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Jack Ross writes in California-based Capital & Main about the role of Los Angeles in developing community schools, a model that has been successful in New York City and that involves democratic cooperation among parents, teachers, students, and staff.
In the winter of 2019, two oddities swept Los Angeles: rain and a teachers’ strike. When the storm cleared, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) announced a contract that capped class sizes, raised teaching salaries and dedicated funding for school staff including librarians, nurses and psychiatric social workers.
One aspect of the agreement received less attention: funding for 30 LAUSD schools to become community schools. Community schools support students and families beyond the school day by providing social services and boosting curricula with arts and academic programs.
“This approach evolves the school site into a hub for the community where families access health, socio-emotional, mental health and enrichment support for students during and following normal school hours,” LAUSD explains on its website. The idea is to bring schools into communities and communities into schools by charging a team of parents, faculty and community members with establishing local programs and resources on campus for students while also providing services from the school site for community members, like immigration counseling or fresh fruit on Sundays.
The concept of a school as a community hub goes back at least to early 20th century education theorist John Dewey, and has been revitalized with new research. A study conducted by the Rand Corporation of community schools in New York City found positive impacts on math achievement, credit accumulation, student attendance and on-time grade progression. Disciplinary incidents, meanwhile, went down. (Curiously, the study found no impact on school climate and culture.)
The model is gaining traction nationwide. This summer, UTLA’s foothold became windfall at the state level when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a budget designating $2.8 billion for community schools in California, an investment more than six times larger than the $442 million proposed by President Biden just weeks before. Previously the federal government had invested just $30 million in community schools; Biden’s plan would have increased funding by more than 14 times. The National Education Association is also giving $3 million annually in $75,000 grants to districts investing in community schools.
Last year the NEA founded a Community Schools Institute to support district and union locals transitioning to the model, with 39 states and a $10 million investment to “lead the way and provide a roadmap to the future of public education.” Under direction of the institute, the California Teachers Association (CTA) is organizing teachers’ unions across the state to demand community school transitions in their districts, according to CTA Vice President David Goldberg. (Disclosure: The NEA and CTA are financial supporters of this website.)
The CTA is also taking pains to establish what exactly defines a community school. By including those requirements in future contracts, the CTA hopes to ensure the schools are genuinely community run by coalitions of parents, teachers and staff, different than what came before and long lasting. A school merely offering social services after the final bell, he says, but not run by a community coalition should not necessarily qualify.
“We’re trying to build a model around democratic unionism, and democratic running of schools, and real deep coalition work with parents and students that is actually capable of fighting for ongoing funding,” says Goldberg. “There’s a tension in the state where they want to do this quickly: What can we pull off the shelf and use? That’s not how you transform public education.”
The article goes on to describe how the pandemic disrupted planning for expansion of community schools. Some have managed to get their planning underway, others have not.
But it is a hopeful sign for the future, because parents who are invested in their school and their community, who know that their voices matter, are unlikely to be lured away by glowing but false promises made by privatizers.