Closings put community schools in peril

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Melissa Mitchell, Federation for Community Schools

Melissa Mitchell, Federation for Community Schools

Understanding that the Chicago Public Schools district leadership and Board of Education faced difficult decisions regarding the school actions, we, the Federation for Community Schools’ members, staff and board, have a serious concern about those closings and the transitions of children to new schools. 

We are concerned about the severe reduction or total loss of high quality wrap-around support services for children in our highest needs communities as they transition from one school to another. Particularly, the loss of support provided by the existing services coordinated and managed under the leadership of local agencies working in partnership with some of the closing schools will have grave and detrimental impacts on students transitioning to new schools.

We are equally concerned about the new demands for such services in the schools to which these children will transition – and the welcoming schools’ capacities to meet these new demands without additional support.  Almost all of the impacted schools are in neighborhoods serving children who need not only high quality schools but also multiple kinds of academic and non-academic services and supports. As such, the transition plans – in the case of each and every school – must take into account not only the use of space in a facility, but also the supports (mental and physical health services, out-of-school time programs connected to classroom learning, resources for families, and more) organized by the closing schools, especially those that are community schools.

Community schools are schools that actively engage and coordinate an array of resources to strengthen the learning and development of their students, and to engage families as partners in children’s educations. Some of the closing schools have long-term partners – community-based organizations or social services organizations, oftentimes – working to provide coordination of and access to services, such as arts and enrichment programs, academic supports, health supports and supports to adults and families in the communities served by the school. Because community schools are so effective in these efforts, $1 invested in a community school yields a $1-$3 return in the form of supports that would otherwise be disconnected from the school and not accessed by students and families.

We are concerned that those supports will be interrupted and possibly lost for these children and families moving from closing schools.  The welcoming schools may or may not have these supports or the resources to expand them considerably to accommodate new students and families. In addition, the welcoming schools – including those that were already community schools – will be asked to provide more supports and services both to their current students and to the students that will join them in the fall.

Detrimental impact?

Specifically, three critical questions have emerged in our conversations with our members about the impact of the closings on the access to and availability of supports:

1) To what extent does each plan for closing and “welcoming” schools address these multiple services and ensure that they will not be lost to the children and families who need and depend on them?

2) To what extent do new schools know about the services that transitioning children accessed at the closing schools and do the welcoming schools have plans for putting supports in place for all the new children and families entering their communities? 

3) To what extent do the schools have individuals in place – dedicated staff members – to coordinate services across multiple providers and partners, and a plan to work in partnership with school leadership to facilitate the engagement of these services during and after school hours? 

Successful transitions and sustained academic improvement at the welcoming schools will not be dependent on how many partners can provide how many programs during the 2013-2014 school year. Instead, success will hinge upon the level of coordination that exists to maximize each partnership, to ensure that programs are effectively and efficiently reaching students in need, and to connect new resources to the welcoming schools. This is not about more partners and programs; it’s about creating long-term strategic partnerships that realign resources in ways that best meet the needs of students and families – during the transitions over the 2013-2014 school year and beyond.

Chicago has been a national leader in utilizing the community school strategy to put in place coordinated supports and partnerships for more than 15 years.  The Federation and its members, including nearly 50 community school lead partners, urge CPS build upon and sustain the its strong history of community school work and address students’ and families’ needs in coordinated, efficient ways.

Melissa Mitchell is the executive director of the Federation for Community Schools.