Community Schools: A Strategy for Addressing the Growing Opportunity Gap

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The National Center for Community Schools convened 200 national community school leaders in New York City during mid-October for  our tenth biennial Practicum, organized around the theme  “Community Schools in Action: Addressing the Opportunity Gap.”   This invitational conference sought to highlight the latest research from multiple disciplines about the growing opportunity gap between more and less affluent children, and to showcase ways that community school initiatives across the country are responding to these inequities through concerted interventions.

During the first two days, keynote speakers and plenary panelists laid out the “facts” behind the opportunity gap, examined key contributors and considered the role of community schools as an intentional strategy to address this growing divide.  On day three, we examined relevant policy and advocacy issues to help participants think about how to incorporate what they had learned at the conference into their practice back home—including their advocacy work. 

Dr. Robert Putnam, a professor of political science at Harvard Kennedy School who has been described as the most influential academic in the world today, set the stage during his opening keynote on October 16. Using as an example the collapse of the white working class family, he shared recent evidence painting a compelling picture of the crumbling American dream.   His message to the field was to get beyond talking about poverty and race as the root of the problem, and start thinking about social mobility and class instead.  In his opinion, it is crucial to recognize that class is at least as important as race when discussing possible solutions.  He believes civic engagement, social connectedness and creating a sense of belonging are preconditions for democracy.  Collective action, the pillar of community schools, is the ideal strategy he recommends. 

It was encouraging that California State Senator Carol Liu, Chair of the State Education Committee, volunteered to welcome Practicum participants via video. She was just coming back from a bus tour that visited community schools in Los Angeles, Alameda, Fresno, Redwood City and Oakland.  Senator Liu was impressed by the deep impact that meaningful partnerships among schools, families, government and nonprofit agencies can have as they work to meet the holistic needs of students.  Senator Liu expressed total commitment to the community schools strategy.

The second plenary speaker, Dr. Tony Smith, former superintendent of the Oakland school district, shared his vision of full-service community schools as a district-wide strategy for addressing the opportunity gap to help all students succeed and thrive.  His charge to field:  the larger community must share responsibility for the achievement of all students; this is both a personal and collective duty. He also reminded the audience that, though class is an important addition to the equity conversation, race still plays a major role.  The majority of the poor in this country are white.  However, an overwhelmingly wide margin of people of color live in concentrated areas of poverty and attend schools that reflect this reality; racism and classism continue to plague poor black and Latino students, particularly through educational and social policies that separate these students from pro-social opportunities—policies like overly harsh school discipline, “zero tolerance” and suspension policies. Dr. Smith’s final recommendation was to become “radical provocateurs of belonging.”

On Friday morning, Richard Buery, CAS president and chief executive officer, moderated the plenary dialogue between New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King and Martin J. Blank, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership and director of the Coalition for Community Schools. The purpose of this session was to examine federal and state policy issues related to the opportunity gap, and to present a snapshot of current policies that address educational equity, including those that support community schools.  The session was designed to both inform and provoke action.  The subtitle of the session, “A Charge to the Field,” related directly to the idea that there are constructive actions participants can take back in their own cities and states to advocate for equity-oriented public and social policies. 

Participants loved the study visits to our schools, and enjoyed hearing from our experienced staff. The only critique of the conference was that “there was not enough time.”  Evaluations showed that participants overwhelmingly liked the conference structure, felt that it was really “practical” and allowed them to take home concrete ideas and strategic action plans.  Overall, we are pleased to report that presenters got outstanding ratings. We also got kudos for attention to detail, great organization and for having a well-balanced mix of keynote speakers, panels, workshops, planning and networking opportunities.

Despite the troubling news about the growing opportunity gap between the wealthiest and poorest groups in our society, Practicum participants found reasons to remain hopeful.  Dr. Putnam provided encouraging words to the conference attendees by noting that community schools are doing exactly the kind of work that is needed—starting early by linking K-12 education with early childhood programs; expanding learning opportunities during and outside the regular school day; and addressing barriers to learning through strong partnerships with health and mental health providers.  As a long-time fan of the Progressive Era—the period in which the contemporary community schools movement is rooted—Dr. Putnam has cited the “practical, enthusiastic idealism” of the Progressives as a trait he admired then, and what he sees reflected in the community schools movement today.  Dr. Smith also provided encouraging and provocative words:  “Community schools are about transforming our relationships.  We have to start with policy, and recognize that different children need different supports because they don’t all get on the ladder at the same place.  And we have to activate other public systems through our public schools.  Community schools are transgressive political work.”