By Deb McCurdy, Special to K12NN
On March 18, 2013, public education advocates, administrators, school board members, school administrators, non-profit organizations and philanthropists convened at the California Endowment in downtown Los Angeles. The event followed from a discussion a group of First District CA PTA delegates had with State Senator Carol Liu’s staff on state funding issues.
They met to prove that it takes a village to care for our children, but to also discuss exactly how a village might go about it.
State Senator Carol Liu explained that the “Community Schools” strategy, one that maximizes local resources to better the academic, health and social well being of our children, is a movement that works when it is supported both from the top down and from the bottom up. Senator Liu described a system where there is an alignment of resources, cross-sector coordination, and an agenda that is as individual as the community of people it serves.
This coordination, she said, was crucial in order to efficiently maximize a holistic approach to helping our children out of poverty, steer them away from crime and prepare them to fully participate in a 21st Century skilled workforce.
Communities currently embracing Community Schools include Nashville, Tulsa, Oakland, Pacoima, Portland, and Pasadena – all with their own specific needs and all with their own specific plan. The overarching common goal in each area is to effectively draw threads of support from various areas to create a tapestry of services and mentorship that wraps around each child to support their academic success, their mental and physical health and ultimately the health of the community. (This is a specific kind of public school that differs in organization from other types of public schools. It’s still publicly funded and governed.) It’s very much related to “place-based” ideas of community engagement.
The genesis of any Community Schools district can also be as different as the people it serves. The leadership for the Pacoima project was started by an environmental group looking to beautify the neighborhood, while the Fremont High School project was prompted by a need to increase high school graduation rates.
Though the seeds and methods of each community movement vary, the goal remains the same. As Marty Blank, the President of the Institute for Educational Leadership put it, the aim is to create the infrastructure and supports for students to learn and confidently navigate their own futures.
LAUSD Superintendent, John Deasy, noted that creating a Community Schools district is not for the faint of heart considering that 83% of students in LAUSD live in poverty. He reminded the overflow crowd that undocumented students also need courageous people on their side. He also shared that the best economic stimulus is a diploma.
Pasadena Unified School District School Board member, Ed Honowitz, echoed this sentiment when describing the income disparity in his city and its effect on drawing businesses and parents who want to send their children to Pasadena’s public schools. The PUSD Community Schools effort is currently focusing on closing the achievement gap by ramping up early childhood education.
Dr. Eric Walsh, Director/Health Officer for the City of Pasadena Health Department, said that being well educated protects one’s health, stating that “a diploma is better than a vaccination.” Empowering students to make educated decisions is the cornerstone of our democracy. Poverty doesn’t just “happen”; poverty is the result of policy and cuts in funding. An educated electorate is vital and maintaining good health is vital to learning. Activity and a well rounded diet boost endorphins and facilitate learning, Dr. Walsh explained.
Safe places for children to play and unwind after school are necessary in order for kids to maintain physical and mental health. Mental health is just as important as physical health. In poverty stricken areas there is a sense of hopelessness and a sense that poor students are “less than” better off students. These attitudes permeate the school environment and create a downward spiral of low expectations, fear and resentment. The brain also shuts down when there is considerable stress.
Dr. Walsh also shared that building trust and partnerships go a very long way to improving outcomes for children. “You can’t be afraid of the children you are teaching,” Dr. Walsh said.
Ellen Pais, the President and CEO of the Los Angeles Education Partnership defined this expansive outreach and cooperation as the heart of the Community Schools movement.
A partnership among school districts, cities, non-profit organizations, philanthropists, parents, students and other community members are the keys to success. Communication, collaboration and sharing best practices, not only within each Community Schools district, but also among districts, are vital. In the case of Community Schools, it not only takes a village to help a child, it takes a village to help another village.