Clarifying history, mission of community schools

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We welcome Catalyst’s coverage of the community schools movement and thus wish to thank Catrin Einhorn for her article, “New law gives boost to community schools,” in your September issue. In the interest of engaging Catalyst readers as allies in this movement, we wish to clarify a few points Ms. Einhorn made.

First, and probably foremost, the idea of community schools is not most essentially “to keep the schools open in the evening and on weekends, and offer courses and services to meet the community’s needs.” It is, rather, to increase community ownership of the public schools and to increase community investment in learning outcomes—to bring community resources into the schools to improve classroom outcomes and to make the school a center for the community.

Second, your article suggests that, while there is a ‘long history’ of support for community schools, the recent impetus for them comes from principals who have “used school reform to create alliances with community-based organizations.” We beg to differ.

While an increasing number of principals are indeed supportive of community schools, more often than not, community schools have been achieved through the initiative of community-based organizations, with principals often, at least initially, resisting the encroachment of the community on their domains.

Third, in focusing on the wonderful advocacy of Judy Dimon, your article failed to honor the very hard work of dozens of parent activists and community leaders who created the vision and the groundswell that have given focus and energy to the Campaign to Expand Community Schools. Just a few examples:

Since 1969, Youth Guidance has provided services right in public schools to assist at-risk youth in developing academically, socially and emotionally; Youth Guidance programs are presently provided in over 60 Chicago Public Schools.

Since 1985, the Ounce of Prevention Fund has partnered with schools and the City in providing health clinics in public schools to assist young people with health and mental health problems that might otherwise precipitate school failure and dropout.

Since 1994, CAPE has created partnerships among 30 public schools, 45 professional arts organizations and 11 community organizations to improve learning outcomes through arts-infused curricula.

Several years before the Polk Bros. Foundation funded Brentano, Marquette and Riis schools, an incredible team of Latina and African-American parent leaders, with support from Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) and Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), opened a community school in Funston School. Quite shortly thereafter, parent leaders supported by these two community groups and the newly created West Town Leadership United (WTLU) opened over half a dozen more such community schools in Logan Square, West Town and Austin.

Fourth, your article suggests that program dollars for nonprofits are the key to the success of the movement, while focusing a lot of attention on using new private and public funds to support larger outside agencies like the Boys and Girls Clubs in community schools. Certainly, more and better safe, structured, holistic in- and after-school programs are a needed and important part of a community school, and these programs require funding for qualified staff, facilities use, security and so forth. But the essence of community schools serves a dual purpose: providing widening educational opportunities for our students and their families, while at the same time building communities by developing community resources and relationships. This includes reaching out to community members and businesses, building parent partnerships in the school, involving youth in community issues, and the engagement of many other community stakeholders.

Expanding funds for nonprofit programs to build community schools are indeed welcome. Best practices reminds us, however, that an ongoing focus on building the “community” into community schools—through parent, youth and community organizing, leadership development, and community involvement —would be even more welcome in supporting this promising movement.

Our thanks, again, for Ms. Einhorn’s article, and our thanks for this opportunity to expand on it.

Sokoni Karanja

Executive Director,

Centers for New Horizons