Monday, February 9, 2015

Support Rings for Community Schools Approach at Senate Roundtable Discussion

By: Michael Augustine, Coalition for Community Schools Intern

Are schools today capable of adequately meeting the needs of all their students? On Tuesday February 3rd, the Senate Committee of Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) conducted a ‘roundtable discussion’ discussing the role that innovative practices play in better educating America’s youth.

The third and final hearing addressing the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) doubled-down on previous discussions regarding how education policy can address the diverse needs of young people. While predictable topics such as testing accountability and state versus federal decision making captured portions of the discussion, most of the invited witnesses strongly claimed that addressing the social and emotional needs of every K-12 student is paramount to unlocking student achievement and potential. These voices rang loudest and clearest on Tuesday, as policymakers listened and chimed in with support.

One of these voices belongs to local Community School Coordinator Henriette Taylor, who spoke powerfully on her role at The Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School in Baltimore, MD. With close to 100% of the school’s students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, Taylor plays an instrumental part as her school’s community coordinator identifying and addressing the immediate needs and wants of students and their families. The Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School is one of 43 of Baltimore City Public Schools Community Schools. Coordinated with the Family League of Baltimore, the Baltimore City Community School Initiative enables Coordinators like Taylor to to conduct a school-wide assets and needs assessment, and then recruit and maintain strategic community partnerships to give students and their families these specific supports and opportunities. Hers is a role  that teachers are too often burdened to take on in non-community schools, in addition to their teaching roles, which leads to teacher burnout particularly in high-need schools. Her testimony is available here.

Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD), a fellow advocate for Maryland public education, recognized the importance of Ms. Taylor’s work and the role that community schools play in empowering students. The Senator simply asked: “Do you need a school social worker?” And in reply, Ms. Taylor said: “Desperately.” Senator Mikulski repeated the question two more times, asking if high-need schools also need nurses and community school coordinators in order to support student success. Twice more Ms. Taylor adamantly replied: “Desperately.”

When students’ needs are not met outside of school, teachers and school leaders are indirectly tasked with trying their best to provide support to their students in school. However, it is an integral part of the Community Schools strategy to establish partnerships and social support to students to allow teachers to spend more time and effort on providing instruction and academic support. For example, Taylor’s position as coordinator leverages community partnerships in order to support her students’ needs. When students are supported by a trio of schools, community partners, and school coordinators, teachers can focus on teaching, knowing then that their students’ other needs have been met.

Senators Mikulski, Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-PA), Patty Murray (D-WA), and others all spoke in support of the education and development of the ‘whole child’ during the roundtable debate. Whether calling for ‘full service community schools’ or ‘wrap around services,’ the ‘whole child” approach advocates that students must receive critical supports for their physical, social, emotional, cognitive and civic development. This approach gained a lot of momentum at Tuesday’s hearing, which is hopeful progress.

But the question stands: how will a reauthorized ESEA encapsulate the values of the Community School strategy or expand on President Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods? As Chairman Lamar Alexander (D-TN) noted in his opening remarks, federal policy must give flexibility to states to decide how to best support students. Instead of rushing to implement federal programs, Alexander advocated for more state flexibility for funding the innovations and programs that fit their localities.
Going in a different direction, ranking member Senator Patty Murray insisted that the nation’s next education policy has the opportunity to set “innovation in education [as] a national priority.” Other witnesses added to this, indicating that it’s important to address local needs, but there are certainly goals such as increasing attendance, graduation and college participation rates, and the job pool for Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics (STEM) positions that apply to every state. Federal support and vision-setting for these goals is crucial moving forward.

The Coalition for Community Schools recently wrote to Senators Alexander and Murray with key recommendations for ESEA. The letter holds the support of 44 of the Coalition’s partners, including the American Federation of Teachers, Harlem Children’s Zone, National Education Association, United Way Worldwide, and 21st Century School Fund. The letter recommends that ESEA:
  • Incentivizes school-community partnerships at the school, district and state levels that coordinate resources between schools and community partners (public and private) to address the comprehensive needs of students and provide enriching learning and development opportunities during and outside of school hours.
  • Authorizes the bipartisan Full-Service Community Schools Act, and reference full-service community schools as an allowable school turnaround model in Title I and an allowable strategy for Safe and Healthy students in Title IV.
  • Requires SEAs and LEAs in Title I to identify and report results beyond academic achievement to include indicators for health and wellness, discipline, attendance, and family engagement

The next ESEA must address the needs of today’s youth, and the history of educational inequity that NCLB aimed to address over a decade ago. Senators Alexander and Murray have claimed so far that their work has been bipartisan. While partisanship has flashed during these hearings, there is definitely something to agree on: Community Schools.

It is crucial to discuss how the reauthorization of ESEA will in fact support states, districts, and schools in extending greater opportunities to all youth and communities. Legislation supporting the principles of the Community School strategy is not only possible for this 114th Congress, but also crucial to empower all students across the country to succeed and reach their fullest potential.

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