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Community Schools and Common Core

Community Schools & the Common Core

Written by: Anne O’Brien, Deputy Director, Learning First Alliance

If you’re active in the community school world (or in the education world in general) you probably know about the Common Core State Standards, which raise expectations for what all students should know and be able to do when they graduate high school. The goal: prepare each child – regardless of what zip code he or she lives in – for success in college or career.

You also likely know that the standards have been (and in some cases, currently are) the subject of extreme controversy in many places. That controversy has developed for a number of reasons, many of which are political, and many of which can be tied to poor communications about the standards (whether it be about their formation, development, implementation, assessment or all of the above).

But there are also places across the country where educators and communities are working together to successfully implement the standards. For over a year, we at the Learning First Alliance have been speaking to individuals – PTA leaders, teachers, superintendents, state leaders, principals and others – who are leading those efforts. And from those conversations, we have gleaned three valuable lessons on what it takes for Common Core implementation to succeed:

  • The need to engage a broad community—including teachers, parents, school boards and community leaders—from the start of implementation
  • The importance of separating the standards from the assessments, helping all stakeholders understand what they mean and how they apply to the classroom
  • The imperative of taking the time to get it right, realizing implementation is a multi-year process that requires real attention to instructional materials, lessons, high-quality professional development and community engagement.

These lessons are critical. But these three factors alone don’t guarantee success.

As Lisa Delpit, scholar and author of Other People’s Children and Multiplication Is for White People, reminded us at a recent event sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers, academic rigor alone will not raise outcomes for students. To realize the potential of the Common Core, particularly among the disadvantaged youth who already lag behind their peers, we must offer additional academic and social supports.

So when you consider what is really necessary for Common Core to succeed, it’s obvious that community schools can play a big role in supporting implementation.

Communication

Consider, for example, communication. Community schools break down the walls that often separate the schoolhouse from the community. When those who work at community schools – be they teachers, community schools coordinators, or others – can explain to their partners in the community what the school is doing with Common Core and how it is benefiting students, misinformation (widespread in many of the areas facing challenges to the standards) doesn’t have a chance to take hold.

Of course, community schools aren’t the only ones that have established robust communications and partnerships with their community (for an example of how such communication works on a district level, listen to a recent podcast from Joplin Schools Superintendent C.J. Huff). But as those who work in community schools know, building community relationships takes hard work and time. Given that these schools have already done that work, it makes sense that they leverage it as they implement the Common Core.

Expanded Academic Supports

Community schools also offer unique opportunities to provide additional academic support for the standards. Consider that many offer after-school or other expanded learning opportunities. By aligning these programs with the Common Core, community schools can increase the likelihood that students will succeed.

One example of how this can look: The Illinois Federation for Community Schools (which works closely with more than one hundred community schools in Chicago and has helped start community schools across the state) has offered Common Core training to community school coordinators and partners. This training includes information on what’s different about the Common Core and how partners can help schools thrive under the standards, including how ELO programs can reinforce classroom learning, how to work with teachers to align activities and how to communicate with parents about the standards.

Getting Students Ready to Learn

Community schools can also provide critical support in addressing concerns raised by Maurice Elias in the November 2014 issue of Kappan magazine. As he pointed out, "The changes called for by the Common Core require emotion recognition and management….They also require self-regulation to sustain long periods of focused concentration and to allow for reflection; problem solving to figure out the meaning of text, reconciling differing points of view, and planning and carrying out various assignments. In addition, children must learn empathy and to take others’ perspectives, including authors and their characters."

These are skills that community schools are particularly well-positioned to help students develop. Think again about Baltimore’s Ben Franklin, which has worked hard to create a welcoming environment in which students feel cared for and connected. It has also set up a strong mental health support system and offers a number of other services to address some of the underlying issues that can hinder student learning under the Common Core (or any other standards). They have partnered with United Way on a family stability program to prevent families from becoming homeless. They are licensing a childcare facility to serve teen parents, addressing one of their leading causes of chronic absenteeism and providing interventions for both teen parents and their children. They’ve partnered with more than 75 government, social and private sector organizations to expose students to real world experiences, including internships and job shadowing.  And they’ve supported a long-term youth empowerment opportunity in which students have organized and led a community effort to protest plans to build an incinerator in the neighborhood.  

The Bottom Line

As schools and communities across the country consider how best to move forward with Common Core implementation, we need to rededicate ourselves to advocating for community schools. We should take advantage of the opportunity that the standards present to highlight the critical role that these schools play in supporting student success.

Thanks to Dante de Tablan, Executive Director of the Ben Franklin Center for Community Schools, for sharing important information about Ben Franklin’s programming. 

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