Secretary Duncan throws his support behind community schools…

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in an interview with Gwen Ifel on the PBS Newshour, details a vision of schooling that would please any supporter of community schooling. It is great to hear continuing advocacy for this work from the administration and it will be interesting to see if and how this support filters down to schools and school planning.

…my vision is that schools need to be community centers. Schools need to be open 12, 13, 14 hours a day six, seven days a week, 12 months out of the year, with a whole host of activities, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

And when schools truly become centers of the community, where you have extraordinary teachers, the best teachers, the best principals, great nonprofit partners coming in during the non-school hours to support and do enrichment activities, social services, then those students will beat the odds, will beat poverty, will beat violence in the community, will beat sometimes dysfunctional families, and be productive citizens long term. They will go to college.

The Secretary’s vision of the school as a center of community life and activity throughout the day certainly resonates with the model of schooling the REAL School design team is working to create.

My worry, however, is that the work of planning and design that is required for the creation of community schooling is different from the approach that is employed by many current school models. Many school models that are deservingly lauded by this administration and by business leaders for focusing on “basic skills” and for excelling under the measures of No Child Left Behind are deliberately isolated from the community and it’s values, traditions, and needs. These schools often seek to provide an alternate “academic” culture to replace or compete with the cultures that students are a part of in their home-lives.

I wonder if such top-down approaches aren’t at odds with the implied democratic values of community schooling and I wonder if our state accountability systems are prepared to account for either community driven purposes or community related-effects.

The Coalition for Community Schools (CCS) offers a definition of community schooling which I share as a point of comparison:

A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities. Schools become centers of the community and are open to everyone – all day, every day, evenings and weekends.

Using public schools as hubs, community schools bring together many partners to offer a range of supports and opportunities to children, youth, families and communities. Partners work to achieve these results:

  • Children are ready to learn when they enter school and every day thereafter. All students learn and achieve to high standards.
  • Young people are well prepared for adult roles in the workplace, as parents and as citizens.
  • Families and neighborhoods are safe, supportive and engaged.
  • Parents and community members are involved with the school and their own life-long learning

This definition is not that different from the vision offered by Secretary Duncan. The clear emphasis here, however, which is not apparent in Duncan’s discourse, is on community investment and collaboration. Where Duncan speaks of the government, schools, and agencies better administering services to the community, the CCS definition describes the engagement of community members, their active participation in the development of the school, and their own ongoing learning.

It is hard to talk about from a national perspective, but if we want schools that are deeply vested in the community, that serve community needs, and that return value to the community, we must think about school planning and creation as a uniquely local community design project. At the national level, if we emphasize the development of local capacity for community and school planning and design we could create design standards for schools much more meaningful than the standards to which schools are currently held to account.

*As a footnote, I want to again express my concerns, as I have previously, about the “college-for-all” mantra. The benefits of a college degree are still suspect for many poor students. We need to think seriously about the value and use of a college degree as we think about the overarching purposes of our school system.

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