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2015 Award for Excellence Lessons

Different Stories, Same Important Lessons – This Year’s Award for Excellence Winners

Poverty and family stress are thwarting student success.  That’s what the 2015 State Teachers of the Year said in a recent survey by the Council of Chief State School Officers.  Not surprisingly our teachers are right according to recent research dony by MIT economist Esther Duflo – "poverty causes stress and depression and lack of hope, and stress and depression and lack of hope in turn cause poverty." 

These problems are reinforced by Robert Putnam’s conclusion in his new book, Our Kids, The American Dream in Crisis, that our lower-income youth no longer trust anyone to be there for them. 

So how does our society respond to the voices of our teachers and the desires and needs of our students?  And how do we do it in a way that recognizes the assets young people have to offer and builds their agency and their hope to take on the challenges they face every day.  That is the work of community schools.  Schools that bring together families and community partners to get young people the opportunities and the support that they need.

This year’s Community School Award for Excellence Winners represent the best of what community schools have to offer.  The awardees serve over 33,000 students – from coast to coast – representing every race, dozens of languages, and predominantly low socio-economic groups.  They each operate in unique circumstances, in red and blue states, in cities and suburbs, in all different levels and types of schools. 

Still the seven awardees this year have a few very special things in common. Organized as community schools and community school initiatives that seek to grow community schools across their districts, this year’s winners from Baltimore, Chicago, LA, and Salt Lake have all committed to ensuring every child has every chance to succeed by recognizing that schools can’t address all of these factors – poverty, homelessness, hunger – alone, and that it does indeed take a community to raise a child.

Dozens, in fact almost 100 communities across the country, have committed to this strategy. What makes these awards winners rise above? Six components stand out that others should take note of:

1.     They are organized for success. From "grassroots" to "grasstops," these communities and schools have bought in and all hands are on deck to ensure positive outcomes. And they haven’t just bought in, they’ve thought about how to organize themselves to make things happen. For the Family League of Baltimore, this meant aligning their afterschool system with their community school vision. It meant getting folks at the same table city-wide and having hard conversations about how to deploy resources. For Ben Franklin High School, this meant creating a new school leadership committee with the principal, coordinator, partners, staff, parents, community members, and students. All have been intentional on making sure all voices are part of the conversation.

2.     They have strong leadership. Everyone is in the mix, but there are key personnel who guide the vision. When the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in LA was organized by teacher leaders, they set a vision for a community school and sought colleagues who shared those ideals. Bill Crim, at the United Way of Salt Lake, sees community schools as the on the ground vehicle to implement their Promise Neighborhoods and collective impact strategy. Crim continues to engage new partners and grow community schools across suburban Salt Lake districts. 

3.     They understand engaging families is essential.  These community schools value family input and understand that families are integral to their success – so they foster parent leaders. John Hancock Preparatory High School has five focus areas, among them, family engagement. They do this through a multitude of ways, but mainly through their Parent University where family family members are taught how to advocate for their students. This program also creates opportunities for parents that have "graduated" to serve in leadership roles.  Wolfe Street Academy, attributes its lower mobility rates (46.6% in 2006 to 8.8% today) to their supportive community. Parents are integral to the school’s "School-Family Council" that strengthens the connections between the work of the partners and the classroom and this is just one space that gives them a voice.

4.     They are responsive to community needs. They do not tell the community what needs to change, they ask the community and respond together with it.  Last month, the civil disturbances disrupted Baltimore, and the Historic Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School lay near their epicenter. In response the coordinator and principal brought together partners to provide mental health support for students during the school day. They also worked with the University of Maryland School of Social Work, Promise Heights staff, and other community partners to host food drop offs, provide prescription assistance, and connect to legal support. They, like the other community schools in Baltimore, were well attuned to the neighborhoods, and had partners in place to make sure that students and families had what they needed.

5.     They are part of the community and learn in it. From real world learning with partners in the field to volunteering in their communities, students and staff alike are active members in their community. Ben Franklin had a challenge when a waste incinerator was scheduled to be built down the road from their campus.  Students rallied with support from teachers and United Workers, an anti-poverty grassroots organization, and were able to stop its creation. They then tied this lesson back to the classroom and created presentations and new curriculum ideas. At Hancock, they partner with BuildOn that helps create service-learning opportunities for students and works with a teacher liaison to connect those projects to the curriculum and the Common Core standards. Service learning isn’t just about fulfilling a certain number of hours, at Hancock the emphasis is on student leadership and voice as part of the culture of the school.

6.     And because of what they do, these schools have powerful results. In all of these schools, students are showing up to class. At John Hancock school attendance increased from 78% to 90% from 2010 to 2014 and at Wolfe Street average daily attendance is 96%. And time in class is paying off. Wolfe Street Academy went from the 77th to the 2nd highest performing elementary school in Baltimore. Ben Franklin has moved from one of Baltimore’s lowest performing high schools to one of Baltimore’s top choice high schools. In Salt Lake, 3rd grade reading proficiency scores rose 15.5% from 2013-2014. At Humanitas for the first time, 75% of its students are passing all college prerequisite classes. This means students are prepared and graduating. At Hancock the graduation rates have risen over 20% and at Humanitas, graduation rates have increased from 83% to 93.9% in the last year.

While these places are exemplars of the work community schools can do, they demonstrate what is possible with a thoughtful plan, strong leaders, a focus on family engagement, embedding themselves into the community, and taking part in it. They see results in communities that others make excuses for and highlight the importance of working together. These are schools and communities where teachers don’t need to tackle their self-described number one problem alone, they have the support they need to help mitigate poverty and family stress and the proof is in this year’s winner’s success.

Once again congratulations the 2015 Community School Awards for Excellence Winners!

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