The Washington Post

Why community schools are part of the answer

If there was a hearing that the D.C. Council should not have allowed to be cancelled at the last minute, as happened last week, it would be on this: creating community schools. Why? Because community schools are part of the answer when it comes to effective school reform.

Community schools focus not only on academics but also, through partnerships with outside organizations, child and youth development, family support, health and social services, and community development.

Using public schools as hubs, community schools bring together many different partners to provide a range of opportunities for students and their families during class time and when class is over — and even on weekends.

The idea sounds like something of a no-brainer when it comes to schools in high-poverty areas where families often live without the basics. And, given that Census Bureau figures show that 22 percent of American children now live in poverty (with many more just hovering above the official poverty line), the need is greater than ever.

One sticking point: Powerful school reformers who believe — against evidence — that acknowledging the need to deal with the effects of living in poverty is simply an excuse for bad teachers, and that school reform is all about standardized test results, getting rid of bad teachers and expanding charter schools.

Community schools, by directly dealing with many of the out-of-school issues that affect how students do in school — such as violence, family mobility, etc. — help to create the conditions that allow young people to actually concentrate on academics. Community schools seek to create conditions for learning that include:

*Fostering early childhood development through high-quality comprehensive programs.

*Providing students qualified teachers, challenging curriculum and high standards and expectations.

*Addressing the basic physical, mental and emotional health needs of families.

*Creating safe, supportive school climates through community engagement.

There is not a single model of community school initiatives but rather a number of different ones that share common principles, according to the Coalition for Community Schools. The coalition is an alliance of elementary, secondary and post-secondary organizations at the state, local and national level that are involved with education, youth development, community planning and development, family support, health and human services and more.

One of the many models of community schools, which serve millions of children around the country, is called “Schools of the 21st Century,” which provides school-based child care and family support services.

Created by Edward Ziegler, a professor at Yale University who was an architect of the Head Start program, this model is now being used in 1,300 schools across the country and turns regular public schools into year-round centers where different services are provided to families the before, during and after school hours. You can learn about other models here.

The D.C. Council is considering legislation that would create community schools out of five high-poverty public schools, and a hearing was scheduled last Wednesday. Then three hours before it was to begin, it was cancelled, according to this post by my colleague Bill Turque.

Legislation advocates had spent weeks getting ready for the hearing, and obviously weren’t pleased when Chairman Kwame R. Brown cancelled because of scheduling conflicts that were, apparently, “unavoidable.”

If city officials are serious about school reform, they’ll get this back on the schedule ASAP.


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.


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