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A Positive Vision of Schools Emerges

Community schools can provide urban students with the resources they need

Aug. 20, 2014
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Seeking to change the conversation from one driven by high-stakes testing and privatization, a group of educators, parents and their allies came together last Thursday to learn more about community schools, an increasingly popular educational model that views schools as hubs that link students and their families to needed resources and services.

Community schools are popping up throughout the country, with significant support in Oakland, Cincinnati and New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed $52 million to create 100 of them in high-need neighborhoods by 2018. Even the federal government has provided funds to help develop community schools. The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is transitioning 14 of its schools into what it calls “commitment schools,” some of which may become community schools.

The community school model includes one staff member serving as the coordinator who identifies the needs of and resources within the community and then works to address them with community partners, educators and school leaders. That can include offering sustained mentoring, field trips, health care, mental health support, adult education, access to computers and more, according to Reuben Jacobson of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Community Schools, who headlined the forum held at Wisconsin Jobs Now’s Milwaukee headquarters.

“Community schools see the school as one of the last great public institutions that everybody is coming to—students, families, neighbors,” Jacobson told the Shepherd before the forum. “Why can’t those existing resources be located within the school? When you do that you have a strong school and then a strong neighborhood.”

They’re most often developed in urban public or charter schools, but can be created in any school, Jacobson said. The major national teachers unions support them, since they allow educators to focus on teaching while other professionals and partners address the issues that children bring into the classroom, such as poverty, hunger and rootlessness. Jacobson noted that two-thirds of the achievement gap can be attributed to nonacademic factors such as poverty.

Jacobson said he’s had contact with MPS as well as the state Department of Public Instruction, which was very interested in the concept, he said.

“I know that Milwaukee is a very difficult place to have education reform,” said Jacobson, who grew up in the city. “Lots of things have been tried. There’s a history of distrust. There’s a big market competition for students and I think that people are feeling sick of being part of an experiment and not having consistency or stability in their communities and not having as strong schools as they could. I’m hoping that the conversation can change because this isn’t about private, public, charter. It’s about good schools in our communities for our students.”


COA and Auer Avenue School Team Up

One example of an emerging community school in Milwaukee is MPS’s Auer Avenue School’s partnership with the Children’s Outing Society (COA) Youth and Family Centers, forming a three-block campus in the Amani-Franklin Heights neighborhood.

Ingrid Walker-Henry, an instructional coach at Auer Avenue School, said the school’s new focus helps address the family and environmental issues that kids bring into the classroom, such as poverty, high mobility, hunger and the psychological effects of witnessing violence. She said a traditional school doesn’t directly address those needs within the classroom.

“We’re so worried about the test scores, but we’re not worried about the kids,” Walker-Henry said.

Tom Schneider, COA’s executive director, told the group last Thursday that the neighborhood has deep needs—poverty and few jobs; a lack of resources, including medical care and quality child care; and violence—that the COA-Auer Avenue School partnership is addressing.

“We began looking at the needs not just of the children in our after-school program, but the needs of the neighborhood, because that’s the environment that wraps around the children who are coming into our center and the school,” Schneider said.

One critical deficit was the lack of accessible health care, prenatal or maternal care within 30 blocks of the campus, so COA partnered with Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and the Marquette University College of Nursing and last October launched a pediatric and family clinic within COA’s Goldin Center.

With money from the Doris Duke Foundation, COA created a new family resource center similar to the one it operates at its Riverwest location.

COA also supports a health navigator, publishes a neighborhood newsletter and with $2 million from the Burke Family Foundation it will launch an early childhood center to address the lack of quality child care in the neighborhood.

Groundbreaking at a revitalized park nearby, where Moody Pool had been shuttered, will happen next week. The park will feature a splash pad, a 15,000-square foot community building, sports field, community gardens, and a pavilion area, Schneider said.

Schneider said the flurry of activity has sparked the involvement of residents, including a new neighborhood association.

“Residents are taking control of their neighborhood, their lives,” Schneider said.


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