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Mobtown Beat

Class Consciousness

"Community Schools" Movement Gains Local Momentum

By Molly Rath | Posted 4/18/2001

From the basement of University Baptist Church on a soggy late-March afternoon emanate the rumblings of yet another plan to save the city's ailing public schools. Drawn to this North Baltimore church by a collective and collaborative sense of urgency, some 50 educators, activists, and social-service providers gather around a flip chart to map a course for joining the national push to create "community schools."

On its face, the gathering seems like just another attempt by a group of do-gooders to do the seemingly impossible: transform city government's biggest bureaucracy into a flexible instrument of education. Yet these folks would bristle at being associated with other school-reform efforts, past or present.

"It's not a thing, a model, a program. It's not an organization, and it's not intended to be. It's not a project. It's not something that's funded," says Jessica Strauss, a city schools activist (and consultant for a national, Chicago-based education organization) who is heading the local effort. "It's a concept. It's a bubbling-up, a grass-roots movement. And this movement is not about opening new schools but coordinating and bringing services into existing schools."

If that sounds ambiguous, it's meant to, Strauss says: "The vagueness is very much a part of the concept, the idea being that the larger community agrees on a core set of goals" for each school.

As defined by the larger national movement, community schools supplement what goes on in the classroom with health and family services, after-school activities, and other resources drawn from the surrounding neighborhood--the idea being that cross-fertilization between schools and communities, and programs that serve families rather than just students, provide a better framework for students to learn in.

The notion of schools as de facto community centers isn't new to Baltimore; nor is enlisting government agencies in the education process. Northwestern High School, for example, is one of a half-dozen schools that partner with the Baltimore City Health Department to run school-based clinics, and it's the site of a state Department of Social Services pilot program to put social workers in city schools. There are numerous other examples of community partnerships operating on an isolated, piecemeal basis throughout the public-school system. What there isn't, and hasn't been to date, is a comprehensive and coordinated set of extracurricular programs at any one school, let alone systemwide. And that's what Strauss and others are out to change.

But the movement comes at a tricky time for Baltimore. Community schools require two things in short supply locally: management and money. And even some supporters wonder if transforming Baltimore's 180 schools into community schools isn't too ambitious as the city scrapes for cash and the school system, scarred by years of mismanagement, tries to keep pace with a court-ordered, five-year reform mandate.

"I think it's a huge undertaking for the time," says Heidi Paremske, development coordinator for the activist organization Citizens Planning and Housing Association. "I think in Baltimore it would have to be a very small start. . . . And with the budget uproar right now, [the community-schools movement] needs to catch the attention of the people who need to get behind it financially, and I don't know that that's going to be a priority right now."

For some backers, the community-school concept is more a means to an end, a likely conduit and catalyst for current reform efforts.

"The whole purpose of community schools is not to create chaos in schools, but needed resources . . . in order to free up teachers and principals so they can take care of academic need," says Barbara Henry, a longtime education activist and community-development coordinator at CHAI, the nonprofit housing and community-development agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. "Many schools, depending on who is on staff at any given time, will have people who take an interest in this direction, but because of personnel changes the continuity of programs isn't ensured."

While efforts to make schools the educational, social, and recreational hubs of communities date back some 60 years, community-school partnerships soared in the late 1980s, coinciding with swelling demand for both academic reform and health and social services for struggling, mostly urban communities. Martin Blank, community-collaboration director with the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) in Washington, D.C., says the key ingredients to community schools include an on-site traffic cop to coordinate all resources, staffers, and programs, and the funds to underwrite that person's salary and various services. In short, roughly $150,000 a school.

Blank--who also heads up IEL's Coalition for Community Schools--says some 5,000 community schools across the country approximate that profile, with 2,000 emerging in just the last two years. And several Baltimore schools, he adds, are among "many, many others that have at least some pieces in place."

The idea for a local community-schools movement took root in 1995 when Strauss, then a state consultant working with health clinics in schools, submitted a proposal to then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke for a quasi-public nonprofit organization to start community schools. The idea flopped, so Strauss turned to the nonprofit community. This past winter she received about $10,000 from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to take 10 education activists and community leaders to Kansas City for a national community-schools conference. Ten others from Baltimore also attended, including three city schools officials.

A dozen or so people have been meeting biweekly at the North Charles Street offices of the Greater Homewood Community Organization ever since, in hopes of bringing community schools to Baltimore. On a lark in mid-March they invited--via a blanket e-mail--everyone on an education list-serve to their March 29 meeting, and some 50 people showed, forcing a move to larger space at the church next- door. The group spanned dozens of public agencies and private organizations--from the United Way and the Rosemont Neighborhood Association to the Maryland Disability Law Center, University of Maryland School of Nursing, and Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development--and by the time they all ventured back out into dark, late-day drizzle, nearly two-dozen attendees committed to pitching the community-schools concept to their organizations' staffs and boards of directors.

"This movement would create a public desire for community schools, schools being the hub of a community," Henry says. "I think in Baltimore we have a wealth of organizations that want to provide services and want to connect with kids. The community-schools movement would get all [these various programs] coordinated, and doing that would leverage resources tremendously. We'd all be a lot more efficient doing what we're doing."

The group has enlisted the Baltimore Teachers Union to identify by month's end all outside partnerships and programs that currently exist in city schools, an inventory that will serve as a starting place for linking resources, Strauss says. With the groundwork laid, and assuming that public interest expands and holds, the group will formally launch a local community-schools push this fall.

But big challenges loom between now and then. While start-up grants and funds are fine for now, the IEL's Blank says, the movement will eventually need permanent funding. And while funding sources exist--federal Title 1 money can be used, as can various allocations within health and human-services agencies, Blank says--everyone's focus in education today is on test scores, and convincing funders without evidence that community schools improve academic achievement could be tough. Community schools across the country are showing gains, Blank says, but hard data is limited.

Carole Seubert, who left her job as director of the city school system's Office of Parent Involvement earlier this month and was an early local supporter of community schools, says a move toward them in Baltimore would be difficult but doable. More than reinventing the system, she says, it's a matter of "rethinking your approach, how you're allocating [resources], how you're doing assignments of work. You're talking about a considerable paradigm shift that's going to be tough, but that's not to say it couldn't happen."

Challenges aside, Seubert, who plans to remain active in the movement despite her new job in Washington, D.C. with a disabled-rights organization, says community schools provide the system with a much-needed chance to "look internally at how it does things" and patch its long-troubled relationship with parents. "I just see it really as another opportunity for them to get the family-community engagement thing right."

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