A new vision of ‘community schools’

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Educators have long known that many Latino students do not complete high school. Still, education models have remained the same. It is imperative that school districts listen to students, teachers and parents and begin to implement new approaches.

One such approach is the concept of a comprehensive community school for preschool through high school. The driving force is a simple premise: Education does not occur in isolation from the rest of a student’s life. Other factors—family, community, nonprofit organizations and businesses—play an extremely important role in a child’s successful education.

Schools cannot escape interdependence with outside factors that influence whether students learn. Schools must seize opportunities to connect students and families to resources and support, rather than lament the prevalence of outside negative influences.

Connections with outside institutions reinforce a framework of effective educational accountability. While it is critical, for instance, to have a coherent focus on staff development and to emphasize the integration of reading skills throughout content areas in the curriculum, achievement is not only influenced by what happens inside the school but what happens beyond its walls.

By expanding their boundaries, schools will become stronger and will engage parents and the community. Schools have the power to become the focus of the community, connected to daily lives and experiences and thus can share the educational responsibility with other responsible partners.

The meaningful extension of the school day is about providing students with what they need to succeed, to beat the odds and capitalize on their strengths so they grow up to be competent, caring and responsible. Extended learning opportunities must provide a variety of academic, social and recreational activities, to accommodate different learning needs and styles.

There must be a seamless connection between what classroom teachers do during traditional school hours and what happens after school. Family and community engagement can be fostered through high school equivalency, English as a Second Language, and literacy classes that reflect the needs of the community. A partnership with a health agency would allow a school to offer health fairs, conferences and services to families. Parents working as literacy leaders can teach other parents and community residents. Family support can be provided through counseling sessions and initiatives on financial education, neighborhood improvement, immigration rights and community safety.

It is within this framework that our model of a community school is completing its second year.

The creation of a new Community Links High School at Spry provides the opportunity for continuous family engagement. A high school model based on input from students, parents and teachers was implemented. Staff was selected based on their commitment to student success and a non-traditional delivery of education. Neighborhood students must submit an application for admission and their families must demonstrate commitment to ensuring that they succeed.

Because teenagers respond better when they begin their classes at 10 or 11 a.m., classes begin later in the day. Students participate during their first year in a junior ROTC/physical education program that promotes teamwork, provides self-discipline, and fosters respect and leadership. Service learning fosters student leadership. Students obtain work experience by serving as tutors and teacher assistants in the primary rooms. After this experience, they are placed at work sites in the school community.

In traditional high schools, if students are caught in a syndrome of failure, summer school is often used to make up failed classes. Our model allows students to attend school year-round and complete college entrance requirements in three years.

Early signs of success have begun to emerge, such as a very high attendance rate and no dropouts. Discipline issues are minimal or non-existent. Parent engagement in school activities is very high. Students and families make a commitment to complete high school and enroll in post-secondary education. And starting their first year in high school, students also visit colleges and universities. In their third year, they all participate in dual enrollment for college and high school credit. In June 2006, the first class will graduate from Community Links.

A pre-K through 12th grade community school is a way of thinking, acting and working together to educate students and strengthen families and communities.

It is not an easy task, but as Lady Bird Johnson once said, “We cannot be cautious and extraordinary at the same time.”

Carlos Azcoitia resigned from his position as CPS Deputy Chief of Education to launch a new pre-K through high school program at Spry Community Academy.