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Opportunities and challenges of community schools

By Ron Whitehorne on Nov 12, 2015 04:13 PM

As Mayor Nutter prepares to depart City Hall in January, his legacy in education is facing some scrutiny. He gets good marks for his focus on raising graduation rates and support for more funding. But his agenda also included closing neighborhood public schools and the expansion of charter schools (and to a lesser extent, magnet schools), policies that drew strong opposition.

Mayor-elect Jim Kenney is on record as favoring an education agenda that includes community schools. Over the length of his term, he would like to create 25 of these schools, neighborhood public schools that build community partnerships and bring under one roof the social services and supports that students and their families need.

In implementing this ambitious and transformative community school strategy, Kenney will face major challenges. But the local political landscape, and a shifting national picture, will definitely provide unprecedented opportunities for a progressive education reform agenda.

Local support for community schools

Kenney’s education advisory team includes people who advocate for community schools. Chief among them is Otis Hackney, principal of South Philadelphia High School, who is pioneering the model for how to create community schools in the city.

City Council President Darrell Clarke, too, has made clear that he favors a community schools initiative.

Parents, teachers, and others at three schools now slated for conversion to charters as part of the District’s now five-year-old Renaissance turnaround initiative, have called for community schools as an alternative. Eighteen labor and community organizations have signed on to this demand.

A community schools task force, led by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), is training parents and school staff at several schools to be “ambassadors” for community schools.

The national context 

Over the last two decades, the idea of community schools has gained momentum across the county. Today, there are an estimated 5,000 community schools serving two million students across the country, according to a recent article in American Educator, a publication of the American Federation of Teachers.

Some are individual schools, but, increasingly, whole school districts are adopting this approach. Enormous variety exists in these efforts, but there is also a common thread that sees addressing the deficits created by systemic racism and poverty as a necessary part of the education agenda. Community schools also focus on the whole child, on their emotional, social, and ethical development, as opposed to a narrow set of cognitive skills.

Recently, a national labor-community alliance has formed that connects the call for community schools with the historic demands of the Civil Rights movement and resistance to school privatization. A case in point: the fight to stop the closure of Dyett High School in Chicago and turn it into a community school. A national campaign focused on community schools as a transformational strategy is developing.

The challenges 

Part of the appeal of community schools is the strategy of concentrating services like health clinics, afterschool programs, and adult education in neighborhood schools. By making these services more accessible, community schools expand their impact.

There are groups, like the Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative and the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development (PHENND), already working to do this important work creating partnerships. To scale up these efforts, the city can draw on local expertise as well as the experience in other cities, like Cincinnati, Baltimore and New York. There is likely to be the broadest consensus about this element of a community school.

But to realize community schools' promise, they must do more. As the model moves into the mainstream, the biggest challenge will be ensuring that the people and communities vested in neighborhood public schools have a real voice in both planning and governance – at the school level and district level. Community schools need to be an instrument to democratize public education.

Some public education advocates hesitate to adopt the community school model here in Philadelphia. This skepticism is rooted in the distrust of a School District that has a poor record of transparency, has shown no trust for sharing power with parents, and has little respect for the people who work for it. The fear that community schools will be just another gimmick that fails to change these broken relationships is real. But this only underlines the importance of pressing for a process that is open and democratic.

Paying for these schools presents another challenge, because creating community schools does not lessen the need to have adequate levels of funding for school staffing, maintenance, and materials. In a climate of budget austerity, will the costs associated with creating community schools compete with traditional costs?

Community schools, in fact, can attract new sources of funding. Federal school improvement grants, entitlement dollars, Medicaid funding, and foundations are among the multiple sources that could be tapped. Partnerships with community-based organizations allow access to resources that would otherwise be unavailable. Properly executed, community schools increase the school’s capacity without becoming a drain on the school budget.

Moreover, a community school platform supports the fight for full, fair funding by linking it to a positive, practical vision with a record of success. In cities that have made a major commitment to community schools, like Cincinnati, support for public education has grown.

Connecting with struggles on the ground

A community schools platform for Philadelphia must be based on the needs of a school’s community and the battles that its students, teachers, and parents are fighting. 

One is the movement against high-stakes testing. Community schools need a vision of teaching and learning that calls for an engaging curriculum and instructional model and jettisons the “drill and kill” regime of test preparation.

Community schools would have an evaluation system for schools and teachers that truly takes into account multiple measures, rather than being based mostly on test scores. While legal mandates can’t be ignored, much can be done within those parameters to challenge the dominance of the current, test-driven, model of education.

The movement against the school-to-prison pipeline is another critical struggle. Zero-tolerance policies have criminalized students for relatively minor infractions and pushed them out of school, where they face few prospects for success and greater likelihood of incarceration. Restorative practices offers an alternative approach to developing positive behavior and making our schools safe. This can and should be an element of a community school platform. (Oakland provides an example of a city that did just that.)

Next steps

A comprehensive plan for community schools in Philadelphia will take time to develop. This is particularly true if the broader community is really going to be engaged.

In the meantime, schools that already have elements of a community school program, like Comegys Elementary and South Philly High, should be given the latitude and the resources to expand on their foundation. Their efforts could help inform a larger, districtwide program.

And we can start building community schools from the ground up in those communities where there is already a push for it. At Wister, Huey, and Cook Elementaries, the schools slated to be turned into Renaissance charters, communities should be given the opportunity to do this. Now is a good time to re-evaluate the Renaissance program and, indeed, the whole concept of “turnaround” that focuses on rapid test-score gains over long-term school improvement.

Authentic parent and staff engagement, coupled with services that support student learning, are what’s needed to sustain gains. Community schools provide that and deserve to be considered as an alternative to turning over fixing our schools to charter operators.


Ron Whitehorne is a board member of Youth United for Change and a coordinator for the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).   

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