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Schools That Not Only Serve, But Empower

July 01, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

Our students and teachers have been weathering a wave of reforms lately, which too often emphasize narrow testing and inter-school squabbling. I like to think these are not the goals that reformers had in mind when they advocated for accountability and school choice as a form of empowerment. However, unintended consequences are always a risk when we seek big changes. As we look to other options for reform, we should do our best to anticipate and avoid similar unintended consequences.

Interest has been growing in the full-service community schools model, which co-locates a variety of services at schools to offer needed services to students and families. Changing the way we teach students and develop teachers can only get us so far when addressing system-level inequities, and full-service community schools help with the rest. The model is flexible, allowing the services offered at each school to be tailored to the needs of the community and supported by existing social service agencies and nonprofits. It differs somewhat from the Harlem Children’s Zone or Promise Neighborhoods approaches, which seek to coordinate services and loop schools in on the process. In areas where that approach isn’t being pursued, or where coordination challenges are keeping it from being effective, using community schools to recruit and deliver necessary services is a way to better use the institutional power of schools.

One of the risks of the full-service community schools approach is that the “service” part can overshadow the community element. Focusing strictly on providing services can lead to a deficit-minded approach that only views students and families based on what they lack. Protecting the “community” part of “community schools” means using schools as a way to empower, not just serve, students and families.

This can take several forms. At the most basic level, it’s about incorporating community members in the process of identifying community needs and bringing the right services to the school to meet those needs. While this can still lead to a focus on deficits, it at least trusts and empowers community members to bring their own voices to the conversation and take an active role in directing school policy.

Community empowerment doesn’t have to stop there. Several models, past and present, offer community members a way to affect the course of school governance. Whether it’s an active parent-teacher organization, a site council with some decision-making power (e.g. over principal hiring), or some other form, there are several ways to provide students and families voice and power. What’s important here is that school and district leaders understand and value the benefits that increased democracy offer when running schools. A token PTO that has no real strength is not nearly enough.

Another route to keep the “community” in “community schools” is community-based accountability. This approach uses an interactive, democratic process that brings together teachers, families, students, and school leaders to identify and agree on the best goals for student achievement and the most appropriate ways of measuring those goals. It’s a way to keep expectations high, build investment in reaching performance goals, and allow for flexibility and accuracy in forms of measurement that nonetheless keep community priorities in mind. In other words, it’s accountability without high-stakes tests, but with student and family involvement. It’s also more likely to generate more productive conversations about classroom practice and lead to changes that have greater teacher support than the scripted curricula and bubble-sheet practice that too often prevail in test-obsessed systems.

Whatever the particular mixture of elements used at each community school, the underlying principle must be using schools as a way of giving families -- especially those from under-resourced backgrounds -- more power in the school system. There is precedent for this, even at the early childhood level. The University of Minnesota’s Joe Soss has done significant work documenting the benefits of the Head Start program as a way of boosting civic engagement and comfort with self-advocacy from parents who too often feel beat down by other programs that are more dehumanizing in their treatment of the disadvantaged. The benefits of Head Start as a tool of empowerment stand in stark contrast to the disempowering effects of much of the rest of the welfare system, especially now that welfare programs have been “reformed” to reflect a mindset of what Soss and others call “neoliberal paternalism.”

That paternalistic attitude is one of the risks we should be aware of when we advocate for full-service community schools. It would be all too easy to stick to a condescending mindset that says we are are doing these things for students and families in under-resourced communities, when the real goal must be to work with them for the betterment of public schools.

Our school system should promote social justice rather than perpetuate institutional racism. To do so, it must empower families inside and outside of school, as well as provide opportunities to meet their needs. We must keep the “community” in “full-service community schools.”

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