Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Why My Brother's Keeper? Why Now? And Why in Community Schools?

By: Perpetual Baffour, National Policy Emerson Fellow


With the national tide of rising inequalities, heightened racial tensions, and the shrinking realization of the American Dream for many young people, the integral connection between the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative and the Full-Service Community School strategy is no stretch of the imagination. Community schools have long demonstrated how they are an important vehicle for delivering the results communities need and for producing better outcomes for young people of color. As illuminated in the Coalition’s recent “My Brother’s Keeper and Community Schools” webinar, community schools are no stranger to President Obama’s big vision for change.

The initial announcement of My Brother’s Keeper re-directed national attention towards an age-old problem in our society: the systemic denial of upward mobility for people of color. However, community schools present a necessary approach to disrupting and eliminating the predictive power of race and other demographics on a student’s potential for success in school, in community, and in life.

The hope community schools offer was explicitly stated last April in the Coalition for Community Schools’ Equity Framework. Lisa Villareal, the Chair of the Coalition, echoed this sentiment throughout the webinar:

In our Equity Framework, we wanted to make it crystal clear that all opportunities, supports, and services in a community school are designed to address even the most egregious disparities. Deeply embedding equity in how we discuss community schools is not only a noble idea, but a moral imperative.

And My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) ensures that this imperative does not neglect the needs of young men and women of color. While not explicitly about the full-service community school approach, the MBK directive nonetheless embraces key community schools principles: an emphasis on policies that develop strong communities, encourage public-private collaboration, and address all dimensions of young people’s development. The My Brother’s Keeper Task Force specifically calls for policy gains in these areas:
·         Getting a healthy start and entering school ready to learn
·         Reading at grade level by third grade
·         Graduating from high school ready for college and career
·         Successfully entering the workforce, and
·         Keeping kids on track and giving them second chances

These objectives are consistent with the results community schools are attaining: increasing attendance rates; reducing suspensions; contributing to improved school climate, culture, and student satisfaction; and preparing young people to be college, career, and citizenship ready. By leveraging resources and partnerships across sectors, community schools have united local leaders to create the conditions for thriving students, families, and communities. And for young people of color, the case is no different.

AJ Watson, the Director of the Becoming a Man (B.A.M) program at Youth Guidance (a lead partner at multiple community schools in Chicago), offered a local example. B.A.M., along with its female counterpart W.O.W. (Working on Womanhood), places counselors in community schools to promote positive psychological development and build resiliency among at-risk students. B.A.M. currently serves over 1,900 young men in grades 7-12 with risk factors of truancy, suspension, drug and alcohol abuse, and gang violence. B.A.M.’s remarkable impact -- including a 50% reduction of violence rates and a 30% reduction of weapons crimes rates -- have earned the program national attention and recognition by President Obama. However, Watson believes these achievements should not outweigh the core purpose of enriching these young men’s lives:

When we started B.A.M., we weren’t necessarily aiming to reduce violent crime rates, or to reduce weapon crimes rates…we were working to help set these men on the right path to responsible adulthood and responsible manhood.

But B.A.M. alone is not the reason for these results. Rather, it is Youth Guidance’s integration of B.A.M. and W.O.W. with its other counseling, community, and afterschool programs that support the school and teaching staff to effect change. Together, the community school coordinator, counselors, parent engagement coordinators, teachers, and principal work to provide students with robust opportunities and supports necessary for student success.

In California, Oakland Unified School District, a district intentionally pledging to become a full-service community school district, has supported young men of color by becoming the first school district to designate an office for African American Male Achievement. As Oakland’s Restorative Justice Program Manager, David Yusem discussed how the district also utilizes a restorative justice approach to reach students who have been previously incarcerated or suspended. He emphasized how restorative justice becomes increasingly effective in a community school setting, because it similarly seeks to build community and provide individualized circles of support.

Restorative justice is an inclusive process, and that’s core to our community schools model. We seek to build community, and all the elements of a community school are working together to create the conditions so students are empowered to grow and thrive.

Community schools across the nation are responding to the White House’s powerful call to action: focus on the needs of young people, and ensure all youth -- regardless of who they are or where they come from -- have the opportunities and supports they need to grow and thrive. The link between My Brother’s Keeper and community schools reminds us that one program alone is not effective enough to meet all the needs of young people of color. Interconnected problems need interconnected solutions.

To view and listen to the entire “My Brother’s Keeper and Community Schools” webinar, click here.


This blog is written in coordination with the Coalition’s four-part Equity Webinar series, organized by Perpetual Baffour, National Policy Emerson Fellow. 

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