Conference Review: Albuquerque National Coalition for Community Schools Forum

Posted by on April 29, 2016

By Eden Kainer

From April 6-8th, I had the opportunity to join the Netter Center UACS (University Assisted Community Schools) Team and attend the Community Schools National Forum 2016 in Albuquerque, New Mexico along with 1700 participants from the States (such as California, New York, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and of course, New Mexico) and outside the U.S. who were actively involved in community school work. It was an exciting week of workshops, focus sessions, plenaries, site-visits, receptions and informal networking. While I enjoyed meeting folks from other states, it was particularly gratifying to meet people working in community schools in Pennsylvania, as well as to spend some quality time with our colleagues at the Netter Center, Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative (SEPC) and the Mayor’s Office of Education. I even got to chat for a bit with Paul Socolar from the Philadelphia Notebook! (It is a bit ironic that we all had to travel more than halfway across the country to talk to each other!)

With approximately 50 Pennsylvanians from multiple sectors present, I found this encouraging because in addition to establishing new connections, we had the opportunity to check in with each other about the work we’ve done and plan to continue and how it compares to other areas of our state. We also discussed where we are currently as a state and what we can do in collaboration to move towards a strategy of aligning partnerships to address school and community needs. As a special treat, Pedro Rivera, the new Pennsylvania Secretary of Education (PDE), was the keynote speaker at a plenary breakfast. His speech reiterated Governor Wolf’s strong interest in community schools as he encouraged us to think about the four domains in which we should expend our thoughts and energies to strengthen community schools:  stakeholder engagement, professional learning, policy/advocacy, and communicating our work.

Afterward, we broke into state network breakfasts to discuss what we need to do to strengthen as a state network, and what does the PDE need from our work on the ground level. Rivera was able to take part in the breakout session to help generate an overall discussion of Pennsylvania. There were two ways we could become involved at the state level. One:  to become familiar with the new educational goals embedded in the frameworks of 26 state departments.  (These should be publicly available soon on the website.) Two:  becoming involved with shaping PA’s response to the newly reauthorized ESEA in the current ESSA policy (Every Student Succeeds Act), as the PDE has begun to form an initial committee to address the language in the legislation that is particularly conducive to developing community schools. For more information about ESSA, here are some recent webinars.

Last, as another sign of our new governor’s commitment to community school strategies, is the creation of a special assistant of external and internal partnerships—whom the PDE will hire soon barring any more state budget impasses. This person will be especially involved with connecting with practitioners to departments at the state level. Rivera is similarly committed to increasing collaboration among departments, and is working more with other secretaries, particularly in health and mental health to help facilitate state-wide strategies better aligned to help families.

Albuquerque was chosen as the site for this year’s forum because the city was an early adapter of community school strategies. For example, the lunch plenary had a panel from the Albuquerque/Bernillo County partnership who have been working on growing their community school network since 2006, when the Albuquerque Public Schools (APS), Bernalillo County and the City of Albuquerque adopted the Community School model. Since the partnership between the APS, the teacher’s union, the Mayor’s Office and other important municipal and county offices began, both programming and partnerships in general have strengthened. Private industries such as Sandia National laboratories and Lockheed, have jumped onto the partnerships bandwagon to provide assistance to the schools and their communities. For instance, Sandia provides robust engaging STEM programs for Albuquerque students and their families.

We also had the opportunity to visit community schools in the Albuquerque area.  For example, many participants visited a “Homework Diner” at a few of the local elementary schools. The “Homework Diner” is  a program that started in 2012 and has grown since. Regularly scheduled a few times a month at certain schools, teachers, parents, and students come together to assist both students and their parents with homework while showing parents how they can better assist their children at home all while enjoying a delicious hot meal. I had the pleasure of attending a high school version of this which was more of a resource diner, where I ate lovely rice, beans and chilies, and talked to representatives from partner organizations like the Community College of New Mexico. These conversations signaled to me the tight integration of university partners, industry, and city/state services in the educational fabric of Albuquerque.

Some other highlights at the forum included a session from New York’s Office of Education who presented on New York’s scaling up with 100 new community schools in the next few years. The scale and speed of this is startling, but as the presenter mentioned, there was time to debate it. Mayor Bill De Blasio, through the benefit of Mayoral control, has been able to push his agenda through by subbing out site coordination and planning funding to applying CBOs, e.g., Children’s Aid Society or a YMCA. There are different versions of mayoral control, but in New York it means Mayor DeBlasio is solely responsible for hiring the School Chancellor.

One presentation that described a more time-intensive planning process, which particularly impressed me, was from the League of Families in Baltimore. This panel encapsulated the complexity of the partnerships necessary to get a community school up and running. At the table was a principal, the YMCA, the Family League of Baltimore and a teacher. Like New York, monies have been allocated from the state and city to support the development of community school space and coordination. Some of these monies were boosted by a braiding together of OST monies with Community School monies. For the school that was the focus of this presentation, the YMCA was the agency charged with facilitating the planning process for an entire school year. The YMCA described how they did intensive needs assessments, in a variety of ways, with all relevant stakeholders, including teachers, parents and students. Based on these needs assessments, a committee from the school staff including the principal, met twice a month for a couple hours at a time to decide what their school needed in terms of resources and partnerships. What struck me was the fact that they did not hire the site coordinator until the end of this planning process, not only to create a strategic, focused job description but also to create a strategic and focused job search for the right coordinator. I love planning years!

For us in PA, the combination of energy for community school strategies at both the state and city levels, with champions like Governor Wolf, Secretary Rivera and Philadelphia’s Mayor Kenny (with his appointment of Otis Hackney as Chief Education Officer and Susan Grobreski, as the Deputy for Community Schools), the time for community schools is clearly now! The other heartening thing to remember is, we have many pieces in play in Philadelphia already: robust University Assisted Community Schools in West Philadelphia, partnerships coordination with SEPC and the PHENND VISTA project, the Greater Philadelphia Corporate Volunteer Council, the Office of Strategic Partnerships at the School District, countless community partners working with students and families through the schools, and most recently a Mayoral commitment to creating community schools. With so many other places across the US and Pennsylvania well entrenched in the work that we can look to for inspiration and best practices, we have probably never have been readier and as well supported (at least in theory if not funding)!

After an evening viewing of the NPR documentary about Oyler School in Cincinnati, at which the charismatic former principal, Craig Hockenberry poured his heart and soul into supporting the kids and families in one of the most impoverished urban neighborhoods in the U.S, we had the benefit of meeting Craig in person.  He perhaps put it best: once he made one successful, sustained partnership that improved the outcomes for his students and supported their families, he saw endless possibilities, and became addicted to creating partnerships. I feel like that is true for us here as well in Philadelphia!

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