Youth-serving agencies should plan to play a prominent role in America’s educational reform efforts by partnering with public schools to transform them into “community schools” that help uplift the poor.
That’s the take-home point gleaned from a discussion Wednesday at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress that featured U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a host of other heavy hitters in American educational reform.
Blair spoke of Great Britain’s school reform efforts that began during his tenure as prime minister and are expected to culminate in 2010 with the conversion of all of England’s public schools into “extended schools” – the British version of America’s “community schools.” Such schools function not only as places of instruction but also as neighborhood hubs where service providers meet whatever youth and family needs might transcend what teachers do in the classroom. Those needs range from the medical and nutritional needs of children to adult education for their parents.
“It’s a very important part of making education about the whole person and about the whole community,” Blair said to a capacity crowd at the center. “The lesson we learned is that that definitely works and is important to do.”
Key ingredients to the success of the British educational reform effort will be partnerships with community-based organizations, a sense of autonomy within schools and a government that knows how to get out of the way, Blair said.
Partnerships with community-based organizations “bring in ideas and energy and creativity,” Blair said. “One of the things we found in opening up our schools system was that when these partnerships happen, there can be a lot of opposition to them, but after time people realize there’s a whole different dimension to doing things.”
That “different dimension” is captured in a new Center for American Progress report released Wednesday and titled A Look at Community Schools. The report summarizes the characteristics of community schools, highlights successful models throughout the country and describes the strategies being employed in Britain to reform its school system into one of “extended schools.” One American initiative that got prominent mention in the report – as well as at Wednesday’s discussion at the Center for American Progress – was the Harlem Children’s Zone, which is featured on the cover of the current issue of Youth Today.
At Wednesday’s discussion, Duncan took his brief time to sound a message he has been delivering a lot lately as head of the U.S. education department: the traditional six-hour school day, five days a week, is not enough to make the kind of impact that youths and families from low-income neighborhoods need in order to achieve a better life.
“Our schools have to be open much longer with a wide variety of activities for children and parents,” Duncan said.
“I don’t know why we continue to build Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCAs,” Duncan said. Instead, he said, schools should welcome such youth-serving agencies into school buildings, which are already fitted with many, if not most, of the things those agencies need.
“Let’s get out of the bricks and mortar business,” Duncan said.
U.S. Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said community schools offer a more efficient way for youths and families to access community-based services.
He asked the audience to imagine how difficult it would be for a parent with limited transportation options to get to different agencies for different things when service providers are scattered throughout the community.
“Just think of how much more efficient those services would be” if they were available in community schools, said Hoyer, House Majority Leader, who recently introduced the Full-Service Community Schools Act of 2009, which would, among other things, authorize the Secretary of Education to award grants to consortia comprised of school districts and community-based nonprofits or other agencies to help public schools “function as full-service community schools.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, described the teachers union’s support for community schools as a “no-brainer.”
The teachers union “has always been a union that very much stands at the vortex of two social and economic movements: One of them is education and the other is the labor movement,” Weingarten said, describing both movements as being “equalizers” for the poor and the working class.
Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to President Barack Obama for education policy spoke of the administration’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative , which would provide $10 million in one-year planning grants to community-based organizations to develop plans and partnerships for “comprehensive neighborhood programs for children and youth, from birth through college.” The Promise Neighborhoods would replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone.
The initiative, Rodriguez says, assumes an “all-hands-on-deck approach” that involves the use of a strategy that addresses what’s going on in a student’s school, home and community.
The need for a comprehensive strategy was echoed by Jane Quinn, assistant executive director for Community Schools at the New York-based-Children's Aid Society, who said: “The way to think of community schools is as a strategy for organizing community resources around student success.”