The Children's Aid Society 10th Community Schools Practicum Addresses the Opportunity Gap

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The timely theme of The Children’s Aid Society Community Schools 10th biennial practicum is the need for equity in education, a major cause of America’s growing social divide. We are delighted that from October 16 to 18, an action group of education, nonprofit and civic leaders, policy-makers and funders from around the country and abroad has accepted our invitation to meet in New York City to explore how the community school strategy can help close the opportunity gap. 

As we face the dangerous, ever-escalating bifurcation of American society, to a point unforeseen years ago, leaders across the nation—and indeed across the world—recognize that public education is still the greatest equalizer and the backbone of democracy. For a growing number of these leaders, the collective action that characterizes the community schools approach represents the strongest possible approach to translating the equity agenda into concrete action on the ground. 

Practicum 2013, Community Schools in Action: Addressing the Opportunity Gap, provides participants with a forum to dialogue with a distinguished group of cross-sector leaders. On October 16, Dr. Robert D. Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard, will provide the keynote address, highlighting important new research that documents the growing “opportunity gap” between America’s richest and poorest families and their children. Dr. Putnam has written extensively about “the crumbling of the American Dream,” which he describes as a “purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses,” and aggravated by what he calls “our radically shriveled sense of ‘we’” – which the comprehensive community schools strategy can certainly help rebuild. 

During the opening plenary on October 17, Dr. Tony Smith, executive director of Chicago’s W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation and former superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, will share his vision for a “community school district,” with a focus on equity, excellence and collective action. Following his presentation, plenary sessions and concurrent workshops will explore the sources of inequity in education and offer specific examples of initiatives that are using the community schools strategy to close the opportunity gap and ensure that all students have the chance to succeed in school and beyond.

Together, we will discuss a wide range of issues: school financing and unequal school resources, inappropriate referrals of youth of color to special education, differential discipline, teacher quality and cultural competence, health disparities, housing instability and chronic absence.  Participants also have the option to visit our schools and see the strategy’s intentionality in terms of programs and interventions, and to talk with the staff about the implementation process, including its challenges, triumphs and potential.  This is a two-day, peer-learning convening, where every participant is both a learner and an expert, with plenty of opportunity for informal dialogue and sharing knowledge and experiences.  

The practicum has real-world implications. For example, California sent 19 legislators to our fall 2011 practicum to discuss on neutral ground a new direction for education in the state of California. Today, we see evidence of much movement in school districts all across the state. We hope that the 2013 practicum will result in identifying further ways to take collective action to propel the community schools movement forward at a wider scale and to use this proven strategy to help rekindle the American Dream.