Thursday, December 18, 2014

What Community Schools Taught Me

More than a year before I even applied to intern here at the Coalition for Community Schools, I had done some research about the community school model at a prior internship.  While scouring the Coalition’s website in 2013, I remember thinking: how could this model ever achieve success?  Now, on my last day of this incredible internship, I could speak for hours about the countless ways in which a community school leads to successful students, families and communities.  Over the course of this semester I have grown more passionate about community schools every day I come into this office; completely transformed from the skeptic I once was.  This internship has helped me to improve my written and oral communication skills, I have learned more about educational organizations, and I can now collaborate with others more effectively. Although those skills will be useful for me professionally, what I have truly gained cannot be condensed to fit on a resume.  I will walk out of the Coalition’s office today with a renewed attitude not only on education, but on the communities in which we all live, and how to make them better. 

On my very first day at the Coalition, we hit the ground running and I was on the phone with a California Community School Director by lunchtime, and at a Capitol Hill meeting that afternoon.  Even in that first day, I began to realize the depth of the impact this model has on the lives of those it serves.  By the end of my first week, I was not only convinced that community schools were a fantastic idea, but I had become intensely passionate about advocating for the cause.  By the end of my second week, I found myself compulsively talking about community schools to anyone who would listen.  Needless to say, I was hooked.  

Since then, I have been immersed in seemingly anything and everything community schools: from research about collaboration and quality to framing success of a community school in convincing ways.  I often find myself shocked that there was a time I doubted the effectiveness of a community school. How did I not realize that a child cannot achieve academic success if he or she is hungry, or struggling with problems at home?  How did I not realize that a school should be a hub for community activity, collaboration and learning?  How did I not realize that communities across the country, like the one I am from, can be absolutely transformed by community schools?  With this epiphany came a plan to focus my passion into action, while continuing to work on community schools once I leave Washington, D.C.

In January, when I return to St. Lawrence University to finish my junior year, I will be conducting an independent study about community school implementation and measures of success in two locations that could stand to benefit immensely from the model.  I chose two starkly contrasting places for this study, both of which are special to me: Schenectady, New York, my hometown, and Canton, New York, where St. Lawrence is located.  Schenectady is a much more metropolitan area that struggles with high poverty rates, while Canton is a rural small town in the poorest county in New York State.  The extreme difference in these two locations showcases how extraordinarily versatile the community schools model is.  No matter the location, demographic or population of a community, the holistic approach to learning that is community schools can be transformative for not only students, but their families and the places that they call home.  

These few short months I have spent at the Coalition for Community Schools have not only facilitated my shift from a skeptic to an advocate, but I now view change in a different light.  Creating change in one’s community obviously requires deliberate and diligent effort, but it is often overlooked as being too difficult to produce.  The Community Schools movement showcases exactly how possible creation of change can be.  Just as students work together to build towers of blocks or complete group projects, we as adults must first work together to ignite change in our communities and schools. In the years since building towers with classmates, I had forgotten the value of teamwork; that wooden block skyscraper would not have been as tall or wide without help from my friends.  Re-learning this vital lesson is directly linked to my work here at the Coalition, and for that: thank you community schools. 

By: Maya Williams
2014 Fall Intern

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Different Kind of Field Trip

Housed in Washington D.C., a classic tourist town, IEL doesn’t compete with the double-decker tour buses. Rather, we organize something different: field trips to see schools and communities working together.  One recent trip transported 25 Capitol Hill, executive branch and association staffers to Baltimore to learn about that city’s community school strategy and how it is driving outcomes for young people, families, and communities.  Baltimore now boasts 46 community schools, with another 22 being renovated as community hubs through the first phase of a $1 billion state school construction bond.

The study tour highlighted the Family League of Baltimore, Baltimore City Public Schools, and Elev8 Baltimore. The Mayor of Baltimore  has invested in community schools across the city. The Family League of Baltimore has melded its after school funding with the community school strategy. And, the school district is investing the state bond money to build new schools as community hubs.
Capitol Hill and national executive branch staff were inspired by the school-community coordination and strong results-based partnerships. They saw that community schools:
  • require strong cross-sector relationships, innovative leaders, and intensive coordination between school and community leaders;
  • address the challenges and barriers to learning that significantly impact student achievement (e.g. hunger, trauma, medical issues) in a strategic, intentional way; and,
  • benefit from federal policy that incentivizes and supports this work and replicates the evidence-based practices in community schools that are changing outcomes for students and their families.
These takeaways align with the Coalition’s policy agenda and the key principles that we advocate for at the federal level.

Noelle Ellerson (IEL EPFP 2009-10 alum), Associate Executive Director of Policy and Advocacy for the School Superintendents Association (AASA), said about the tour, “Day to day, we are entrenched in the policy and negotiations and numbers, and it was a welcome change of pace to see the policy in action and—most importantly—see how it works and how it is transforming not just students but full communities. Days and experiences like that affirm the need of solid, proven policy and the work of organizations like ours and IEL.”

As they say in leadership-speak, it’s all about getting the right people on the bus-and in this case, on a bus to Baltimore.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tutor Centers Reveal Importance of Community in Education

Student engagement -- a buzzword heard in almost every facet of education today, a term few would argue against. The discord however, surrounds the solutions created to foster student engagement. Shifting curriculum, school choice, and smaller class size are some of the national solutions that have been proposed. At the more local level, a recent initiative, 826 National, has been established to take this buzzword from the conversation and into action. .

826 National has created eight tutoring centers in different urban areas. Recognizing the stigmas associated with students who use these tutor centers in low income areas, 826 National has used unique retail storefronts to act as a curtain for the centers. Such storefronts as the Pirate Supply Store, Bigfoot Research Institute, Museum of Unnatural History, and a superhero equipment store house the tutor centers.  The centers emphasize creative writing, offering students writing workshops, one on one homework help, and bookmaking and storytelling field trips. In a more recent attempt to incorporate STEM learning, students perform science experiments or learn different science concepts to use as inspiration for a new story.

While the long term effects are contested, 826 National’s short term success is represented simply in its expansion. What started as a small tutoring center in San Francisco has grown to an organization that serves well over 30,000 under-resourced students across the country. However, in today’s data driven society, test scores also speak to the organization’s success. Students who have attended the tutoring centers programs showed improvement standardized tests scores -- 13% in story composition skills and 8% in contextual convention. Additionally, these students are more likely to report feeling enjoyment from writing and take pride in their work. However, 826 National is not the first organization to do what it does, give one on one attention and engage students who would otherwise not.

What sets apart the tutoring centers created by 826 National from organizations that also provide tutoring and one on one services to students is the emphasis on local assets and needs. An understanding of the importance of local support allows for flexibility in the programming.  For example, a center in New York City developed a film workshop in response to the large population of filmmakers willing to volunteer in the area. In Washington, DC, a vibrant poetry scene led to a Saturday poetry reading program. This emphasis on community assets follows directly in suit with the model for community schools. Fully understanding just what a community does in fact have and capitalizing on those resources allows for a more positive system than one that only highlights the shortcomings of a community. This system of thinking, however, does understand that a community has needs. For instance, An 826 Michigan community that was lacking in public transportation invested resources in a van that would drive students to the tutor center.

Through this asset based approach to community learning, students begin to see their community as one that does have something to offer, yet many of the resources that their communities possess do not fit into the conventional mold of a school. This positive and localized emphasis on not only needs but also assets of a community is one that sits as the forefront of community schools. It is this type of conversation and system of thinking however, that must be considered in educational policy reform. Policies enacted should assist communities in enabling their students to thrive and not just survive.

By Brooke Troutman, Intern for the Coalition for Community Schools

Monday, June 16, 2014

Hacking the Education System to ‘Transgress’

Last week, I attended the National Beacon Conference in Denver, Colo. It was an incredible convening of practitioners and students from all over the country. Beacon began in the early '90s in New York City. The crack epidemic, and its attending issues, were at an all-time high. Government officials had the choice of either building more prisons or supporting the hardest hit neighborhoods with community programs based on school campuses. Beacon was that program. This yearly conference is an opportunity for Beacon staff and students to get together and share promising practices and challenges in youth leadership and development, family engagement and evaluation.

During the morning plenary, my colleague, scholar and friend, Sarah Zeller-Berkman, said that we had to “hack” education. I was immediately intrigued. Aren’t hackers these brilliant computer whizzes turned criminals who make money stealing thousands of credit card numbers from so-called secure systems — for instance, Target, around Christmas? Don’t hackers exploit the fact that you’ve used your birthday as your password since college, sending all of your contacts ads for Rogaine or the newest flat screen TV? Aren’t hackers people who play high stakes global poker with the virtual security of the world? I mean, aren’t they the bad guys who sit behind computer screens thinking of ways to make the rest of us have a bad day? Certainly, those at the conference were the opposite of all that. Curious, I went to the ultimate authority: Wikipedia.

Apparently, hackers who maliciously exploit weaknesses in computer systems are called Black Hats, which brought the cold war cartoon Boris and Natasha immediately to mind (date myself much?). It’s a funny image, but the damage these folks cause to people’s lives is anything but. There are also White Hats, who combat the Black Hats and use their computer skills for good not evil, like the character Garcia on the TV show "Criminal Minds." She is brilliant, eclectic and able to defend and attack with a few computer keystrokes, often helping her team solve or prevent crimes. Even though their end games are diametrically opposed, the qualities that make them successful are similar. These hackers are smart, innovative discoverers who are not afraid to tinker with systems until they actually control and transform them. They are master problem solvers and risk takers, who aren’t intimidated by the prospect of failure. In fact, hackers use their failures to relentlessly and systematically clear obstructions and remove barriers to achieve their goals.

I found the concept exhilarating but not that new. Educational warriors such as Paolo Freire, Marty Blank, Jeff Duncan-Andrade and Lisa Delpit have tirelessly hacked education. Building on this legacy of hackers/Freedom Fighters, the smart, creative and dedicated problem solvers in that room could truly dismantle the harmful and unproductive parts of the educational system as we know it. I was reminded of a book called "Teaching to Transgress." In the book, feminist, educator and cultural critic, bell hooks (sic) wrote, “Education is the practice of freedom.” “Hacking to Transgress” could be the name of our contribution to that notion.

It was quite an experience to be in a room full of kids of color, watching as the idea of hacking their education took root. It dawned on me that perhaps explaining the hacking concept to our youth is actually the real hack as we are connecting them with the idea that they are essential actors, not just bystanders, in their education. But I realized that their education was only part of the picture. In order for them to really see education as the practice of freedom, we need to help them to see themselves as the most powerful tinkerers there are, able to take all the systems of their lives apart and reassemble them in a way that makes better sense. We have to help them reimagine the concepts of tinkering and failure, as necessary components of the process of transformation. We can help them see that the final frontier is actually not cyberspace or education, but the ability to transgress against all the boundaries that threaten to diminish their existence. I think that that would be a revolution that both the White Hats and Freedom Fighters would be proud of.
Carol Hill

By Carol R. Hill is the director of the Bayview Beacon and the author of “Powersharing: Building Community School Relationships from Friendship to Marriage,” published in Afterschool Matters, Fall 2011. Hill is working on her doctorate in education at San Francisco State University. This blog was reposted from Carol co-chairs the Coalition for Community Schools' Coordinators Network.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

There’s more to Education than Test Scores and Diplomas: The Whole Child Approach to Education

I am not the best test-taker. I need to study twice as long for an exam as many of my classmates do, despite having worked as hard as them in the class. On the other hand, however, I am active in organizations and find working in the community to be rewarding and, frankly, more valuable to my education than a multiple choice test. As a student and advocate of education, I find the government’s emphasis on these objective tests to be troubling, as I know there are many other students, especially in K-12 schools, in this position. There is much more to educational success than what is measured by standardized testing. Not only do these tests give an inaccurate depiction of students who do poorly on the test yet work hard, they also give an inaccurate depiction of people who do well on the tests yet could be lacking other crucial skills or struggling in areas that are not tested.

The misguided efforts of many recent educational policies that focused on raising test scores have led to a greater consensus among educational advocates about the need to address the out-of-school factors of a child’s development. The Whole Child Initiative, championed by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), partners with the Coalition for Community Schools to address the multiple factors that influence each child’s ability and willingness to learn. These factors are much broader than the traditional jurisdiction of the school, and expand into every aspect of the student’s life. The holistic nature of the Whole Child Initiative allows educators not only to respond to students’ needs in the context of academics, but also to ensure that each student feels safe and supported. The five tenets of the Whole Child Initiative include the following:

  • Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.
  • Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.
  • Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.
  • Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.
  • Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment. (
ASCD recently held a symposium on the whole child, with the theme of “Choosing Your Tomorrow Today”. The discussion by the panelists in the symposium focused around the idea of choice and its criticality in fostering creativity. They emphasized the need to promote choice in the form of extracurricular activities, learning decisions, curriculum, and freedom of speech. Allowing students the true ability to make their own choices in education is a crucial part of helping students to become more invested in their own learning, and is necessary in the fulfillment of the five Whole Child tenets, as listed above. For me as a child, it may have meant the ability to participate in community activism, and for others it could be corporate shadowing or learning about the physics of a baseball game.

An important aspect in the implementation of the Whole Child Initiative is expanding the way we evaluate our students to include factors of health and engagement, instead of simply subject content knowledge. ASCD took the next step and collected data measuring how students in each state, and the country as a whole, were doing in all areas of a Whole Child education. ASCD’s Whole Child Snapshots show factors including the prevalence of bullying and obesity within the state, the percentage of children who have been to the doctor and dentist within the last year, the percentage of students who care about school and complete all of the assigned homework, and graduation rates. These statistics illustrate the broad range of factors that influence each child’s ability to learn, and explain why previous policies placing emphasis on content knowledge are not accurate indicators of a student’s success in education. In addition, the idea of teaching to the tests to improve scores ignores most of the student’s developmental needs for success in education. In a world changing as fast as this one, content knowledge quickly becomes irrelevant; it is the ability and willingness to learn and adapt that students need to remain competitive. These strengths can only be realized when students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged in school.

So what does a school that is educating with the whole child in mind look like? In order for a school to be able to influence out-of-school factors, it has to have a strong relationship with its community. Community schools are an effective way to engage the entire community in education and provide much needed support simultaneously. These community hubs can stay open longer hours, offer health and social services to address needs of children that impact learning, and host events to bring the community together. The success of the community school initiative is illustrated in Cincinnati, Ohio, which has 36 fully-functioning community schools and hosted the 2014 Community Schools National Forum. You can read about Cincinnati’s success here. A stronger community provides more support for its students in many ways, and promotes the whole child in a way that the government or the teacher alone cannot. The perceptions of education and success need to be redefined to include the general well-being of the student which requires more engagement from the community in ways that support the whole child, not just the part of the child that fills in bubbles on a test.

By Hugo Lawton, Intern for the Coalition for Community Schools

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Expanded Learning Time Schools and the Education Gap

By Hugo Lawton, Intern for the Coalition for Community Schools

American students attend school for less time than most students around the world. Shorter days and longer summers should allow for these students to participate in experiential learning opportunities and experiment with new interests through hands-on activities, which many schools do not have the time to include in the traditional school day. The reality of how this time is spent, however, is quite disturbing. The average student spends 6.5 hours each day in school, and 7.5 hours online browsing websites like Facebook and YouTube (The After-School Corporation). When comparing students of different income levels, the reality is even more disturbing. In fact, according to the After-School Corporation (TASC), a student at age twelve in the lowest income bracket will have had 6,000 hours and $90,684 fewer educational experiences than his or her classmate in the highest income bracket. This immense learning gap is a result of fewer family-initiated learning experiences and lack of preschool, extra-curricular activities, and/or summer camps. All of the learning experiences we expect our children to receive after school and in the summer are not available or affordable for the students who need them most: those living in the highest needs neighborhoods.

Expanded Learning Time (ELT) schools do not just lengthen the school day; they completely redesign the way that the school schedule is organized. The Coalition for Community Schools’ recent Expanded Learning Opportunities report and typology defines “expanded learning opportunities as multidimensional and involving enriched learning experiences, school-community partnerships, and productive use of time.” ELT is among the many time periods used to expand learning for students in partnership with community partners. Many schools are expanding the school day by including activities often thought of as extra-curricular, as well as internships, hands-on science experiments, and group projects. The infographic and report by the Center for American Progress on Expanded Learning Time schools illustrates that not only do ELT schools give students a broader range of experiences, but they also give teachers more time to collaborate with one another and to develop effective lesson plans. The ability for teachers to spend more time planning is largely due to the partnerships that ELT schools engage with the community. Local businesses host students for internships, and professionals from other fields come and engage students in their area of expertise. Not only does this provide a variety of perspectives to which students can be exposed, but also offers a way for the school’s community to become more involved with its students in meaningful ways.

Two organizations have forged the path for future Expanded Learning Time schools: Citizen Schools and the After-School Corporation, both partners of the Coalition for Community Schools. Both organizations began as an optional after-school program, providing apprenticeship opportunities for youth. They found the students who signed up for their programs were benefiting in significant ways, but that the schools that those students attended were not doing any better than before they arrived. The students who were not participating in these after-school programs were the ones who needed the programs the most, but were unable to participate due to transportation issues or other limitations. After these organizations recognized that the entire school must be involved in these programs in order to eliminate the opportunity gap, they worked to develop in-school programs that would increase the school day by 33%, on average, in order to accommodate this important aspect of learning. By requiring that students stay for the extra time, transportation systems can adjust to accommodate the new students’ schedules, and the students who need the programs most are able to take advantage of them.

In a time when the government’s budget is tight and programs are being cut around the country, funding is a significant concern for these ELT schools. Citizen Schools estimates that its programs cost around $1200-1800 per student in its pilot program, drawing funding from over thirty different sources. The keys, according to Eric Schwarz (co-founder of Citizen Schools), are the strong partnerships with the community in the form of funding and volunteers, as well as a restructuring of the school’s and district’s budgets to allow for the extended time. Whether this system is sustainable at a national level is still in question, but the current ELT schools’ methods of funding and community involvement are working because of their local support within the community. One of these schools is Orchard Gardens, a community school, located in Boston Massachusetts.

Not long after the school’s opening, Orchard Gardens’ K-8 students were consistently scoring at the bottom of Massachusetts schools’ rankings. Two years after the school became an Extended Learning Time school, Orchard Gardens ranked in the top one percent in math, and top six percent in English and language arts across the state. Instead of holding school from 9:25am to 3:21pm, Orchard Gardens extended its school day, holding school from 7:20am to 5pm. This three hour and forty five minute increase in class time allowed students to spend more time with core subjects, while adding an elective period and time for the Citizen Schools program. The new schedule gave teachers an hour a week to collaborate and work on lesson plans, while only increasing the teacher work week by five hours per week. This is a result of strong school-community partnerships, community volunteers and AmeriCorps members supporting the students in the afternoons. Orchard Gardens has risen to the top of the state’s rankings after the school transitioned to ELT, and is now being used as a model for schools around the country.

Expanding the school day for students allows them to have more interaction with different experiences, giving them the opportunity to discover more about their interests and become more engaged in school. Jonathan Brice of the United States Department of Education points out that the extension of school may be the only reason that kids come to school; they know that they will be challenged and have the chance to discover something new. This is done without sacrificing the curriculum and enhances the ability of students to perform on tests. Creating this ‘liberal arts’ atmosphere for students will help them to be more versatile in this fast-changing economy, and to step out of their comfort zones – a challenge that schools should encourage students to take. The education achievement gap will only be eliminated after the opportunity gap is as well.

For more resources on Expanded Learning Opportunities from the Coalition for Community Schools, click here.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute Blog: Let’s Finish What We Started: The Case for Sustaining Community Schools

Public schools are an ideal setting to deliver services beyond education to vulnerable children and their families. This year, six DC grantees started a process to become “community schools,” a model that uses the school as a hub for services delivered by a host of community partners and nonprofit organizations. Unfortunately, next year’s proposed DC budget does not include funding to sustain this effort. We think it makes sense to finish what was started: to continue funding the development of the six community schools, while planning for strategic expansion to additional school sites.

Community Schools bring trained and caring adults into a school to focus on issues such as truancy prevention, parental involvement, early childhood services, or youth development. The partners often connect students and their families with outside supports, including medical, dental and mental health services. A city-wide staff position, the Community School Coordinator, is responsible for mobilizing community resources and providing guidance to grantees.

Around the country, Community Schools have helped increase graduation rates and narrow achievement gaps between students. So, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to stop DC’s Community Schools initiative before it really gets off the ground. Much of the first year as a Community School, grantees are busy cultivating leadership and building relationships with community organizations. It would be unfortunate to stop this work.

The FY 2014 budget included $1 million for OSSE to implement Community Schools programs through six groups of partners in the District. For example, the Mount Pleasant Community School Consortium is a partnership between a public charter, a DCPS school, a health service provider, and four community-based organizations. Together, they offer students and their parents access to a wide range of supports, such as health care, child care, afterschool activities for youth, and adult education programs. A full list of this year’s grantees can be found here.

If the budget can add $3 million next school year, the program could expand from 6 to 12 grantees, at about $200,000 each. This would pay for the citywide Community School coordinator and other costs like mental health staff or a mobile dental bus that will increase access to services. Some resources would also go toward technical assistance and program evaluation.

The long-term success of Community Schools depends on a number of factors, including stable leadership, solid relationships with community partners, and a sustained financial investment. Sites can be funded with a blend of public and private resources, but private funders will want to see the District is committed to scaling up this pilot phase before committing their support for future years. DCFPI hopes the District will continue its support for Community Schools and give sites the time to make a difference for our neediest students and their families.

To print a copy of today’s blog, click here.

Reposted from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute Blog written by Soumya Bhat on May 9th, 2014.