Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Beating Superman to the Punch - The Lesson in Community Schools

Often lost in the discussion of how to better our nations’ schools are the voices of those who are actively doing so. On the ground, there are thousands of examples of real, tangible change: these are community schools, and from these schools come the voices we need to hear. I believe they are also the ones we need to follow as we seek to restore our public education system.

I have spent my summer interning with The Coalition for Community Schools, an organization that promotes this movement. I came here to learn, but I’ve come away inspired. This work is turning schools into so much more than buildings where children sit in rows to memorize facts: these schools are the pulse of the entire community. The people behind the movement are educators, families, social workers, and youth development professionals; they are United Way, local government, higher education and business leaders. They have all come together with the collective understanding that children need more than a good teacher in their classroom to succeed: they need a sturdy foundation that provides them with support and opportunities to flourish. Where this foundation is lacking, community schools have stepped in to provide it. The results - measured across multiple indicators, including but not limited to test scores – have been significant.

What are community schools? Picture a struggling community, be it urban, suburban, or rural, and think about all hazards this community may face daily:  violence, neglect, drug use, lack of access to fresh produce, abandonment by industry and commerce. Their schools are full of students seeking the opportunities that all American children deserve, but these factors make it difficult for them to succeed.  This is the school everyone wants to fix; these are the children who are waiting for Superman.

There is no Superman. Instead, these communities asked themselves, ‘Why wait for Superman when we can work together and do it ourselves now?’

Picture the community consciously coming together, convening all of its organizations, agencies, and volunteers to partner with the school. They embed social services and youth-development opportunities within it. Look what happens: There’s a free breakfast program, an after-school program, with art, hip-hop, and cooking classes. There’s a health clinic which provides check-ups to every student, their families, and often the whole neighborhood, too. Equally important is a curriculum linked to the community outside, engaging students beyond the classroom through real-world experience. This school is open all day, all weekend, and through the summer, and families and community residents are deeply engaged.  Again – this is so much more than a building where children learn.  This is where we will rebuild the social capital we have let crumble.

 In a political climate where party lines have never been sharper, perhaps the most compelling aspect of the community school strategy is how nonpolitical it is. With its emphasis on community and family engagement, and lack of punitive methods, there is certainly much in the strategy that appeals to proponents of holistic change. But there is also a firm commitment to local flexibility, community accountability, and private-sector partnership, ideals which, in addition to being oft-touted by small-government advocates, are also those upon which this nation was built. This is an answer as nonpartisan as it is effective.  It is also a way to knit the fundamental tenets of a republic with all that is best in a democracy, a goal we must now strive for more than ever.   

I’m writing this post as a summer intern: the fact that I am here is a testament to the amazing opportunities offered to some young people in this country, but it also reveals the gaping divide between those who have access to such opportunities and those who do not. I see community schools as a way of bridging that divide. The supports all children need were provided for me by my family (of this I am very conscious, and thus understand the pretense of my speaking on this issue), but we cannot reform our schools on the myth that all families, or all schools, can do the same. We must find a way to provide these opportunities for everyone, regardless of social position. We must build a scaffold that all young Americans can climb, for the betterment of themselves, and for the success of this nation. Community schools can be this scaffold: let’s shake off the myths of yesterday and create real change today. If we work together, use our resources wisely, and do what is best for our children, I believe we can live that change tomorrow.

Rachel Garbus, a senior at Smith College in Northampton, MA, and a former intern with the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership. While the controversial arguments laid out in Ross Perlin’s new book Intern Nation are absolutely true (though to be fair to IEL, her internship has involved 100% more blog writing than coffee-fetching), she is still immeasurably grateful for this opportunity, and plans to devote her life to help create an education system in which all young people have access to experiences such as these (minus the coffee-fetching). 

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