This seems so obvious that it shouldn’t have to be said, but with standardized testing being the focus of school reform, here goes anyway: Children can’t become high achievers in school if they arrive in class hungry, sick, exhausted, traumatized. That’s why community schools  should be a bigger part of the school reform movement than they are.

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.  By aligning with non-profits, businesses, and public agencies, community schools can streamline services to their students while avoiding costly redundancies and gaps in delivery.

This piece is about the value of community schools, written by Brock Cohen, who after teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 12 years, is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Southern California while working at the Los Angeles Education Partnership nonprofit as a small schools coach. As such, he now works with the Los Angeles Unified School District’s teacher collectives to ensure that all of their students have access to engaging, high-quality curricula and instruction.

By Brock Cohen

No family exists in a vacuum, many parents need support to become the best parents they can be, and sadly, not every child has a parent as a champion. — Hillary Clinton

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.  — Frederick Douglass

I can’t pay all these people back. All I can do to show my appreciation is to give my time. — Madison Elementary School Parent Volunteer Esmerelda Cerezo.

There’s something happening here. — Buffalo Springfield.

It’s several days after barnstorming the state of California on State Sen. Carol Liu’s Pathways to Partnership Community Schools bus tour, and I still haven’t begun to sift through my piles of hastily scrawled notes accumulated from countless interactions and observations along the way. I don’t need to. Surprisingly, most of this data is instantly retrievable . What makes this feat of recall on my part particularly remarkable is that I am a man who has actually lost his keys while they’re still in his hand.

So why is nearly every event, discussion, and activity from the tour still so remarkably lucid? Because, at my core, I am a school teacher. Though I was brought on board to be a Humanitas and curriculum coach by the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP) just months ago, I can’t deny that my soul is still firmly rooted in the classroom.

Just when I’ve convinced myself that I no longer need the daily triumphs and challenges of a teacher’s life, something pops up that reminds me that it is indeed my calling. The most recent evidence of this occurred during the tour’s Fresno site visit to a Heaton Elementary kindergarten class. Once there, it took me all of four minutes to engage in a philosophical discussion with three students on the topic of why some colors are more popular than others. (The student consensus? Pink and purple are “princess colors” and, therefore, rule.) It was hard to leave them. After two days of engaging in enlightening, high-minded discourse with distinguished adults, I was nonetheless finally back with my people. I was home.

So much of what makes California’s community schools movement so profoundly inspiring to me is that its core tenets reflect the fundamental belief that disadvantaged children are resilient, complex, thoughtful human beings. They are assets.

What children are not are pieces of raw data. Nothing turns student advocates’ stomachs faster than when children are reduced to dehumanized abstractions via scatterplots and growth indexes, without any of the necessary social or emotional contexts. I, for one, have attended countless “data days” in which students were repeatedly referred to as “numbers.” As in: “Our numbers on the CST [California Standards Test]  just weren’t satisfactory this year,” or “These numbers do not show this school in a good light.”  The not-so-subtle subtext is that kids are fungible automatons that can be programmed for improved accountability-driven organizational outcomes.

The community schools framework rejects this notion. This is because each of its foundational principles reveals the imperative of addressing low achievement through a holistic course of action. Such a transition represents a radical departure from past school initiatives because it has the audacity to shine a light on gaps carved out by social inequity. As importantly, the movement’s current champions (Sen. Liu among them) refuse to shy away from naming poverty and social injustice as the primary impediments to student learning. As a call to arms, they direct us to the sprawling body of evidence that proves how futile any reform effort will become without quickly addressing 0-4 poverty-induced learning gaps, summer literacy erosion, or a failure to ensure that all children have quality physical and mental health care.

They also emphasize how community schools are as much an exercise in sober fiscal pragmatism as they are a moral call to action. The consequences of academic failure are everyone’s problem, costing the state over $58 billion each year in incarceration expenses, health care, and taxable income.

But the gaps aren’t insurmountable. They can gradually narrow by leveraging partnerships; engaging families; and re-defining schools as safe, stable, welcoming community spaces. And because the needs of children vary across demographics and geographies, the model embraces flexibility: Each school site should customize its own approach in conjunction with local agencies and civic partners that understand the primacy of nurturing the whole child. So while community schools seek to address all domains of student need, some may allocate more resources toward specific services or strategies. For example:

  • Pasadena’s Madison Elementary has teamed with Healthy Start to provide comprehensive on-site health, wellness, and social, and parent education to all of its students and families
  • Four Redwood City Schools have formed a consortium with civic partners to make 0-5 education and enrichment a regional imperative.
  • Behind the support of the Community Heath & Adolescent Mentoring Program for Success (CHAMPS), Oakland Tech High has detailed programs in place to boost student engagement and youth leadership.
  • Joining forces with Inner City Struggle (ICS), East L.A.’s Esteban E. Torres High School offers primary healthcare, mental health, reproductive services, and dental care to all of its students.

Past school reform initiatives focused on channeling limited fiscal and human resource inputs to schools and districts. What makes the community schools framework more substantive and sustainable is that it establishes inputs as the process by which each of a child’s needs domains are fulfilled. If community partners and resources (as inputs) are actively engaged in addressing these needs (health, wellness, literacy and cognitive growth) the outcomes will take care of themselves.

The past decade-plus of school reform has been as notable for its soaring rhetoric as for its inaction on the issues that truly hinder learning and achievement. But as an educator who’s fresh from the classroom, I cannot stress how gratifying it is to see evidence of collective and intentional action springing up in schools throughout the state. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that each of the schools on the Pathways to Partnerships bus tour has shown seismic improvements in campus-wide learning, health, and wellness since fully committing to the community schools framework. But scores of others throughout California have followed the same pattern.

Still, it goes without saying that community schools are not a cure for soaring child poverty (afflicting 1 in 4 children statewide). And an even bigger nemesis may be the “not my kid” mindset that seems to afflict a vast number of citizens who remain undeterred by California’s nationwide ranking of 49 in per-pupil expenditures.

It’s also worth noting that the teacher’s voice was frequently absent from our seven tour stops. While I can’t conceive of any teacher of underserved kids being ideologically averse to the concept of community schools, it’s crucial that individuals with the most immediate on-site ties to students have their input valued and honored.

None of this, however, should deter the pursuit of a vision that would be more sustainable than yet another legislative sleight-of-hand. This is because the community schools movement isn’t a quick-fix policy instrument or forced decree. It represents a cognitive and cultural shift toward a more effective, efficient, sustainable, and ethical public school paradigm. After so many years of policymakers dancing on the fringes of the poverty conundrum, community schools may come to represent the triumph of action over bluster.

 Correction: Fixing I.D. of parent in quote at start of post