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Equity and Community Schools: Working for Students during Crisis

Equity and Community Schools: Working for Students during Crisis


            As students, principals and teachers, as well as community partners prepare for this upcoming school year, the tension in our country regarding race relations and policing is an unavoidable subject. Many marginalized students, and even those who are not, have been greatly affected by what they’ve seen and heard. At the Coalition, we have heard the requests from our partners who are seeking much needed support for their students. We have reached out to several local communities to see how they are addressing these issues, and have compiled stories of their work to share with you. We will soon post expanded stories on our website.


Children’s Aid Society: New York, New York


Equity is an essential element of everything Children’s Aid Society community schools do. At the Salomé Ureña de Henriquèz Campus In Washington Heights, the staff and faculty have worked tirelessly to address and embed societal issues into their curriculum to ensure students are knowledgeable of the world they live in, and how they can change it.


The theme for this year’s summer learning program was social justice. Students researched and made presentations on a variety of social justice topics such as: police brutality, self-image, bullying, immigration, and college for all.  "It is important to bring awareness and advocate for things that the students are passionate about – from school lunch to police brutality, we allowed students to express these interests and their emotions around them," stated Migdalia Cortes Torres, Community School Director.


One of the most powerful projects for this coming school year is ensuring that all students are informed about their voting rights. The goal is to teach students the importance of voting, who the candidates are, the value behind being able to exercise your right to speak, and the importance of this particular election. High schoolers will make presentations to middle school students, and will highlight struggles of minorities being granted their right to vote both historically and in present day. "The importance of making sure this election is known to our students isn’t lost to us, as Washington Heights has a population where 95% of the people are Latino, and 15% are immigrants," stated Migdalia. The campus will develop and initiate a mock-debate based on what the candidates are actually talking about, with representatives who will play the two candidates.


Oakland Unified School District- Oakland Community Schools & Student Services (CSSS): Oakland, California


"Oakland Unified, as a community schools district, has made equity a staple of everything it does for about five years, starting with our young men and boys of color initiative," stated Andrea Bustamante, Executive Director of Community Schools Student Services. That work is housed in Oakland’s office of African American Male Achievement, which works towards providing resources and learning opportunities for black male students.


Recently, the community schools district passed a new equity policy, which has expanded the work through a new office of equity. "This new office will be working from a system and supports level, and will be hiring for a new position, which will be working with young black women and girls in a similar manner as the office of African American Male Achievement," stated Andrea. "A lot of the work will be expanding population specific programing."  


One of Oakland’s most powerful strategies to address traumatic events happening in the community or nationally is Oakland’s restorative community circles, which help families and students address issues affecting them. "We held one of our restorative circles at a community school after the death of Philando Castille, a school nutrition services supervisor, in St. Paul, Minnesota and it greatly helped our students and families address the struggles and trauma they may be facing regarding the shooting," stated Andrea.


United Way of Asheville & Buncombe County: Asheville, North Carolina


Asheville and Buncombe County have a unique set of challenges and responsibilities as both urban and rural districts work together to put equity at the forefront of their work. As the events of summer unfolded, United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County (UWABC) reached out to their community with messages of support while also taking a critical look at internal organizational values and workplace functions. "We intentionally chose to start with an internal approach regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. To be successful, we need these to permeate everything we do," stated Laura Elliot, Middle Schools Success Director.


Equity and inclusion has been a critical focus of community leaders while building the community school impact framework. The framework tackles language barriers and other key community issues.  "One of our rural schools has both a large Latino population and a large Eastern European population. We are incorporating ways to reach out to and work with a diverse set of parents including our English language learners," said Laura Elliot. UWABC is working to increase parent engagement activities, such as homework diners, that will target minority students and their families. "Creating a sense of community between the school, families and their neighbors is a powerful strategy to support diversity, equity and inclusion," stated Laura.


Family League of Baltimore: Baltimore, Maryland

Baltimore City Public School System has a strong community school strategy managed by the Family League of Baltimore and being implemented just under a third of its schools. The 61 community schools not only have a substantive equity strategy, but have also dealt with unrest due to tension around the issues of race and policing.

Several community schools were in the heart of the turmoil last year after the death of Freddie Gray, and ensured students and families had a safe space during this period. "Many schools dismissed their students early, and we ensured our students got home safely. In addition, we offered much needed support when schools were closed during the unrest, making sure students were fed, and that we had collected donations for families in need," stated Rachel Donegan, Assistant Director of Promise Heights (a US Department of Education Promise Neighborhood in West Baltimore).

Throughout the unrest, schools also held community conversations at churches. "Throughout the year, we set out a cool out room for students and staff, staffed by our partners to help our community in case they were still overwhelmed," said Rachel Donegan. After the unrest captured the attention of national media, there was still a need for further support. "We had five students die in the neighborhood in subsequent months, so our focus shifted from the unrest to the community violence taking place in our neighborhoods," according to Rachel Donegan. "We now have crisis teams that support students, because we know that flooding schools with unknown adults will not work," stated Rachel Donegan. The crisis teams are on hand whenever there is a need due to community violence, or just to speak to students who may be dealing with individual trauma.

Read the story about one student in a community schools in West Baltimore here.



Stay tuned for more information and stories regarding equity from the coalition. To read more about equity and community schools, take a look at our page here

By Denzel Cummings

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