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Community School District Movement Launches in LA

Dorsey H.S. student Christabel Ukomado (Photo by Bill Raden)Dorsey H.S. student Christabel Ukomado addresses Reclaim Our Schools gathering. (Photo by Bill Raden)

In a sign that California is quickly emerging as the nation’s progressive conscience-in-exile, a new Los Angeles education-reform group has launched an ambitious initiative that it claims could close historic student achievement gaps in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

Members of Reclaim Our Schools LA (ROS-LA), a coalition of educators, labor unions and social justice organizations, told a December media event attended by about one hundred parents, students and supporters in the library of South L.A.’s Dorsey High School, that the key to substantive school reform is to transform LAUSD into a “community school district.”

Community schools, which have roots in the progressive movement of the early 20th century but have been undergoing a recent revival, look beyond academics to the entrenched, poverty-related social, emotional and health barriers that keep kids in high-needs districts from succeeding in school. The approach redresses those needs by partnering with families, local government and community-based organizations to provide “wraparound services” — health clinics, mental health counselors, after-school programs or parent support services — on school grounds.

“We believe schools should be safe havens for students and families,” said coalition member Angelica Salas. “Our coalition is committed to making sure that every student can benefit from an education, independent of what school or what ZIP code they live in.” Her group also used the event to unveil a detailed argument for community schooling in a paper called “A Vision to Support Every Student.”

In addition to Salas, who is the executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, nine coalition speakers were present, including union president Alex Caputo-Pearl of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), and Max Arias, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 99.

The coalition was short on the details of  what an actual community school might look like, saying each would be tailored to specific community needs. But the group noted that LAUSD, whose student population is 80 percent low-income, already boasts a number of successful pilot community schools, including San Fernando High School Community School in the economically depressed North San Fernando Valley, and James A. Garfield Senior High School in East L.A., whose on-campus “Wellness Center” offers physical exams, family planning and mental health services.

Though the movement has been mostly overlooked by the media in their coverage of the 25-year education wars that have pitted the “school choice” privatization movement against traditional neighborhood public schools, it has produced impressive gains in math and reading proficiency, along with increases in graduation and college-admission rates, with the kind of disruptive, high-needs students that the corporate charter school model tends to exclude. Those successes gained community schooling a toehold in the Obama administration’s 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, which included language supportive of the approach.

“Unlike other models of reform that we see today,” said coalition member John Rogers, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, “[community schooling] is a model of reform that is inclusive; that doesn’t exclude English learners; that doesn’t exclude foster [care students]; that doesn’t exclude students with special needs. It says everybody is part of our community.”

According to ROS-LA’s Patricia Castellanos, who is also deputy director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). Oakland Unified and Cincinnati Public Schools have already declared themselves community school districts, with Austin, Texas possibly to follow.

But as the nation’s second-largest school district, LAUSD would considerably raise the profile of community schooling with what Castellanos termed a “new path” to reform, with the potential to impact national education policy.

That prospect, coalition members repeatedly emphasized, has taken on new urgency in the months since last spring, when ROS-LA began organizing. Donald Trump has alarmed public education advocates with both his campaign proposal for a $20 billion school voucher program and his nomination of anti-public schools radical Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education.

“If there were ever a time to invest more in our public schools, it is now,” declared coalition member Tina Trujillo, associate professor at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.

However, ROS-LA’s ambitions may not only collide with the incoming administration, but also run up against Republican vows to cut federal funding for health services, food assistance and cash assistance for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

California currently receives about $69.3 billion in federal support for health and human services, with $7.7 billion going to the state Department of Social Services for child welfare services, foster care and the CalWORKs welfare-to-work program — the kind of assistance to low-income and vulnerable Californians that is at the heart of community schooling’s wraparound services model.

“We are very well aware that there are financial issues that need to be dealt with,” admitted UTLA’s Alex Caputo-Pearl. “California hovers between 40th and 50th among the states in per-pupil funding. It’s not acceptable. We’ve got to take that battle to the state level, and we will.”

The exact price tag to transform LAUSD to community schooling remains unknown. Castellanos said that specific budget numbers will be part of ROS-LA’s planning and research for 2017, adding that national community school experts claim the model is less expensive to implement than it might seem, since it is based on leveraging existing community services and grants.

In the meantime, the coalition will be laying the groundwork for political and economic support by lobbying LAUSD leaders and scheduling parent-student forums in early 2017 to ensure that ROS-LA’s priorities are reflected in the district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan.

“Our goal is to have LAUSD designate itself as a community schools district and to allocate funds to roll out this model.” Castellanos said. “That will require conversations with the LAUSD board so that community schools are part of the school board’s budgeting process in the next year.”

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