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The Temperature in California? Community Schools Are Hot!

03/27/12

California is a complex, highly-varied collection of more than 1,000 school districts, each with its own set of unique challenges. A handful of these districts are turning to the community schools strategy to help meet its specific needs. Emerging from these nodes of activity is a statewide push for community schools.

Hundreds of schools in California have essentially implemented components of community schools for nearly 20 years. Since its inception in 1991, the state’s Healthy Start Initiative has incentivized schools to coordinate supports for students and their families. Healthy Start helped lay the foundation for the present community school movement in California. The state’s investment in afterschool programs through Proposition 49 represented yet another building block toward community schools.
 
Community schools have built off this strong foundation into a more comprehensive strategy for maximizing learning and development for all students. Oakland, San Francisco (the site of the 2012 Community Schools National Forum), and Los Angeles are poised to scale up its community school initiatives. So are a host of other smaller districts such as Konocti, Redwood City, and Ontario-Montclair.
 
A Sampling of California Community School Initiatives

Oakland Unified School District is preparing to take its community school initiative district-wide. Oakland is joining other school systems that are developing plans to make all its schools community schools (Read a case study on Oakland’s strategic plan). 
 
Both the Redwood City 2020 and Berkley 2020 initiatives are being guided by partnerships between municipal government, school, and private foundations, and others. Redwood City’s initiative and its partnership with the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University was the subject of a recent Center for American Progress report, which showed that its community schools had a positive impact on student participation, attendance, attitudes about school, and supports for English-language learners.
 
The L.A. Education Partnership, a federal Full-Service Community School grantee, has worked to develop, establish, and support community school partnerships with a half-dozen neighborhoods schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). LAUSD is also moving forward with plans to create teacher-led schools as it seeks better engagement with communities and families.
 
Konocti Unified School District 30 miles north of Napa Valley in Lake County recently reconfigured its structure to create four K-8th grade "neighborhood" schools that serves as a hub of activity for their communities by providing "education, drama and music performances, art exhibits, athletic facilities and events, nutrition, and social/family activities."  
 
It’s hard to say just how many community schools are currently operating in California. So many of the schools supported by the Healthy Start grant incorporate the core elements found in community schools, albeit under a different name. At one point, there were nearly 800 Healthy Start schools in the state. Many other schools in California today have community health centers (there are an estimated 200 schools with health centers in California), robust afterschool programs, and other community partnerships that support children and families – all elements of community schools.   
 
However, changing standards for schools, demographic shifts, and a staggering budget crisis are other factors contributing to a more intentional focus on community schools as part of the vision for reform in California, according to Renee Newton, Director of the Center for Community School Partnerships at the University of California – Davis. The Healthy Start program is seemingly the seed for present community schools work in California.
 
School and Community Leadership Drives Collaborative Vision

Leaders for community schools come from a wide range of institutions including districts, United Ways, higher education, and non-profit organizations.
 
On the school-level, superintendents like Tony Smith of the Oakland Unified School District have had the vision and resolve to plan for community schools district-wide. The shared leadership and accountability principles of community schools allows once-alienated residents to feel like they have stake in the direction of their neighborhood school and the entire system.
 
New school leaders are now emerging. Ellen Pais, a community school champion, was recently promoted to lead the influential Los Angeles Education Partnership. Richard Carranza was recently named to succeed his boss Carlos Garcia as the new superintendent for the San Francisco Unified School District. Carranza has indicated he intends to create an executive-level community schools director.
 
At the heart of community schools work, regardless of funding source, is a willingness on the part of local stakeholders to rethink how they use existing resources. No matter where the the dollars come from, whether through federal, state or local sources,  whether focused on children, youth or families, or whether focused on health or mental health, after school enrichment, mentoring, family engagement or any other particular service, these dollars are all being aligned through partnership to achieve more readiness for school, higher achievement, better attendance, enhanced social and emotional development, reduced violence, and deeper civic engagement - and more importantly - more high school graduates who are college and career ready.
 
The California Schools Boards Association issued a policy brief on community schools earlier this year. They are also sponsoring an online forum on California community schools for school and community leaders to collaborate as they create community schools. The Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) also published an article on the statewide community school movement earlier this year in its Leadership Magazine.
 
The state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson Blueprint for Great Schoolsurges jurisdictions to build partnerships to address academic and social factors to enhance students’ learning and personal development by seeking to "encourage the development of community school approaches and provide technical assistance through existing CDE staff and structures."
 
A group of 18 California policy makers including Torlakson participated in the Children’s Aid Society practicum last fall as well where they discussed a statewide community school strategy. The Partnership for Children and Youth organized this important visit. 
 
Leveraging Federal Support amid an Economic Crunch

California communities have also won federal funding from the Obama administration’s high-profile Promise Neighborhood Grant  program and the Full Service Community Schools program.  
 
The Promise Neighborhood program recognizes the interconnected nature of the academic, social, emotional, physical, and civic development of young people in the communities in which they live, and utilizes community-based organizations or higher education institutions to engage schools and numerous other community partners.
 
Five out of 20 Promise Neighborhood Grantees were California-based in the most recent round of grants, each using a community school approach. The California State University East Bay Foundation, Inc., for example, won a Promise Neighborhood planning grant in 2010, and captured an implementation grant in 2011. Its application says, "The key and organizing element of our continuum of solutions is transforming the Jackson Triangle schools into Full Service Community Schools to ensure that students have both the academic rigor and the holistic support services necessary to combat the adverse impact of poverty, unsafe streets, and lack of access to health, nutrition, and youth development assets."
 
California-based organizations also received five of 21 federal Full Service Community School grants, which they are using to grow the community school strategy.
 
The stage is set for creating more and more effective community schools across California. And this is precisely what the National Forum aims to do when it convenes in San Francisco in May. Join education leaders from around the country to learn the many different ways to implement and scale up these partnerships and initiatives.

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