Collage courtesty of Reclaim Our Schools
On May 4, communities across the United States held “walk-ins,” where parents, teachers and students rallied outside their public schools, and then walked in together, to advocate for strong schools for all kids. This action was organized by the national Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS).
AROS’s website provides both a vision for the schools all kids deserve, and a list of the seventy-five districts around the country that signed on to walk-in. Here’s the vision part:
As public schools are increasingly threatened by a view of education that supports privatization, zero-tolerance discipline policies, less funding, and high-stakes standardized tests, AROS is fighting back with a broad vision of American public education that prioritizes racial justice, equity and well-resourced, world-class, public community schools.
Minneapolis is not on AROS’s list, and the last part of the group’s vision—about wanting “well-resourced, world-class, public community schools”—might explain why. In Minneapolis, the concept of what, exactly, constitutes a “community school” is incredibly fuzzy. Right now, there are no less than three school models that include the word “community,” making it difficult for people to know which one to support. This also raises an important question: what is a community school, and who gets to decide?
Here’s a brief look at the definitions being batted about in Minneapolis:
This term applies to the neighborhood concept of public schools, where kids go to the school closest to home. The Minneapolis public schools have many building sites that fit this model, particularly at the K-5 grade level. Community schools tend to, of course, reflect the neighborhood they are situated in. Because Minneapolis is mostly racially and economically segregated, this means we have schools that are majority white, like Burroughs Community School in the southwest corner of the city, and schools that are almost one hundred percent non-white, such as Bethune Elementary School, in north Minneapolis.
The economic disparity between these two sites is perhaps more shocking than the racial demographics: just 12 percent of Burroughs students live in poverty, according to federal guidelines, while 97 percent of Bethune kids do.
The starkness of this reality poses an often unanswered question: can neighborhood-based, community schools truly offer every child an “equal” education, when the schools’ population varies so greatly? It is harder to wax nostalgic about neighborhood schools when they so clearly show how poverty is concentrated in cities like Minneapolis--often along racial lines.
Community Partnership Schools
In 2014, the Minneapolis Public Schools began promoting a “community partnership school” model for the district. This concept is confusing for many people, perhaps on purpose, in a George Orwell, 1984 way, because it is yet another strategy in a crowded local field of charter schools, site-governed schools, community schools, magnet schools and so on.
Community partnership schools have been sold to Minneapolis teachers, administrators and families as a way to give schools “more autonomy” in exchange for “greater accountability” (writer and professor Paul Thomas has an important examination of this tenet on his blog, Radical Scholarship). Essentially, the autonomy piece has been portrayed as a way to free schools from cumbersome district mandates, regarding such things as curriculum and scheduling. (The accountability piece, so far, has been focused on test scores. For example, one Minneapolis “partnership” school has agreed to shoot for a five percent annual increase in test results for its high poverty population.)
In reality, the “autonomy” is mostly about giving principals greater control over hiring and firing decisions, along with redefining the principal’s job to be more about “fiscal management.” That’s because Minneapolis already has schools with distinct program models, such as the popular International Baccalaureate model or Montessori, that are supposed to be allowed to operate mostly independently. How would community partnership schools be different? Or, why are they necessary? That has not been made clear.
Also worth noting: Minneapolis is a “portfolio” school district, under the guidance of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, based in Washington state. This group, which goes by the acronym CRPE, promotes standards and accountability based reform plans, and encourages member districts, like Minneapolis, to pursue a district model that turns schools into little islands unto themselves. The aim is to have schools compete with one another for students, staff, and resources, using a stripped-down budget model that principals have to manage. The community partnership schools model, in Minneapolis, fits here.
Full Service Community Schools
This concept is often confused, locally, with the above-described “community partnership schools,” but in reality, the two do not have much in common. The community partnership model is essentially a way to make district public schools more like charter schools, where each site makes its own hiring, firing, curriculum, and calendar decisions, for example.
In contrast, Full Service Community Schools have been promoted by the federal department of education and the national teachers unions as a way to create equitable schools in the middle of an increasingly unequal society (the American Federation of Teachers refers to this model simply as “community schools”). The equity piece looks like this: a school that receives a grant from a state or federal government to become a full service school first hires a site coordinator.
This coordinator is then charged with conducting a survey of the community, to find out where the greatest needs lie. The goal is to then establish and maintain access to “wrap-around” services, such as medical, dental, and mental health care, in order to address these unmet, community-identified needs.
Minnesota has had several successful full-service community school for years, including Brooklyn Center High School (located just outside of Minneapolis). When this high school opened an on-site eye clinic in 2013, it saw eighteen students on its first day. Fifteen of those students needed glasses and suddenly had access to the eye care they needed.
Now, Green Central Park Elementary School in Minneapolis--a K-5 with a majority Latino population and a ninety-six percent poverty rate--won a statewide grant in 2015 and is set to become the city’s first full-service community school. An immediate goal is to establish a relationship with the health clinic that is physically attached to the school but has not been otherwise connected to the Green community.
The conflicting yet similarly named “community” school concepts floating around Minneapolis might have made it difficult to rally participants for AROS’s May 4 walk-in day. But a closer examination of the three models outlined above makes one thing clear: only one--the full-service community school strategy--seems to reflect AROS’s vision of “world-class, public community schools” that are both rooted in neighborhoods (and not scattered like so many charter schools) and ready to tackle the deep and growing inequity that can prevent these schools from thriving.
Why? Because they are supposed to be built around an individual school community’s needs, and not a school improvement plan imposed by consultants selling silver bullet strategies. Presumably, these schools will rise up from the roots, by, in AROS’s words, “prioritizing racial justice, equity and well-resourced” schools. That is a definition of community worth standing up for..