Community Schools Fundamentals Conference Article

Posted by on November 9, 2014

By Eden Kainer and Margaret McLaughlin

In October, PHENND’s VISTA Program Manager, Eden Kainer, and VISTA Leader, Margaret McLaughlin had the opportunity to travel to the Community Schools Fundamentals Conference in New York City. Education professionals, policy advocates, service providers and others gathered to learn about the basic elements of growing and fostering community schools. Sponsored and led by the National Center for Community Schools and the Children’s Aid Society, the conference provided the chance to learn from a talented group of community school practitioners as well as experienced representatives from nationwide capacity-building and advocacy networks.

Conference attendees had the opportunity to visit one Children’s Aid Society (CAS) community school the day before the conference officially started. Eden went to the Mirabal Sisters’ Campus in Washington Heights and Margaret went to the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the South Bronx. CAS functions as the lead agency and major support of these schools, paying for and coordinating health services (physical and mental), social services, after-school programming, and parent engagement among other supports. No two schools are exactly alike in way they implement the community school strategy; CAS changes to fit the needs of each school community. One constant, however, is the site coordinator who works intensively with the principal to plan the coordination and alignment of the multiple activities within the school building. Those presenting at these schools were forthright about the challenges that go along with this work in addition to highlighting successes. These initial site visits informed and centered attendees’ thoughts during the rest of the conference.

The conference kicked off the next day with a rousing speech by Jane Quinn of the Children’s Aid Society and the National Center for Community Schools. She explained to the audience of the importance of having amenable policies and politicians to help further this work. Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Education named community schools as one of the most effective school reform strategies available for high poverty school districts. In response to this, Governor Andrew Cuomo created a new funding stream for 60 community school grantees to build this model on a statewide level.  Even more recently, Bill de Blasio, the new Mayor of New York City, has committed to creating 100 more community schools during his tenure.

Children’s Aid Society and the National Center for Community Schools firmly believe that by supporting those who support the child, we are able to strengthen families, communities, and students’ own achievement.  The conference was designed to highlight four underlying principles that build community schools: comprehensiveness, collaboration, coherence, and commitment. Using these topics as a framework, conference-goers were able to attend relevant workshops designed to encourage growth in various competencies that related to each of these principles. There was a workshop that offered tools for creating a needs assessment, creating a theory of change, marketing community schools, and the data that shows gains in test scores, narrowing of the achievement gap, and a greater feeling of self-worth among students. The Fundamentals conference broke down how CAS arrived at these goals into clear sections that allowed for attendees to measure their own progress and plan personalized action steps for their priorities.

To be comprehensive, a school must be able to attend to all aspects of a child’s needs, be they social, emotional, familial, medical, or academic. A comprehensive strategy brings all players to one table. Once those stakeholders are brought around the table, they must need to work together to achieve more significant, school-wide goals. A coherent school aligns programs to curriculum and works to engage every student and family with its work. In order for a community school to function, Partnerships Directors at CAS say that there needs to be coherence between programs, partners, faculty, and family. By creating relationships across sectors, community schools allow for quicker access to medical care, out-of-school time programs, and career exploration. These connections create a web that, as it grows, creates an ever-increasing support network for the child. Commitment is that every stakeholder believes that this work is important, necessary and possible. That they have, as Marty Blank Director of the Coalition for Community Schools says, “yes!”  in their hearts.

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