Opinion

Community Schools: A Rose By Any Other Name

When U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan appeared on the “Charlie Rose Show” in mid-March, he outlined a vision for America’s public schools that has enormous and positive implications for youth organizations across the country. “I think our schools should be open 12, 13, 14 hours a day,” he said. “It’s not just lengthening the school day, but offering a wide variety of after-school activities: drama, arts, sports, chess, debate, academic enrichment, programs for parents, GED, ESL, family literacy nights, potluck dinners.”

Duncan explained that during his seven years as superintendent of schools in Chicago, “we attached health-care clinics to about a dozen of our schools. Where schools become centers of the community, great things happen. So I think we need the schools open much longer hours.

“And, by the way, we don’t have to do this all ourselves as educators. We can bring in great nonprofits: the YMCAs, the Boys & Girls Clubs, mentoring and tutoring groups to co-locate their services and bolster the community from the school.”

Is that a great invitation, or what? The CEO of the nation’s public schools is exhorting youth workers and other community resources to partner with him in promoting the education and healthy development of America’s young people. This is a refreshing change from the narrowness of federal education policy over the past eight years, which placed extraordinary pressure on school-based youth development programs to confine their efforts to tutoring and test prep activities.

To be sure, Duncan can’t institute this change by fiat, given our strong tradition of local control and funding of schools in this country. But if No Child Left Behind has taught us anything, it is that federal education policy does indeed have an impact on local decision-making and implementation.

Fortunately, the youth development field is ready, with models and data, to help school districts fulfill Duncan’s compelling blueprint. The past two decades have seen the development, implementation and evaluation of several robust models of school-community partnerships, including Beacons, community schools, Healthy Start, Bridges to Success, Communities In Schools, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, university-assisted community schools and others. What all these models have in common is that they expand the hours, services and relationships of public schools, thus facilitating the development of “schools as centers of community.”

In these models and others, schools generally partner with lead community-based organizations that provide and broker a wide range of supports, services and opportunities for students and their families, of the very kind Duncan described. In our own work in New York City, The Children’s Aid Society is the lead agency in 20 community schools, partnering with the city Department of Education to bring needed services into the low-income neighborhoods of Washington Heights, East Harlem and the South Bronx. These partnerships have been sustained throughout seven changes of administration in the city public school system and during tough economic times, in part because of their impressive results.

Other initiatives around the country have demonstrated similar outcomes. A recent report from the Coalition for Community Schools, Community Schools Research Brief ’09, can be useful to youth workers as they make the case for community schools. This research synthesis cites academic gains, increases in parental involvement, better student and teacher attendance, improved school climate and a host of positive youth development accomplishments, such as young people’s heightened sense of responsibility to their communities. (See http://www.communityschools.org.)

Although some advocates were a bit dismayed that Duncan did not use the phrase “community schools” in his interview with Rose, we were all delighted that he described and supported the concept. More recently, during a March 25 interview published in Education Daily, Duncan responded to the question, “What education reforms do you want to see during your administration?” by saying: “It’s really trying to redefine fundamentally what it means to be a school. So I think it means a longer day; I think it means all the values and principles around community schools.”

No matter what you term this concept, the idea is clear: that schools cannot “do it alone,” that they need partners like youth workers if they are to succeed in helping all of our children flourish as responsible and productive adults.

The federal stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) contains several provisions that appear likely to create opportunities for youth organizations to expand meaningful, long-term partnerships with public schools. Duncan has stated publicly that “this is a time to think big.” OK, how about making every school a community school, by whatever name you want to call it. 

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