Using their ingenuity and creativity during these tough fiscal times, educators across California are finding new ways to improve educational outcomes for all students. School district leaders are embracing a strategy that blends a focus on instruction with a partnership approach that engages the entire community in creating the opportunities and support that students need to be ready for college, career, and citizenship.
Leaders in many different institutions – school districts, cities and counties, United Ways, higher education, community and faith-based organizations, and business and civic groups – are working together to make this happen. They have a vision of schools as centers of community, what many now call community schools.
These leaders want to ensure that every young person in California has more learning opportunities, more support, and more connections. They know that poverty, health, family issues, and other non-school factors cannot be ignored for our children and our state to thrive. Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, said, “It is encouraging that local schools in California recognize the potential of community schools, and are winning competitive national funds to explore ways of implementing new approaches.”
Oakland, San Francisco, Lake County, and Redwood City, among others, have district-wide strategies to grow community schools. Parts of Los Angeles and Fresno, as well as smaller districts, are moving in this direction. The California School Boards Association has issued a policy brief about community schools.
At the heart of community schools work is a willingness on the part of local stakeholders to rethink how they can use existing resources more effectively and efficiently. Whether the dollars come from federal, state, or local sources; are intended to serve children, youth, or families; or are focused on health or mental health, after-school enrichment, mentoring, family engagement, or any other particular service, they are all being aligned through partnership to achieve a set of results of concern to all: more readiness for school, higher achievement, better attendance, enhanced social and emotional development, reduced violence, and deeper civic engagement.
Using this local partnership strategy, California has recently captured competitive federal grant funds. California won a $52 million Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant and will direct the majority of these funds to regional consortia that bring together all the local entities in a given area that provide early education and care to young children.
California communities have also won federal funding from the Obama administration’s high-profile Promise Neighborhood Grant competition. The Promise Neighborhood program recognizes the interconnected nature of the academic, social, emotional, physical, and civic development of young people in the communities in which they live, and utilizes community-based organizations or higher education institutions to engage schools and numerous other community partners.
In 2011, five out of 20 Promise Neighborhood Grantees were California-based, each using a. community school approach. The California State University East Bay Foundation, Inc., for example, won a Promise Neighborhood planning grant in 2010, and captured an implementation grant in 2011. Its application says, “The key and organizing element of our continuum of solutions is transforming the Jackson Triangle schools into Full Service Community Schools to ensure that students have both the academic rigor and the holistic support services necessary to combat the adverse impact of poverty, unsafe streets, and lack of access to health, nutrition, and youth development assets.”
Finally, California-based organizations received five of 21 federal Full Service Community School grants, which they are using to grow the community school strategy.
The community school strategy can be a key element of California’s education reforms. In his Blueprint for Great Schools, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson calls for addressing both academic and non-academic factors to enhance students’ academic achievement and personal development and to encourage the development of community school approaches. Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing far greater flexibility and decision-making at the local level, an approach that will facilitate locally driven efforts like community schools.
California school reform efforts focused on school-community connections reflect a larger community school reform strategy growing around the country. This development demonstrates a recognition by school and community leaders that every individual and organization in every community has a role to play in the education of our children.
Martin J. Blank is the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, D.C. He leads the Institute’s efforts to build the capacity of people, organizations, and communities to work together to attain better results for children and youth. He also serves as the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, which is staffed by the Institute. The Coalition brings together leaders and organizations in education, human services, youth development, early childhood, community development, government, and philanthropy to advocate for community schools. To learn more about community schools, attend the Coalition for Community Schools National Forum in San Francisco, May 9-12, 2012.