Supporters of the community schools movement want lawmakers to invest more in the state’s seven-year initiative to bring critical services to thousands of schools in low-income areas, but they say “flaws” in the program’s launch should be addressed in the next round of funding.
United Ways of California, along with other community school advocates, said districts that lacked staffing struggled to meet the tight deadline for the first round of grants and may also have a hard time meeting the fall deadline for the next round. Advocates said some districts weren’t getting enough information and guidance on how to operate community schools and that the qualifications may have been too rigid in the first round — not taking into account the special circumstances of some rural districts.
Still, the advocates fully support Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to add $1.5 billion from the 2022-23 budget to expand the program. It launched with $3 billion from the current year’s budget approved last year.
The Legislature’s 2022-23 budget proposal cut the program along with some of Newsom’s other proposals in order to add $4.5 billion to the Local Control Funding Formula.
“Community schools can be transformative,” United Ways of California President and CEO Pete Manzo said in an interview with EdSource. “We’re totally in favor of the money in the proposed budget but share a concern about how the program has been rolling out.” The nonprofit is the state chapter of the national anti-poverty advocacy group.
The Legislature passed a placeholder budget Monday and will continue to negotiate with Newsom over the details before the start of the next fiscal year July 1. The placeholder budget did not include Newsom’s $1.5 billion proposal to increase funding for community schools.
Malia Vella, a deputy superintendent of public instruction, told EdSource that the state anticipated that some districts wouldn’t have been able to meet the application deadline for the first round of grants, and that’s why the program offers two cycles of planning grants and three cycles of implementation grants.
The planning grants are for $200,000 over two years for district schools, charters and county offices of education to establish community school frameworks. The implementation grants are for existing community schools over five years and range from $712,500 to $2.375 million depending on the school’s size.
Districts and charter schools will be required to contribute an additional third as their match of the state grants.
Kendra Fehrer, research director for the Community Schools Learning Exchange, an organization that helps schools implement community schools programs, said a lot of schools that would qualify for community schools grants are overwhelmed this year and “just don’t have the bandwidth” to go through the application process — especially in a limited amount of time. The request for applications for the planning grant was issued Feb. 28 and due April 1, and the request for applications for the implementation grant was issued March 10 and due April 11.
“When there is such a tight turnaround when schools are at really low capacity, who are the districts that are able to take advantage of this program?” Fehrer said. “It’s districts that have larger capacity, that have a grant writer, that have economies of scale that they can do this, or they have the resources.”
Fehrer said the California Department of Education should consider simplifying the application process for districts and be clearer about the deadlines. Fehrer urged the department to reach out to schools for feedback to better understand how equitable the program’s rollout has been.
Another California deputy superintendent of public instruction, Steve Zimmer, said at the May 18 State Board of Education meeting where the initial round of grants was approved, that the “urgency and compressed timeline” was inevitable for the first round. With more time to prepare for the next round, Zimmer said, the department plans to “listen actively” to stakeholders to learn how it can better engage districts that aren’t already “in the know” about community schools.
“We do believe that we did not reach everyone, and we’re not OK with that,” Zimmer said.
Manzo, the United Ways of California CEO, in an April letter to state Assembly members, urged the state to hold off sending out the request for applications for the next round of grants until the department can get that feedback.
Manzo is also calling for the program to have a more “explicit connection” linking K-12 and early childhood education programs like transitional kindergarten and pre-K. The state law that established the Community Schools Partnership Program requires the state to prioritize grant applicants that commit to providing early care and education services for children from birth to age 5 as part of their program.
“We want to see that early integration,” Manzo said. “Guidance alone is not sufficient. We want specific measurements for early childhood education. What gets measured gets done.”
Grant applicants that commit to adopting strategies to address children’s trauma are also given priority in the process. Manzo is concerned, though, that the state has not offered enough guidance on how to do so.
Districts should also be required to partner with community organizations, Manzo said, and community-based organizations, like United Ways of California, should be able to apply as the lead organization — especially for districts that are too overloaded to apply for funding.
Since the grant program is funded through Proposition 98, only schools, districts and other local education agencies can receive the money, said a spokesperson for the State Board of Education. Allowing community-based organizations to be the lead agencies would require a change in state law.
The $3 billion grant includes $166 million to fund a network of regional technical assistance centers. The United Ways of California and the Orange County Office of Education applied to be the lead agency, but the state board awarded the $20 million to the Alameda County Office of Education and the University of California Los Angeles.
Pay attention to rural districts
Julie Boesch, superintendent of the single-school Maple Elementary School District in West Kern County, was concerned that the rigid qualification rules on the initial round of grants could leave out small, rural districts that are also working on expanding their community service offerings.
In 2018, Maple joined with neighboring small, rural districts to form the West Kern Consortium in order to receive funds from a federal community schools grant program. Since then, the consortium has pooled its resources and split costs to provide social services and mental health resources at the schools, hire a shared math coach, and launch other programs that Boesch said have seen measurable success.
But the consortium now illustrates a problem that advocates say needs to be fixed. All six schools in the consortium applied for implementation grants, but Maple — the consortium’s “anchor” — was the only one to be denied. That’s because only 55% of Maple’s 300 students were considered low-income; the initial round of grants was reserved for schools with 80% or more low-income students, or rural and small schools with 70% or more low-income students.
The statute establishing the community schools program gives priority to schools that serve 80% or more low-income students. Judging from the demand from schools that didn’t meet the criteria in the first round, Vella said it would be “very difficult to go below the 80% prioritization threshold in future rounds” without the extra $1.5 billion proposed by Newsom.
CDE encourages schools and districts that didn’t qualify for the first round of funding to apply for future rounds, said Pete Callas, Career and College Transition Division director, at the May 18 meeting.
Because the schools in the consortium pool their resources, the state’s denial of Maple’s request for a total of nearly $1.2 million over five years impacts all six schools, Boesch said.
“It doesn’t just hurt my students, it hurts all of the consortium’s students,” she said.
Boesch thinks the state should have considered the “big picture” instead of just taking one thing into account — especially after all the work that’s gone into bringing the community schools model to the area over the last five years. She plans to apply for the next round of grants.
“The work will continue, but it will be impacted,” Boesch said.
EdSource Reporter John Fensterwald contributed to this report.
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