Susan Frey/EdSource Today
Students from Torres High School in East Los Angeles meet in a community center to discuss changes they would like to see in their school and neighborhood.

California’s new school finance system and the state’s rules regarding Medi-Cal are making it easier for low-performing schools to transform themselves, according to a recent report.

Some of those schools are becoming community schools, which emphasize student and community engagement and work with outside partners to provide health, social and other services to students and their families. Across the country, about 5,000 community schools serve about 5 million students, according to the report, “Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools,” released this month by The Center for Popular Democracy, the Coalition for Community Schools and the Southern Education Foundation.

The report — which highlights Social Justice Humanitas Academy, a high school in the San Fernando Valley, as a model community school — recommends six strategies that schools can employ to transform themselves. One of the strategies is providing on-campus resources for students, such as health and dental care and mental health counselors.

California supports that strategy in two ways. The state allows on-campus health clinics to accept Medi-Cal payments for health services for low-income students. Medi-Cal is the state’s version of the federal health care program, Medicaid. And the Local Control Funding Formula — which provides extra funding for low-income students, English learners, and foster and homeless students — allows districts and schools to funnel some of those funds into mental and physical health services.

At the Social Justice Humanitas Academy, a mobile health van comes once a week offering health, dental and eye care. Students with significant mental health problems such as depression have access to mental health counselors on campus. A student women’s caucus and a student men’s group meet each week. Case managers from a local nonprofit aimed at reducing violence in the community regularly meet with students at risk of becoming gang members.

“We can’t do it alone,” said Jose Navarro, principal of Social Justice Humanitas Academy. “My students need all the resources their community can offer. Good teaching alone cannot mitigate the effects of poverty.”

The academy’s principal, Jose Navarro, emphasizes the importance of that kind of support. As a previous California teacher of the year who is National Board certified, Navarro has said that he could be considered one of the most effective teachers his students could have.

“Yet I still have students who fail,” he said in a profile by the Coalition for Community Schools. “I still have students who have needs I can’t meet. We can’t do it alone. My students need all the resources their community can offer. Good teaching alone cannot mitigate the effects of poverty.”

The community schools approach has produced impressive results at the academy, where 84 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. The academy, which is a school within a public high school, Cesar E. Chavez Learning Academies in Los Angeles Unified, has a 94 percent graduation rate, with 77 percent of the students completing the course requirements for admission to the University of California and California State University systems.

Part of what makes the academy successful, according to the report, is its engaging, culturally relevant and challenging curriculum, another key strategy.

“We help students learn to be problem solvers and solutions-minded in a world filled with a lot of injustice,” said Jennie Carey with the Los Angeles Education Partnership, a nonprofit focused on improving schools in low-income communities in Los Angeles. The partnership worked with the community and district to create the pilot high school and funded the school’s first community coordinator.

Students have to produce final assessments that show a solution to a real-world problem, Carey said. They have to defend their solution and provide evidence.

Students are also encouraged to think, rather than memorize facts. For example, when they were studying World War II, their teachers asked them to consider what was worth dying for, Carey said.

Other successful strategies highlighted in the report include:

  • Positive discipline practices, such as restorative justice. The academy has a suspension rate of 0.2 percent.
  • An emphasis on quality teaching.
  • Authentic parent and community engagement.
  • Inclusive school leadership. A team of teachers, with community input, started the academy.

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