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Putting the neighborhood in neighborhood schools

Typically, schools in low-income city neighborhoods are islands unto themselves.

Teachers drive in and out of the school parking lot every day, never leaving the campus to visit the surrounding neighborhood. Community residents may live down the street from a school for years and, if they don’t have school-age children, never set foot in the building.

The push to improve academic achievement for urban youth has led some community leaders to knock on the doors of their local schools in hopes of building new partnerships.

Gordon Walek

Yet the push to improve academic achievement for urban youth has led some community leaders to knock on the doors of their local schools in hopes of building new partnerships. Some have chosen to open new schools of their own.

At the Getting It Done II conference’s Educating workshop, academics and community leaders discussed ways to break down the longstanding barriers between urban schools and neighborhoods.

Better schools give local children a better chance to rise out of poverty, and they make a community a more attractive place to live. The experts at Getting It Done II give advice on how community-based organizations can be a factor in local education.

Know the landscape

Before you knock on the school door, it’s important to know what’s happening inside—both the larger picture of district policy and the inside politics within the building.

Deborah McKoy, executive director of the Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California, Berkeley, advised that to start, it’s important to walk into a school with an open mind, not a fix-it attitude.

It’s important to walk into a school with an open mind, not a fix-it attitude.

McKoy worked with a team of researchers on the recent report “Opportunity-Rich Schools and Sustainable Communities,” which outlines a series of steps planners can take when looking for ways to connect community development and local schools.

Too often, McKoy warned workshop participants, “You’ve got this great idea and you go knock on the school door and you get shot down because they’re in crisis.”

In Baltimore, a new superintendent pushed to eliminate separate middle-school buildings just as East Baltimore Development, Inc. won a grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies to focus on middle-schoolers through Elev8, an integrated set of academic, health and social supports for early adolescents and their families.

“There were no changes to the physical campuses [of the elementary schools] to accommodate older students, and very little change in curriculum or culture to accommodate middle-grade students,” said Nichole Johnson of Elev8 Baltimore.

East Baltimore Development, Inc. operates the Elev8 program, an integrated set of academic, health and social supports for early adolescents and their families at local schools.

Elev8 responded by adding more resources for the students than originally envisioned at a critical moment in the schools. “Our staff are in the school all day,” said Johnson, offering after-school programs, health services and employment assistance to students and their families.

That constant presence now allows Elev8 Baltimore to build a relationship with the school district and encourage its schools to take greater advantage of district resources to improve teaching and learning.

In Washington, D.C., Irasema Salcido, the president of the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, founded a charter school, Chávez Parkside Middle School and High School, in the long-neglected Parkside/Kenilworth neighborhood long before federal officials announced the Promise Neighborhoods grant competition.

With a background at several charters before starting Chávez, she had the credibility and relationships to build bridges among local principals across D.C.’s high-tension lines dividing public and charter schools, once the Promise Neighborhood program began. Under her leadership, the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative has created a strong network of K-12 schools, early learning programs, community partners and philanthropy. 

Build a common vision and measure success

“Don’t underestimate the time it takes to plan,” Salcido warned. Building trust with people who have been burned before takes time. “People are used to people coming and promising things and then they don’t deliver.”

"Don't underestimate the time it takes to plan," said Irasema Salcido.

From the beginning, the DC Promise Neighborhoods Initiative board chose to build networks among existing agencies rather than bring in new programs, which also built trust.

During planning, McKoy stressed the importance of not only adopting a common vision across institutions, but also of adopting a common set of indicators to measure “change, shared accountability and effective use of scarce resources.”

McKoy pointed to the Cincinnati area’s Strive Partnership as an example of a broad partnership setting ambitious, measurable goals for children’s outcomes as a result of partners’ services and programs.

Salcido echoed McKoy’s call for thoughtful measures of success. The DC Promise Neighborhoods Initiative is focused tightly on two areas in 2012: improving early learning from birth through preschool and improving comprehensive school reform in its K-12 schools.

“We knew that our academic results were low. That drove all our decisions.” Salcido said. “You have to look at that data first and make sure everything you’re doing will help you show movement in those results.”

In Baltimore, the planning process for Elev8 took about a year and a half, and those plans included development of an evaluation model that strengthens the engagement of families and school staff and offers information to make wise mid-course corrections.

Don’t be limited to K-12

Another model for successful school-community partnerships is creating supports for the whole life of learners. The community school model, for example, works to not only bring more resources to students, but also open the school to programs that help families and other residents.

The community school model open the school to programs that help families and other residents, like this health fair at a Chicago school.

Gordon Walek

Elev8 Baltimore, for example, works in the long-neglected neighborhoods north of Johns Hopkins University, where the neighborhood had lost 70 percent of its residents before East Baltimore Development, Inc. began its work.

To make the Elev8 run, the program works with more than 25 partners to provide a wealth of services to middle-schoolers and their families, from after-school programs and school-based health centers to support for parents seeking employment.

With high teacher turnover at local schools, the programs' stability is another benefit. “Some of our [after-school] learning coaches have known the student longer than the teacher has,” Johnson noted.

In Washington D.C., the Promise Neighborhood’s cradle-to-career approach starts with high-quality early childhood education. The neighborhood is home to an Educare center, one of two dozen national demonstration centers for exemplary care and education of children from birth through age five.

Look for partners to help the school succeed

One of the major hurdles to successful school-community planning is coordinating the investments—ensuring school infrastructure meets the needs of the community and that housing and community infrastructure support the needs of the school.

"A planner has to be on an education committee and a school facilities person has to serve on the planning committee."

Aligned school and neighborhood investments won’t happen without point people to stay focused, McKoy said. “It has to be someone’s job. A planner has to be on an education committee and a school facilities person has to serve on the planning committee.”

In many cases, distressed neighborhoods are targets for school closures due to declining enrollments. Though the closures look logical to school officials with a 30,000-foot view of their districts, they can be devastating for neighborhoods and families.

“During our planning year, a new CEO came into the district. He immediately closed a number of schools. One of the closed schools was one we had spent 12 months planning with. We saw what effect that had on families,” Johnson said. “It feels like punishment. It feels like, ‘We’re bad, our school’s not working, and you’re going to take it away and make [our kids] go all over the city.’”

“School closures are a national issue,” McKoy observed. In cities like Detroit, “they’re saying the building is too expensive to operate.” Community partners are exploring joint use of buildings and creating energy efficiencies to reduce those costs and keep buildings open.

Ensuring students have safe and affordable transit to and from school is a service often overlooked by both educators and city planners.

Carl Vogel

To prevent these problems in the future, some forward-thinking communities are building joint use in from the start. Emeryville, California recently broke ground on a new civic center that will also house a K-12 school.

McKoy also noted that ensuring students have safe and affordable transit to and from school is a service often overlooked by both educators and city planners. “No one in transportation talks to people in schools. If it happens it’s almost always informal,” she said.

One example is the state of Massachusetts , which has partnered with 350 elementary and middle schools in 116 communities to promote safe walking and biking routes to school, reaching 25 percent of students in the state, compared to a national Safe Routes to School reach of 7 percent.

Some large urban districts, like New York and Baltimore, offer free public transit for middle and high school students. Though it’s cheaper than using yellow school buses, the cost is considerable. Recently, New York’s program came under budget scrutiny and was only saved through mass protests by students and parents.

Prep for the long haul, but stay nimble

Whatever a school-community partnership undertakes, sustaining the work is the final challenge. McKoy urged workshop participants to prepare for the long haul by maintaining lines of communication between schools and communities and devising innovative funding strategies.

Prepare for the long haul by maintaining lines of communication and devise innovative funding strategies.

In Washington, the DC Promise Neighborhoods Initiative didn’t win a second round of federal funding. Yet local funders have followed through on their grant commitments and the network is forging ahead.

“We’re going to do a five–year sustainability plan so we know what the costs of the services are. The funders are coming together in a collaborative to make sure we have the resources,” Salcido said.

The group is also coupling its long-term vision with performance-based flexibility in providing services.

“We’re going to have yearly contracts with providers,” Salcido said. “If they’re not providing results we won’t keep them.”

As important as education is for a community, partnering with local schools has traditionally been a tough proposition for community developers. Strategies from the comprehensive community development playbook—from a wide range of local partners to evaluation and accountability—can make the difference.

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Read a review of “Opportunity-Rich Schools and Sustainable Communities” that appeared in the December 2011 issue of the Institute Journal.

Read a review of “Collective Impact,” a paper on the key lessons from Cincinnati’s Strive program, that appeared in the July 2011 issue of the Institute Journal.

Posted in Baltimore, Education & Early Learning, Washington, DC

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