.

We often talk about education as though only the academics matter; the benefit of a community school is that it strengthens the family so the family can not only create the economic conditions for kids to do well but also can participate and encourage their kids' education. That way, the whole community provides important messages about how significant education is. People can come to a community school for adult education programs. They come for job training activities.

The community schools approach does not leave schools hanging out there by themselves trying to educate kids. You have schools, faith-based institutions, community-based organizations, and public agencies all working together saying that the education of our children is a shared responsibility.

What are replicable models? Given the education politics of "No Child Left Behind," is the community schools movement easily scalable?

We're finishing a paper about community leadership and looking at 11 different communities, and we are beginning to see efforts moving toward scale. In Chicago, there are now 102 community schools, and that includes some regular public schools as well as charter schools. In Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon, there are 50 community schools out of 150 schools in the entire county, and there is great demand for more. Cincinnati has a school construction program akin to what is going on in L.A. – frankly, Cincinnati has some of the worst facilities in the country – and they have a vision of turning every school into a "comprehensive community-learning center," their name for a community school.

I would distinguish the models this way: The most typical community school model builds on a strong partnership between a school and an anchor institution that also has roots in that neighborhood. That anchor institution might be a community-based agency or a college or university that reflects the cultural characteristics of the community. It could also be a public institution like a recreation department or a health department.

Obviously, schools should be focusing on their academic mission, but these community-based partners often have a stronger capacity to tap the assets and resources of the entire neighborhood. This "lead agency-school partnership model" has been pursued in many larger cities where strong, healthy community-based organizations and municipal or county agencies have the capability to play such roles.

Another model for developing community schools arises out of a community revitalization strategy. Proponents of this model listen to what parents and residents want to see in a new or rehabilitated school, or in an existing school building. They are working to provide a full array of opportunities and support that the community wants. They believe that having the community make decisions about the programming of school facilities is critical to building community capacity and getting people to use the resources that will be there.

It's much easier to drop a program, regardless of type, into a neighborhood than it is to get people to really use it and to feel ownership of it. But I do not believe that the outcomes will be as strong in the long run.

In other places, leaders are looking at data and looking at needs and offering a variety of services and support.

The Coalition for Community Schools sees all these as good models, but we're trying to use a blended model where we apply the good principals of community-building and community development, good social work practices, as well as good education practices. There are probably schools in Los Angeles that have many of these characteristics.

Marty, as a panelist and special guest at NSBN's symposium in July, you heard Mayor Villaraigosa speak authoritatively, along with former assembly speaker Hertzberg-the author of California's $25 billion school bonds-in support of building community centered schools. Has a political foundation for building community schools thus been laid in L.A.? Are the new schools being planned and built representative of what you're seeing in the rest of the country?

I believe NSBN's portfolio of work has laid a solid foundation on which Mayor Villaraigosa, Mr. Hertzberg and others can now build. NSBN knows how to do this. What's necessary now is a stronger commitment from civic and educational leaders. I definitely heard the mayor endorse NSBN's work, and his support offers real promise.

The mayor used the term "conditions for learning." How does the community in Los Angeles – not just the school district, because learning is about more than just what happens in school – create these conditions? I was particularly pleased with that phrase, because here at the Coalition for Community Schools, we talk about the conditions for learning as what it is that the community schools do. We have five conditions. They can be found in our report, Making the Difference: Research and Practice in Community Schools, but it is even more important for each community to define its own conditions.

The city of Los Angeles-its residents, its community groups, the mayor, the city council, the school board-should try to work collaboratively to articulate what those conditions look like for the people of Los Angeles. And, if you build that set of conditions, you will begin to see that schools can't fulfill all of those conditions independently. Purposeful school partnerships focused on results are essential.

The second thing the mayor said that was striking to me is that the City of Los Angeles now spends $290 million on services for children, youth, and families. We also know that L.A. County probably spends many times more than that. But let's just stay with this $290 million for a while, and let me compare that to what happened with our friends in Portland. In Portland, in order to fund their community school strategy, the city and the county took hard looks at how they were spending their existing dollars. They concluded that that money was being spent in a dysfunctional way. Services remained fragmented; organizations weren't working together; people couldn't find what they needed. And, they found that the model of community school was likely to create a much more effective, responsive, and efficient system of support for families. So, they redirected those dollars into their community school strategy. They are funding community-based organizations to be lead partners working with schools.


The third thing comment he made, which I think is so powerful in Los Angeles, is that NSBN has built partnerships that work. These partnerships leverage resources and create multiple benefits by tapping housing assets, early childhood assets, school assets and other community assets to create rich learning environments and more livable communities. L.A. could really lead the way in taking its community school/NSBN models up a notch, to a more systemic level, thus making it easier for neighborhoods to get these kinds of deals done.

The logic and persuasiveness of your remarks and commentary, suggest that the community schools movement is already at scale in older communities. But what typically stands in the way of building new community schools in the Sun Belt, e.g. Los Angeles?

First, federal, state and local dollars fund problems; they don't fund visions and strategies. Health people own the health money, and the youth people own the youth money; the family people own the family money, and the school people own the education money. Getting people with funding streams drives people apart, not together.

Second, our academic institutions continue to work in single disciplines, and they don't understand the wholeness of children, families, and communities.

Third, our school districts have historically been isolated from general-purpose government. I know there has been talk in Los Angeles about the mayor's role with the public school system, but I agree with the mayor that building partnerships is the place to start. L.A. has many assets necessary to create community schools that build on the models such NSBN has built. But the assets for doing that sit in the city, the school district, the county, and in so many community institutions. Everything has been structured as silos. We must break down these silos to help our young people be successful.

The fourth thing that is missing is true cross-boundary leadership. We like to talk about networks of responsibility. Whether the city takes over the school district is less important to me than whether they find ways to work together and understand their responsibility to get better results for people.

Marty, as you know from your participation in NSBN's symposia, the First 5 L.A. commission-with funding from tobacco taxes-is helping to underwrite universal pre-K in L.A. County. You have addressed in the past the prevalence of silo-like behavior by K-12 and early education providers. Connecting, therefore, pre-school and adult education to K-12 has not always been easily accomplished. Have the community schools you work with done a good job of integrating both into their new and remodeled neighborhood centered K-12 schools?

We see adult education as a major activity in many community schools. In many of the school districts, the adult education classes have been isolated downtown, but community schools allow them to receive an education where they actually live, and that's part of our strategy.

It's wonderful for people to get education anywhere, but when they do it at their kid's own school, it creates a deeper and more powerful relationship with the community and sends students a message about how important education is. Some of this adult education is happening where people have reached out to their community colleges, which are among our most entrepreneurial educational institutions.

The early childhood piece of this is also essential. Headstart, Pre-K and child care are critical components. Many of our community schools are building stronger connections with early-childhood programs in the community. In a community school, strong linkages and relationships across age groups make the transition from kindergarten to school much more seamless. It creates a different school culture that is much more welcomed by parents.

What sort of progress have you seen lately, and who should be advancing this movement as it continues to take hold?

In the communities where we're scaling up, we believe we're getting close to what Malcolm Gladwell called "the tipping point." We have a few leaders who are bringing other people along, and they're beginning to get people to see that this is really the way schools should be. But, they've also realized that real change in any community, and certainly in a place like Los Angeles-with all of its complexity, size, and diversity-that they have to move this agenda not only at the grass tops but also at the grass roots.

Participation at the grassroots will go a long way to determining whether the school built is contributing to the revitalization of that community or whether it is just a school plopped down among a bunch of houses and is another institution. Organizing these participatory processes is not easy, and public institutions often do it poorly. But community groups have the know-how, and their assets should be tapped.

Each community will decide how to approach the development of community schools. But ultimately we've got to work at both at the grass tops and the grassroots levels because getting to the tipping point means expanding the ownership for this idea among more and more people throughout the community.

There will be inevitable tensions between the need for more space for kids and our desire to have schools that are really part of the community. But in the long run, we need to have centers of community and community support for our kids and if that means we slow down a little bit so we can talk, listen, and figure out what's best for our communities, that's where I would be. Let's get it right; and then we will see the results we all want.


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