Community schools gaining traction under state’s new funding formula

December 9, 2013
Students at Oakland High, a community school, in an after school program. Credit: EdSource Today/Jane Meredith Adams

Students participate in an after-school program at Oakland High School, a community school. Credit: Jane Meredith Adams, EdSource Today

Efforts to create full-service community schools that focus on serving the “whole child” with a wide array of services are gaining traction under the state’s new funding formula for schools.

The convergence of more money for low-income students and a new mandate to work with families under the Local Control Funding Formula has created “a unique point of time” for community schools to thrive, said Renee Newton, director of the Center for Community School Partnerships at UC Davis.

Alana Shackelford, director of Partnerships and Community Engagement at Vallejo City Unified, put the message more forcefully to a packed audience of 200 educators at the Community Schools Fundamentals Conference last week in Oakland.

“Our students are tired of the system that was really designed for them to fail,” she said. “Our children and our families are back in the driver’s seat.”

The community school concept, loosely modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone begun by Geoffrey Canada, is built on a model of serving the “whole child” by partnering with community organizations to offer a range of enrichment, health, social and other services for children and their families.

New way of doing school

Nearly one in four California children lives in poverty, and advocates of community schools say their model teaches schools how to effectively leverage partnerships to mitigate barriers to learning posed by hunger, sickness and lack of academic opportunity.

“The movement is growing in California,” said Lisa Villarreal, a program officer for education at the San Francisco Foundation, which gives grants to educational programs. Villarreal spoke at the opening of the Community Schools Fundamentals Conference, which was co-hosted by the United Way of the Bay Area and the National Center for Community Schools, a New York-based nonprofit organization.

“This is going to be the new way of doing school,” said Villarreal, noting poverty levels in California and the strong evidence linking poverty to poor academic achievement.

The community school model has captured the attention of the chair of the state Senate Education Committee, Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada-Flintridge, who last week hosted a reception at the California School Boards Association’s annual meeting in San Diego to promote the concept. In October, Liu traveled on a three-day bus tour to highlight community schools in Los Angeles, Pasadena, Fresno, Redwood City, Oakland and Sacramento. She is exploring what, if any, legislative actions would make it easier for districts to adopt the model, said Ed Honowitz, education policy adviser for Liu.

The Local Control Funding Formula, he said, is a natural tie-in with the work community schools are already doing on parent engagement, positive school climate and academic achievement for high-needs students – which are also state priorities the new law asks districts to show progress toward meeting.

Several California school districts have already embraced the community school model. Oakland Unified was the first in the state to announce in 2009 it would convert all district schools to full-service community schools, and now has 27 of its 87 schools operating on that model. Vallejo City Unified has introduced the full-service community school model at 15 elementary, middle and high schools and plans to have all of its schools be full-service community schools by 2014-15.

Dozens of individual school sites from Sacramento to Fresno to the San Fernando Valley have embraced the model, and the United Way of the Bay Area is working to triple the number of community schools in the Bay Area in the next six years, starting from an estimated 63 today.

“We’re trying to get to 200 (community schools) by 2020,” said Ed Center, senior director of education at the United Way of the Bay Area, which provides seed money, funds programs and facilitates partnerships at schools.

‘The right work’

While nearly every school has an after-school program, community schools have a full-time community schools coordinator who can take a far more strategic approach to partnerships, Center said. Working with groups like the Boys and Girls Club or the YMCA, the coordinator and the school can plan evidence-based programs tailored to meet the needs of students and families, collect data and assess effectiveness. Communication between the agency and the school is formalized through monthly meetings, and the community schools coordinator is included on the school management team. The idea is that they are all working toward a common goal: to lift up the academic achievement of children, particularly immigrant and low-income children.

“It’s not easy work, but it’s the right work,” said Shackelford of the Vallejo district. “As a school district, we are in the business of humanizing this educational system.”

Research has shown the model to be effective, said Jane Quinn, director of the National Center for Community Schools, which is a program of the Children’s Aid Society in New York. The Redwood City School District has been working in partnership with the John W. Gardner Center at Stanford to collect data on the effectiveness of its community schools; results found that community schools improved school climate and improved English language acquisition.

A pyramid shows the system of care at Shop 55, a health and activities center at Oakland High School. Credit: Jane Meredith Adams, EdSource Today

Shop 55 at Oakland High School is a thriving model of the community school concept. Shop 55 – housed in a renovated former auto shop building at the campus – is now a student health and activity center. Its co-director, Susan Yee, also serves as the community school coordinator managing multiple partnerships between the campus and agencies that provide much-needed social, mental and supplementary academic support to students, both before and after school. This week, the school is forging a new relationship with the East Bay Asian Youth Center. The partnership will match mental health counselors and tutors with students who have been asked to leave classrooms and are at risk for suspension.

The new services are meant to be a gain for everyone, Yee said. The mental health counselors needed clients, the school needed alternatives to suspensions and the teachers needed support that would help students succeed.

Schools are increasingly looking beyond classroom walls to better serve their students.

“I don’t think there is a school district or principal in Southern California who isn’t thinking about how to build strategic partnerships to support the needs of their kids,” said Ellen Pais, president of the Los Angeles Education Partnership, a nonprofit organization that works to improve high-needs schools.

“Everyone is trying to figure out how to take the burden of poverty away from the school site,” she added, “so the burden is not just placed in the classroom, but is shared.”

Jane Meredith Adams covers student health. Contact her and follow her on Twitter @JaneAdams.

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