Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Finding Inspiration in Cincinnati’s Community Schools

 By Shama Jamal, National Policy Emerson Fellow at Coalition for Community Schools

As a newcomer to the policy world, I often struggled with finding a balance between familiarizing myself with the basics of all the policies and practices around community schools and having a comprehensive, intimate understanding of the vision, operations, resource allocation and coordination on the ground at these schools. After a couple of months of dissecting and analyzing policies around community schools, the Coalition’s Study Tour of Cincinnati Public School’s Community Learning Centers was great timing. Except it was more than just perfect timing. Cincinnati is, for me, the epitome of perfect world of community school systems. More than two dozen federal education leaders, school leaders, philanthropy and elected officials from across the country visited Cincinnati CLCs last month as part of a site-level examination of a scaled-up community school initiative in action. For me, Community Learning Centers demonstrates many of the best practices found in community schools and it boasts the improved academic performances and socio-economic wellbeing for their children, families and neighborhoods that community schools strive to achieve. My hopes for the trip were purely informational, but very soon it became an inspiration, to continue advocating for that perfect system of community schools.

There are two reasons Cincinnati Public Schools and their community school effort stuck out to me. One is the district wide support of the community schools strategy and the other, is the implementation of ideal full service community schools.

District-Wide Support for Community Schools Strategy

For a city that had been shrinking from prolonged population loss, creating a thriving education system to revive the economy became one of the important elements of the city’s agenda. The birth of Community Learning Centers (Community Schools) as the driving force of their school improvement strategy seemed logical. Budget cuts call to break historic silos for more efficient strategies that involve creating partnerships and consolidating existing and new resources.

To the surprise of the Study Tour audience, Darlene Kamine, Executive Director for the Community Learning Center Institute said that the “guiding principles [created and approved in 2001 by CPS Board of Education to support Community Learning Centers] haven’t changed despite multiple changes in leadership of the Board of Education and principals within these schools”. She added that “these principles are bullet proof. They are embedded within the community.” Getting to hear from district, state, and union representatives during the Study Tour made the city wide support for the community school initiative even more tangible and strong.

Full service community school

A couple of years ago, the city passed a ten-year, $1 billion Facilities Master Plan to build and renovate all school buildings and have them serve as joint-use facilities that promote both academic excellence as well as family and community engagement. Each facility was designed to incorporate partnerships with numerous businesses, the arts community and social service agencies to provide services to students, their families and communities during the school day and beyond. These new facilities were built to maximize the city’s community schools strategy.

During the study tour, Principal Craig Hockenberry, from Oyler School in the rugged Lower Price Hill section of Cincinnati, recognized some of the challenges of a joint-use facility. He suggested that joint-use facilities run the risk of keeping students tied into one place. Principals need to keep in mind the need to take students outside the school building as well as outside the school neighborhood to engage students in learning experiences that help broaden their horizons. The principals and resource coordinators are the personnel within the schools that recognize and ensure that these challenges are addressed. They were described as “matchmakers in a dating service” who create the inventory of capacity and resources to address the needs of the students and engage them with learning opportunities outside their schools and neighborhoods. I often describe the role of resource coordinators as “social innovation.” For me, the coordinator is the social entrepreneur who forges unique uses of partnerships and assets to address specific problems within their schools and community.

The Ingenuity of Community Schools in Cincinnati

Mt. Washington, a pre K to 8 neighborhood school, highlighted their Kindergarten Preparation Program during the Study Tour. In 2011, 54% of Mt. Washington kindergartners did not attend preschool which results in academic achievement below CPS standards. These students were academically and socially behind their peers in their classrooms. Supported by local nonprofit Success by Six, Cincinnati Public Schools Early Childhood Department and the initiative’s lead intermediary Community Learning Center Institute, the school provided an intensive three week summer readiness program for incoming kindergarten students who have not attended preschool or any other supportive programs. This helps get these students more comfortable with the school environment and also catch up academically.  

Oyler School, a preK – 12 school, was perhaps the most impressive example of a community school for me. Oyler’s surrounding neighborhood is described as “urban Appalachian” with most residents living below the poverty level. As a response, Oyler’s newly-renovated facility holds support services including a medical center, a dental clinic, mental health services, a new auditorium, a gym as well as a vision center. But the most innovative of them all for me was the Chiff Early Learning Center that serves 45 children from as early as 6 weeks. The center targets parents within the neighborhood but specifically high school students who were at higher risk of dropping out because of their pregnancies or having to care for their young children. More importantly, the center does not only support and train young parents but also creates a seamless alignment of the curriculum from the early childhood programs to the school’s elementary and secondary grades.

Policy makers and advocates often need to be refreshed with the driving power behind community engagement and social innovation in community strategies around the nation. As an advocate for community schools, the study tour to Cincinnati did just that.

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