The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why community schools are part of the answer

Brock Cohen taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 12 years and is now pursuing a doctorate at the University of Southern California while working at the nonprofit Los Angeles Education Partnership as a schools transformation coach. He helps develop community schools, which build strategic partnerships with both public and private organizations to provide essential supports and resources that low-income and high-needs students often go without. Cohen says these schools share a moral imperative to remove barriers to learning so that disadvantaged children can thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.  Here’s a new piece by Cohen on what a 17-year-old boy taught him and the value of community schools.

 By Brock Cohen

“How’s Cincinnati so far?”

My question was directed at Eddy Estrada, a 17-year-old high school senior from East L.A.’s Esteban E. Torres High School. We’d already begun chatting it up during the keynote of the Community Schools National Forum’s dinner plenary, which was enough time for me to: a) realize that it doesn’t take me long to set a bad example, b) learn that Eddy was slated to co-facilitate multiple presentations, and c) seriously question whether, in talking with Eddy, I was moving rapidly beyond my own intellectual depth.

“It’s great,” he said, “but they’re only showing things they want us to see. The best way to really know a place is to see some of its worst spots.”

Eddy’s words turned out to be prescient. The big event was located within Cincinnati’s stylish hub, which was complete with vast outdoor meeting spaces and enough chic boutiques, hotels, and bistros to satisfy the steady sidewalk parade of hipsters and urbane professionals. But on the previous day, I’d walked a good part of the city and experienced something quite different: scarcely two miles beyond the forum’s epicenter was the appearance of a city in flux and despair. Like many 21st Century American cities, urban blight, homelessness and substance abuse had been pushed to the margins.

In addition to showing wisdom that more often reveals itself in adults twice his age, Eddy’s remarks resonated with me on a more personal level than he could possibly know. His reality-versus-perception dichotomy about our host city spoke to my growing uncertainty about the entire community schools movement, and whether my initial optimism from my participation in State Senator Carol Liu’s Pathways to Partnership bus tour across much of California last October was, in fact, lining up with reality.

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 renewed hope. It was the hope that the stubborn ethos of public education was finally giving way to the research-based reality that disadvantaged children, who are far more likely to struggle academically, could succeed to heights at least as great as their more affluent peers if given the right supports and resources.

In many ways, the tour aroused my own tendency to overestimate the possibilities of powerful concepts that seek to promote equity. This is not to suggest that the community schools campaign isn’t effecting real, positive changes in students’ lives. 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.

For one thing, community schools must perpetually contend with the widespread disinvestment of wealthier families from urban and rural schools, which now serve highly concentrated populations of low-income and minority students. In Los Angeles, 71 percent of our total student body is low-income. Nationwide, the number of low-income students in public schools has increased by 32 percent since 2001. The reasons for this shift are sad and complex, but it has resulted in a vast number of the nation’s schools becoming warehouses of racial and socioeconomic isolation. If income disparities continue to increase, the numbers of underprivileged student populations in public schools will balloon to the point where dwindling resources available from public and private partners trigger an all-out scrum for whatever remains.

I’ve also witnessed the ways in which some schools resist change. Despite an emerging national conversation over the need to provide children with the learning experiences necessary for them to develop the skills and efficacy needed to become goal-oriented, self-sufficient adults, many principals (and some teachers) continue to be haunted by the high-stakes accountability mindset that equates standardized test scores and district benchmark assessments with student learning. In these environments, teacher collaboration is perceived as an add-on and fostering student exploration and investigation a luxury that only occurs once the “real” instruction has taken place. Even with community partnerships, these schools’ inability to build the capacity needed to engender flexibility and innovation will likely thwart additional efforts to improve learning outcomes.

But back to Eddy.

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. Loyalists probably find this reality to be at once vindicating and frustratingly difficult to quantify. 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.

In addition to his love of music, I quickly learned that he also has a driving passion for 20th Century literature. He attributes this spark to the iconoclastic poetry of L.A.-native Charles Bukowski:

“In 10th grade, my teacher had us chose from a list of poems to memorize and recite. I chose ‘Bluebird’ because I was still very timid, and I felt it perfectly reflected my attitude about being timid.”

Eddy’s fascination with Bukowski’s “gritty perception of the world” makes sense.

His hometown of East Los Angeles is a living tribute to fierce independence and resolve. It’s also somewhat of an enigma: a hotbed of Latino American culture, it’s a reputed gauntlet for young people trying to honor their heritage while also pursuing their version of the American Dream. Torres, which is the first newly constructed school in East L.A. in 85 years, shares geography with four rival gang territories and a 7.5 square mile swath of real estate that has over 50 liquor stores but only two supermarkets.

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’ community schools coordinator, Christina Patricio, has been a nurturing, unwavering, force in Eddy’s life. (Full disclosure: Christina is a colleague of mine at the Los Angeles Education Partnership, LAEP.) As Eddy spoke about Christina, I got the distinct feeling that he may have otherwise struggled mightily without her guidance. “I was a slacker for the first few years of high school,” he said, “but Christina is the one who really pushed me to do better. She doesn’t let any one of her students slack off.”

Also born and raised on the Eastside, Christina says she noticed from the outset that Eddy was given to lapses in motivation, which contributed to some less than stellar grade reports. But both she and Eddy seemed to agree that the youth mentorship council that Christina helped to develop alongside a host of Torres students was integral to Eddy’s maturation because it forced him to experience putting others’ needs before his own: Now he was tasked with supporting the growth and well-being of peers who were at risk of slipping through the cracks in a community that’s largely devoid of safety nets.

During the Torres team’s presentation on youth leadership in high-poverty communities, which Eddy co-facilitated alongside Christina and equally stellar Torres seniors Laura Lazo and Jayna Ramirez, I also learned that the school’s on-site health and wellness facility, which was born of a joint partnership between Torres and local nonprofits Inner City Struggle (ICS) and LAEP, had markedly cut into both teen pregnancies and suicide attempts while making inroads with kids who had previously been reluctant to self-report symptoms of mental illness.

When the presentation was over, not one audience member during the Q & A inquired about test scores or performance assessments or state-mandated curricula – Holy Grail indicators that we’ve been brainwashed to use as proxies for successful student outcomes. Listening to Christina and her students tell their Eastside story was likely all the proof they needed that this thing can work.