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“No matter the circumstances in which [kids] have been brought up…we should give them the ability to be the most that they can be through the power of education,”said former Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Center for American Progress last Wednesday. Blair, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and a panel of education experts joined the Center for American Progress to discuss community schools—schools that aim to increase academic success by partnering with community organizations to provide students with a range of health and youth development services.
According to a report released at the event by CAP Education Policy Analyst Saba Bireda, children living in poverty face obstacles that can limit their potential in school. Community schools bridge the gap between education and antipoverty services by partnering with nonprofits and local agencies to invest in the care of the whole child. Among other services, local partners provide health care, academic enrichment, and mental and behavioral health services.
Prime Minister Blair explained that England is investing in “human capital” by transitioning to a nationwide community school system. By the end of 2010, all schools in England will be “extended schools”—what England calls community schools.
Blair said he has approached education policy first as a parent, then as a legislator. “If it’s not good enough for my child, it’s not good enough for anyone else’s,” he said. Blair thought all kids should have the best education possible—and a good education includes before and afterschool supports.
But change isn’t easy. “We…know what works—what’s hard is implementing it,” he said. Blair explained that successful schools have a strong ethos, good leadership, discipline, effective teachers, engaged parents, and serve as a resource to the whole community. But implementing these elements through extended schools in Britain took time.
Secretary Duncan said there was initial reluctance from principals and parents when he oversaw the expansion of a community schools program as CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Principals didn’t like giving up control of their schools, and parents were not quick to accept extended school days. But “because the results were so dramatic…in just two or three years we created a huge amount of demand,” he said. Community schools in Chicago, St. Paul, and New York have all improved student success, school attendance, and parent involvement through community partnerships.
CAP President and CEO John Podesta said “federal commitment” for community schools is necessary, but Blair pointed out that government commitment should come in the form of support, not mandates. He also said that school administrators should use their discretion to determine the necessary partnerships for their individual schools.
Adding to the conversation, Rep. Hoyer explained that “we have the chance to re-imagine our schools” as the places where communities come together. Rep. Hoyer pointed out that people often unite on the playing field and in auditoriums, but more community building is possible. He echoed Duncan’s belief that schools should open their doors to adults. Duncan explained that adult education, GED, and English as a Second Language classes should be offered to try to overcome generations of poor education. In addition to providing students with developmental resources, community schools can serve as the place where all community members go to enhance their quality of life.
Duncan and Hoyer agreed that community schools are economically efficient as well. Duncan said that instead of spending money on the “bricks and mortar” to build more Boys and Girls’ Clubs and YMCAs, schools should partner with community programs to use the resources such as libraries and classrooms that schools already have. Hoyer said that partnerships capitalize on schools’ physical space to provide children with a central location for essential services. In his district, $80 to $100 million is spent to build a school and therefore, “it would be short-sighted to limit [the school’s] use,” he said.
Jane Quinn, assistant executive director for community schools for The Children’s Aid Society in New York, explained that community schools are also time efficient. “Additional resources free teachers to teach” so that teachers don’t have to worry about the factors outside of the classroom that affect learning such as family problems.
Community schools can benefit individual students, parents, and teachers, but are ultimately about the overall community. As Blair said, “education is the great human liberator” so support for community schools should be “a national mission.”
For more on this event please see its events page.