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California ready to launch $3 billion, multiyear transition to community schools

Photography by Alison Shelley for EDUimages

Students in fourth and fifth grades work together at UCLA Community School on a poster about the Lunar New Year in a photo taken before Covid-19.

In the coming weeks, California will embark on a massive pledge to transform several thousand schools in low-income neighborhoods into centers of community life and vital service providers to families as well as students.

They are known as Community Schools, and they will be established over the next seven years. New York and Maryland are among the states investing in community schools, but California’s $3 billion effort, which the legislature has funded in the current budget, will be by far the most ambitious effort in the country. Advocates say the California Community Schools Partnership Program will position schools to comprehensively address student needs, engage families as partners, empower teachers and create a network of relationships and contracts with outside health and social services agencies.

Linda Darling Hammond, chair of the state Board of Education, adviser to Governor Gavin Newsom and a vocal advocate for community schools, said as president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute.

Broadly speaking, Community Schools take an integrated approach to meeting students’ academic, health, and socio-emotional needs by establishing contacts with a range of government and community services and building relationships of trust with students and families. It has been around for decades on a small scale, and has been funded intermittently by foundations and the federal government, through the 21st Century Learning Centers Program.

“Some of them are doing a great job, and they are exactly what we aspire to in this new programme. But overall, it wasn’t very systematic,” said Darling Hammond. “All of the community schools are trying to do this one by one without much help, trying to organize mental health services and find a health care cart to come to their school.”

Oakland has funded community schools for a decade, and Los Angeles Consolidated creates groups of community schools, but there is no accurate estimate of their number statewide. Some schools that have adopted elements of the concept, such as neighborhood partnerships, are community schools in name only, while others do not use the label but can be considered community schools, said Hein Kemner, director of the Educational Exchange Project for Community Schools in California.

By placing a big bet on community schools, Newsom and the legislature intend to create a coherent system linked by shared commitments and elements. They wrote into the enabling legislation the central “pillars” required for a community school. It included $142 million for regional technical assistance centers to ensure employees know how to manage logistics, such as how to set up Medi-Cal contracts and a neighborhood survey to identify assets and strengths as well as gaps in services.

Earlier this month, the state board adopted a framework for community schools that outlines what makes a successful community school, based on research and advice from multiple forums. The framework outlines educational strategies, “core commitments” and important practices, and outlines the roles that school districts, district offices of education, the California Department of Education, and technical assistance centers will play in developing community schools.

The council also reviewed the timetable for introducing the system. This will begin in February when the department releases the first round of application submissions. There will be planning grants of $200,000 for up to 1,437 districts, charter schools and district offices of education without community schools and executive grants of up to $500,000 annually for five years for new and existing community schools to continue and expand the work they have done.

The size of the grants, tied to enrollment numbers, will determine how many schools will be funded, but it could be between 3,000 and 4,000 schools — the majority of California’s low-income, Title I federal schools, according to the state board. Applications will likely require that all grantees spend a portion of the funding to hire a full-time coordinator to oversee programs and partnerships. Districts, charter schools, and district office of education must provide funding equal to one-third of the grant award ($66,000 for planning grants and $166,000 for implementation grants).

A third grant to the Leading Technical Assistance Center will be used to guide the regional centres. The application process will start next month.

The state assembly will announce the recipients in May, in time for counties to build money into next year’s budgets. There will be a second round of planning grants a year from now and subsequent rounds of implementation grants.

Is the timing correct?

Board members noted that the launch of the initiative could not come at a better – or worse – time for Covid-stricken counties. “The opportunity is huge; Timing is now challenging,” said board member Elaine Strauss, who said school districts are “trying to hold out and keep schools open as the massive pandemic escalates.”

In addition to funds for community schools, the legislature has used a huge budget surplus and federal Covid aid to pass billions of dollars in new programs that school districts are trying to accommodate amid staff shortages. These include:

  • Expanded day and seven-week summer school for all low-income elementary students.
  • Launching a transitional kindergarten for all four-year-olds.
  • $4 billion commitment to provide mental health services to all students.
  • Complimentary international lunches and breakfasts for all pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students.
  • Tens of millions of dollars to fund employee development.

Several board members cautioned that school districts may view community schools as another layer of programs that restrict districts with more new paperwork and more additions to their annual plans for local oversight and accountability. Strauss urged “to slow down quickly” — to think of a simplified system with clear roles and responsibilities now to avoid confusion later.

Carrie Hannell, director of policy and strategy at the nonprofit Opportunity Institute in Berkeley, expressed a similar view.

“Community schools are a huge opportunity, but it requires a tremendous amount of planning and the ability to do well,” she said. “School and district administrators feel overwhelmed by the number of new programs—and they are all good—that they face planning concurrently.”

Citing ongoing disruptions from the pandemic, registration uncertainty, and other restrictions, the Legislative Analysts Office also warned of regional overload in its 2022-23 Newsom budget overview.

At the same time, these programs are the core of the “whole child” approach that underpins Community Schools. The increase in funding will stimulate services that may take years, if not decades, to provide.

“Right now, it’s really important for the country to wake up and say, ‘Oh my God, we have a tremendous amount of poverty,'” Darling Hammond said. A lot of money is coming into schools in a lot of different programs,” she said, then a hostess, “but a lot of it would be unusable if it wasn’t coordinated.” She said that someone to coordinate, apply for various sources of funding, manage details and implementation — an on-site coordinator whose job is not part of a model school — is critical to the success of a community school.

Relationships, not just services

What distinguishes community schools, Kemner said, is more than an intangible quality.

“Community schools are more than just a set of services that don’t really address the major barriers to learning,” she said. “You can have MOUs and contracts, but teaching, learning, and services in community schools are all about relationships.”

In well-functioning community schools, teachers will take the lead, and parents will be involved in planning; Enrichment programs and tutoring before and after school will be compatible with in-school learning. Karen Hunter Quartz, director of the UCLA Center for Community Education, said health and family services will be treated as integrated, not separate, add-ons, for the well-being of children.

“Common governance structures and collaborative partnerships with families are key,” she said.

Collaborative leadership that includes “professional development to transform school culture and climate” is one of the four “pillars” required for community education set forth in the statute and framework. The other three are:

  • Integrated student support that meets students’ academic, physical, social, emotional and mental needs.
  • Family and community involvement defined by law as “home visits, home-school collaboration, (and) culturally responsive community partnerships;”
  • Extended learning time, opportunities that include academic support and enrichment, and real-world learning opportunities such as internships and project-based learning.

A 2017 review of research into community schools by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Center for Education Policy concluded that well-executed community schools that combine all four pillars are an effective strategy for school improvement. “In general, the longer a community school operates more effectively, and the more services a student receives, the better the outcome,” the report states.

What would a school following the Pillars and Practices look like in the framework? Hunter Quartz refers to UCLA Community School, a TK-12 Los Angeles unified school of about 970 students in Koreatown that opened in 2009; A quarter of students are English language learners and 95% are low-income. The University of California, which runs the after-school program, has been a partner since the beginning.

Principal Leyda Garcia said that what you notice when you enter the school is that the school is “a relaxed and welcoming environment, like a small town. Students trust adults; office staff know our families; you can see that right away. You can see how easy the students go to see the social worker.” Psychological; there is no stigma attached.”

“We have known some of the students since kindergarten. We have a history with their families and siblings,” Garcia said. “When they hit bumps in the road, we respond differently.”

Koreatown is inhabited by many first generation families. UCLA School of Law operates a legal clinic for immigrants. There are bilingual programs in Spanish and Korean. In the early release days before the pandemic, the school ran an intergenerational art program, inviting parents and grandparents to school.

“There is a collective energy” in the school, Garcia said.

The counties will be guaranteed seven years of planning and executive financing after which they will be expected to provide their own financing. The measure of building a successful community school, Kemner said, is not time. Occurs at confidence rate.

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