Columnist: Community Schools: America’s New Village

February 27, 2012

by Neal Peirce

"It takes a village to raise a child." 

The African proverb, made popular in a book that Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in the 1990s, is being reflected in America's growing community schools movement.

The needs have seldom been greater. Two-parent homes are becoming rarer. The recession is exacerbating joblessness, increasing family tensions. An alarming 22 percent of American children now live in poverty, with many more in families hovering near the line.

The community school message is straightforward. It is that quality classroom instruction is insufficient - that children often require other services and expanded opportunities, ranging from basic nutrition (meals at school) to sports, from arts to an encouraging hand with their homework. And that, in targeted cases, mental health and family crisis assistance may be all-important if a child is to have a chance to succeed both academically and socially. To create, in short, conditions in which teachers can teach and students can learn.

Martin J. Blank, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, has been a lead community schools advocate for years and now also directs the Coalition for Community Schools. While there are several thousand such schools around the nation, he insists there is still a major need to expand, deepen and sustain a scaled-up system of community schools.

There's no doubt that the old order - fenced-off schools that open at 8 a.m. and shutter at 3 p.m., school administrators claiming a monopoly on educational wisdom - is breaking down. School superintendents are recognizing that there is no way they can raise grades and graduation rates unless they recognize and deal with the huge gaps in incomes and cultures, tapping resources of organizations outside the schools.

A top recent example: research showing that chronic truancy on the part of junior or senior high school children - too often a precursor of dropping out - actually starts when children are small, not brought to school regularly as first- and second-graders. This means any school that wants to improve graduation rates has to find ways to work with family, health and child welfare agencies on the early prevention side.

Community schools are clearly less needed in places where parents are comfortable economically. Without prompting, they work with the schools to create positive conditions and search out other activities for their children.

But it's far different in economically imperiled areas with the most vulnerable children. This is where community schools are most needed - to provide an array of crucial support services to boost children's chances of succeeding academically, graduating and becoming in time productive workers, parents and citizens.

In Tulsa, Okla., for example, the Metropolitan Human Services Commission council, two school districts, the city government, the local United Way and even the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce have collaborated to develop a range of community school initiatives. Health education, mental health, social services and youth development projects are all made available through partnerships that converge at the school.

In Portland/Multnomah County, Ore., widening achievement gaps between schools, shrinking budgets and growing language gaps among students led leaders to found Schools United Neighborhoods - SUN - in 1999. An explicit, results-based set of goals have been adopted: improve student behavior and attendance, involve parents, engage surrounding neighborhoods. From eight schools in 1999, SUN has expanded to services in 60. Its goal is to extend its reach to every school - over 150 - making SUN the nation's first all-county community schools initiative.

Colleges and universities are becoming important players. The University of Oklahoma-Tulsa is operating school health clinics. In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania is making internships available to students in neighborhood schools. The idea is to take any problem in a neighborhood or its schools - health, language and cultural differences, for example - and not just analyze an issue, but work on location to try solutions. "College students aren't just out there to do a little tutoring or mentoring," notes Blank. "They're woven into the fabric of the teaching and learning going on in the school."

After-school programs are a linchpin of community school efforts. In many, the public health challenge of obesity is addressed by such programs as community gardens where kids learn to plant and grow, and to understand what healthy nutrition is all about. In high schools, the emphasis is on apprenticeships and learning focused on community health, violence and environmental problems.

"There's no social or political divide" in the community school movement, says Blank. "I can cite major programs east to west, north to south, from Evansville, Ind., to Lincoln, Neb., Portland to Oakland and San Francisco - this is not a red or blue thing; it's a community thing."

To which he adds, surprisingly: "At a time of greater fiscal crunch, we have not seen this work slow down. Schools are tapping new community resources. We're seeing a real difference in children's lives. People are wanting to do more."

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

© 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.