Community Schools Are Just Common Sense

It didn’t take me too long after I began studying public schools to realize too many educators can’t seem to see the forest for the trees.  I mean if it doesn’t involve test scores, how a teacher manages their class or finding the perfect formula for perfect classes of children to do perfect things, it might as well be on the dark side of the moon.

Mike Sentance’s new strategic plan, Alabama Ascending is a perfect example.  There are sections about Prepared Graduates, Pathways to Careers and Higher Education, Superior Educator Preparation, Continuous Improvement of World-Class Educators, Supporting an Accountable System.  Finally on pages 18-19-20 of a 20-page report, Healthy and Safe Systems and Schools and Engaged Families and Communities are mentioned.

And though they seem to be only an afterthought, in today’s world with increasing numbers of poverty students, attention to things outside the classroom are more important than ever before.

Most of the schools I visit are high-poverty elementary schools.  Usually I ask the principal if they are an “educator” or a “social worker.”  The customary answer is something like, “It depends on which day of the week it is.”  And one wonders how is it possible for the principal to be the “instructional leader” for a school when they are trying to track down someone at the Department of Human Resources or the police department.

This is where the concept of community schools comes in.  These are schools where someone finally figured out that kids who are hungry, have emotional problems, can’t see well or have a naching tooth are unlikely to be ready to learn when in the classroom.

The best such program I have seen is in Cincinnati, OH.  More than 50 schools are involved.  Not only does the school see the “whole” child, they also engage the local community in school engagement.  Take a few moments and look at this program’s website

Now the National Education Policy Center has published a comprehensive look at community schools.  They did an extensive review of research. Go here to see the entire brief.  Some of their comments:

“This brief examines the research on community schools, with two primary emphases. First, it explores whether the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) opens the possibility of investing in well-designed community schools to meet the educational needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools. And second, it provides support to school, district, and state leaders as they consider, propose, or implement a community school intervention in schools targeted for comprehensive support.
Community schools represent a place-based school improvement strategy in which “schools partner  with  community  agencies  and  local  government  to  provide  an  integrated  focus  on academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement.”

Many operate year-round, from morning to evening, and serve both children and  adults.  Although  the  approach  is  appropriate  for  students  of  all  backgrounds,  many community schools serve neighborhoods where poverty and racism erect barriers to learning and where families have few resources to supplement what typical schools provide.

Community schools vary in the programs they offer and the way they operate, depending on
their local context. However, four features—or pillars—appear in most community schools:

1) Integrated student supports
2) Expanded learning time and opportunities
3) Family and community engagement
4) Collaborative leadership and practices

We conclude from our review that the evidence base on well-implemented community schools and their component features provides a strong warrant for their potential contribution to school improvement.”

Montgomery’s ten “failing schools” have a collective 66.1 percent poverty rate, as compared to 20.2 percent for the ten magnet schools.  Maybe instead of spending $500,000+ dollars on Massachusetts consultants we should be spending this money on dentists.




Going The Extra Mile

The temperature was heading rapidly toward the mid-90s and the humidity clung like a wet shawl as I drove up to E. D. Nixon elementary on a June morning to meet Camille Finley and Durden Dean.  Camille works for the Montgomery County school system coordinating their new pilot community school program and Dean is a school board member.

One of the truisms of education is that students from high poverty homes are more prone to struggle in school.  This is why it is hardly a surprise that the 76 “failing” schools in Alabama have a collective poverty rate of 71.5 percent–20 points higher than the state average.  This does not mean students in these situations have any less God-given talent as much as it means they come from home environments that are at a disadvantage in providing books to read, adequate medical and dental care, out of school experiences, etc.

This is where the community school concept comes into play.  Instead of concentrating all resources on just the classroom, such schools look at the whole child and try to meet as many needs as possible.

This is where Findley enters the equation.  She is the person cataloging the needs and rounding up resources to meet them.

Nixon and Davis elementary are the two pilots.  The free-reduced lunch rate at Davis is more than 20 points greater than the system average, Nixon is even higher.

One of the first efforts at both schools is a summer enrichment program that includes both academic and “fun” activities.  The month long session includes Project Based Learning where students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to complex questions.  There is also a focus on Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) instruction.

In addition students have an opportunity to explore Zumba, photography, arts and crafts, chess, engineering, golf, etc.  In one class at Davis the students told me excitedly about the chicken coop out back.  And sure enough, there it was, complete with baby chicks.  In another class students were designing a new school brochure on computers.  Some were even learning how to make power point presentations.

A handful of work study high school and college students were busy working with their young pupils.  Helping them with reading, math and other subjects.

I’ve long been interested in the community school approach.  It just makes sense.  Luckily, more and more systems in the state are coming to understand the same thing and are beginning programs.

Thanks to Camille Findley and the support of Durden Dean and his fellow school board members, Montgomery is off to a great start.



They Get It

I often talk about the great need in high poverty school situations to deal with issues that are not directly related to academics.   More and more school systems are coming to understand this.  Here is a great article about what is happening in the Woodlawn section of Birmingham in this regard.

Most of the schools I visit are high poverty.  I could re-tell endless stories that teachers and principals have shared about the situations too many students come from.  For instance, probably 75 percent of all high poverty elementary schools I have visited have washing machines and dryers they use regularly in an effort to keep some students in decent clothes.  One principal told me about a first-grader she took in the bathroom each morning and bathed and changed her clothes.  Another told me about dumping out a back bank and watching roaches scurry away.

And I’ve referred to the fact that of the 8,760 hours in a year, a child only spends 12 percent of them going to school.  Probably now more than ever in the last 40-50 years, it truly does take a village to raise a child.  A tip of the hat to the many folks in Birmingham and the Woodlawn area who have come to understand this.

Cincinnati has the best such program I’ve yet seen.  They do remarkable things and get remarkable results.  To learn more about them, go here.