Community Schools and Democratization: A Global Trend

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Over the past 15 years, The Children’s Aid Society has hosted visitors from 40 different countries, all of whom wanted to see a community school in action. The earliest visitors came primarily from Western Europe and were interested in learning how the community schools strategy could be adapted to their increasingly heterogeneous populations of students and families. By the late 1990s, we began to see another trend − requests for visits from colleagues in former Communist countries who sought to understand how the community schools strategy could help their schools model and promote democracy.

Our first such visitor was Vlada Vik from the Czech Republic, who helped us understand that the Nova Skola (New School) movement in his country was not an anomaly but, rather, part of a new global phenomenon. We subsequently met Csaba Lorinczi, a consultant to the C.S. Mott Foundation who was working with the Open Society Institute, two of the major funders of the community schools efforts in South East Europe (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia), Central and Eastern Europe (especially Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia and Ukraine) and the Caucasus Countries (especially Armenia and Azerbaijan).

Despite the wide geographic spread of these countries, their community schools work shares many common features:

  • Introducing advanced teaching methods, and training teachers and administrators to enhance quality education;
  • Preparing youth educationally, socially and economically to participate in a competitive global economy;
  • Promoting lifelong learning among citizens of all ages and abilities;
  • Advancing social inclusion (including immigrants and national minorities);
  • Promoting community and economic development, and establishing new roles for the school as a change agent in these arenas;
  • Involving all representatives of the local community in the educational process through opportunities to learn, contribute and make decisions;
  • Developing and increasing the understanding of democracy, including the realization of citizens’ rights.

These community schools are organized around many of the same principles that guide practice in the United States. For example, the Ukrainian Step by Step Foundation, a non-governmental non-profit organization that promotes the community schools strategy, seeks “to provide equal access to quality education for all children, including children with disabilities and children from national minorities, activating families and involving communities. Achieving the mission promotes the reforming process in the educational system towards its democratization.”

This work is done through partnerships between schools and community resources. “Such a partnership includes changes in the vision and the mission of the school, where the community members are involved in the school governance and in the development of community school projects aimed at meeting community needs and mobilization of the local resources.”

Foundation support (from Mott, Open Society and others) has proven instrumental in disseminating best practices from one country and region to another. Lorinczi and other international community school colleagues—from Czech Republic, Moldova, Ukraine, United Kingdom and Russia—have played an important leadership role in creating and diffusing a set of Community School Quality Standards entitled How Well Are We Doing? Launched in 2005, this initiative provides self-assessment standards and indicators for community school improvement in the following areas: leadership; partnership, social inclusion, services, volunteering, lifelong learning, community development, parent engagement and school culture.

Last August, representatives from 16 countries gathered in Odessa for a training-of-trainers that would allow these community school leaders to learn about the new program self-assessment tools and to begin teaching practitioners in their own countries how to use the materials for program improvement. In these participating countries, the Quality Standard tool was introduced after the Odessa training, with community schools measuring their achievement and progress against the established indicators. The work of introducing the use of these quality standards will take place throughout 2009 and 2010.

Community school practitioners in the U.S. have much to gain from exchanges with our international colleagues, starting with the Quality Standards. Despite the many differences in context, the goals and substantive operational issues inherent in community schools work show amazing similarities. Building strong long-term partnerships between schools and their communities lies at the heart of the work, from Albany to Albania, from Montreal to Mongolia.