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PORTLAND/MULTNOMAH COUNTY, OREGON

Part Four: Case Studies of Scaling Up Community School Initiatives

PORTLAND/MULTNOMAH COUNTY, OREGON: More Than a Promise—Where Learning Happens


Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) represents one of the nation’s most powerful visions of a community schools system. Built by county and city leaders in partnership with six school superintendents, SUN has grown from 8 schools in 1999 to 60 schools in 2011, with an emerging plan to make every school in Multnomah County, Oregon, a SUN Community School.

In 1998, Multnomah County knew that it was facing an uphill battle against shrinking budgets, increased demand for services amid growing cultural and linguistic diversity, a widening achievement gap, and no clear sense of where and how resources supporting school-age youth and families were used. At the same time, leaders from both the city of Portland and Multnomah County recognized that responses to local conditions were emerging from several fronts: a county Community Building Initiative, a city After-School Cabinet, and school-based grass-roots efforts that forged partnerships with community organizations to meet students’ needs. City and county leaders merged these various efforts and led a joint planning process to design a model to meet the community’s needs. Although family-oriented services were already available in the community, leaders realized that increased access to services through school-based centers would enhance service availability while providing a valuable platform for community engagement. Visibly co-locating services in schools would counteract the isolation of schools and help voters, the majority of whom did not have children in public school, appreciate the centrality of schools and their importance to the entire community. Leaders acknowledged:

We had several motivations for going this route. We wanted to meet families where they are—in the neighborhood—and provide services in a place that was familiar and non-stigmatizing—the neighborhood school. We knew that school personnel were likely to be able to identify students who could use extra support before these students were in crisis, so that resources could be spent on enrichment and prevention.
 
Drawing on national research and the opportunity to visit the Children’s Aid Society, a large service provider in New York City with over 20 years’ experience in implementing and supporting community schools initiatives, city and county leaders chose the full-service community schools model as the vehicle for partners to achieve their shared vision and individual missions. The partners’ vision for community schools was broad: comprehensive services to increase educational success and self-sufficiency for children, families, and community members provided through a system of community schools.

From their joint planning effort, leaders created the SUN Community Schools Initiative, with youth suggesting the name SUN. The initiative launched eight community schools in 1999, funded by the city and county. The initiative’s pivotal decision to fund non-profit partners as the lead agency responsible for organizing community schools in part reflected the fact that the county historically did not fund school systems. This decision has proven prescient as non-profit partners have generated additional resources to support SUN Community Schools.

At the leadership level, the Community Building Initiative Sponsor Group evolved into the SUN Sponsor Group, incorporating members of the After-School Cabinet to form the initiative’s governing body. The Sponsor Group comprises leaders from the city of Portland, Multnomah County, the city of Gresham, six school districts, the state of Oregon, businesses, and community organizations.

Local leaders, such as Lolenzo Poe, the then-director of the Multnomah County Department of Community and Family Services, also knew that the initiative "needed to do more than promise to do good and avoid evil." Thus, the Sponsor Group agreed on a results-based vision that called for improved attendance, behavior, parent involvement, and achievement. Later, as the initiative evolved, the Sponsor Group developed outcome targets to help gauge success and ensure accountability.

The Sponsor Group selected the county as the initiative’s intermediary, or managing, partner, taking advantage of its capacity to convene partners, manage contracts and other administrative issues, and link to county-funded services, including anti-poverty, health, mental health, library, and juvenile justice services. In its first year as intermediary, the county convened separate monthly meetings of school principals, site managers (the term for local site-based community school coordinators), and lead agency supervisors (responsible for overseeing site managers) to provide technical assistance, encourage peer networking, and gather input on effective practices. In addition, joint meetings of these stakeholders from the eight initial sites took place several times a year. Over the last 12 years, the county has expanded the technical assistance and program development structures and resources available to stakeholders and has added a table for district liaisons from each of the six school districts to address systemic operational issues.

SUN Community Schools expanded rapidly as it gained visibility. It received significant financial support when it was added as a line item to the 2000 city and county budgets. Between 2000 and 2002, SUN relied on 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants, Safe Schools grants, and the restructuring of an existing high school family resource center to add new community schools. By 2003, SUN had more than doubled in size and grown to 19 schools across five districts serving 9,721 children and 44,000 other people. When voters passed the Portland Children’s Levy in 2002, SUN added 4 sites during the 2003–2004 school year.

In 2004, SUN Community Schools grew significantly as a result of policy and system alignment efforts on the part of Multnomah County in partnership with the city of Portland. The county adopted a School-Age Policy Framework in 2003 that created a system for the delivery of social and support services that lead to educational success and self-sufficiency for children, families, and community members. The system, which is now known as the SUN Service System, built on SUN Community Schools and identified community schools as its cornerstone strategy. In implementing the system, the county redirected funds to increase the number of SUN Community School sites, and the city of Portland aligned 13 existing Parks and Recreation community schools that were not previously SUN Community Schools with the SUN model, resulting in 46 total sites.

The value of community schools and their effectiveness in engaging community became evident when county funding for SUN was threatened in 2006. Over 500 parents, students, and community members attended a county budget hearing to testify on behalf of SUN Community Schools and to sustain the community schools strategy. The community won. SUN Community Schools continued to receive funding, and a new governance body for the initiative was formed—the SUN Service System Coordinating Council.

The council includes representatives from SUN partner organizations, including the director of the Multnomah County Department of Human Services, high-level school district administrators, the director of the Portland Children’s Levy, the director of Portland Parks and Recreation, and members of the Coalition of Communities of Color, community partners, and others.

From 2005 to 2010, more champions rose to support SUN Community Schools as school districts and public leaders identified the community schools initiative as a main strategy for achieving their respective core missions. The collaboration secured grants from federal and local sources and identified educational funding to increase the number of sites. As intermediary, the county supported the development and strengthening of collaborative leadership and its commitment to collective impact by, for example, staffing the SUN Service System Coordinating Council. The county also ensured communication across and between all levels of the initiative, convened partners, coordinated strategic planning, conducted an evaluation and specified accountability measures, provided technical assistance and training, and managed program development—all of which are critical to the ongoing collaboration.
By the start of the 2010-2011 school year, SUN Community Schools counted 60 schools and served close to 20,000 children and adults. Its scaled-up success is visible and sustained. Despite leadership transitions, the initiative has grown because of its broad political support. Since SUN’s creation, the system has seen the arrival of four county commissioners representing both political parties, along with the arrival of three mayors. SUN has critical financial and political support. According to Lolenzo Poe:

It has become a model that in the city of Portland and in Multnomah County, you cannot run for public office unless you embrace SUN as a model. You cannot run for school board unless you clearly articulate your support of SUN as a model and how it in fact supports the academic achievement of students. When you run for office, I can guarantee you that there's a number of organizations that ask every candidate the same series of questions, and it all centers around that.
 
This support will help ensure SUN’s impact well into the future. SUN is planning to scale up into every school in Multnomah County—over 150 schools—permitting it to extend its reach to the entire county and making it the nation’s first all-county community schools initiative.


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