02/05/2015

AFT teacher brings community schools message to Congress

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Stressing that the majority of kids in American public schools now live in poverty, a Baltimore teacher and AFT member urged Congress on Feb. 5 to battle that challenge through a redesigned Elementary and Secondary Education Act—one that helps schools and students overcome poverty's deepest obstacles by supporting proven strategies like community schools.

The message, delivered to House Democrats at a forum on ESEA reauthorization, came from Katrina Kickbush, a special education teacher at Wolfe Street Academy. Katrina Kickbush(Read her prepared testimony.) This public charter school is partnering with the University of Maryland School of Social Work and two dozen community organizations to provide enriched learning and a broad array of supports—assistance that keeps hearing-impaired students in regular classrooms and out of special education, for example, or extra language assistance that makes for meaningful parent-teacher conferences at the school, where 78 percent of students are Hispanic. Today, Wolfe Street Academy's community school approach has helped make it one of the 14 highest-performing Title I schools in the state, and the school has risen to become the second most successful elementary school in Baltimore, up from 77th just nine years ago.

At Wolfe Street Academy, the idea is to "provide wraparound services and supports for all students and families so that academics can take center stage," said Kickbush, a building representative for the Baltimore Teachers Union who invited lawmakers to visit the school. The school demonstrates "that innovation in the form of community schools is one way that ESEA and No Child Left Behind will be more effective and serve more people." She asked Congress to help spread the idea by supporting dedicated, meaningful funding under ESEA for full-service community schools and for rules that allow community schools to be an option for schools identified as needing assistance.

"In some ways, it really isn't even innovation. It is just doing what every educator and every parent wants to do for their children in a systemic, responsible manner," Kickbush reminded lawmakers. "It stands out as innovation because, even though educators do it every day in small, one-off ways, it has rarely been implemented on a grand scale."

She also asked Congress to recognize that there is no "magic" in community schools—coordination is key to the model. Supporting this approach under ESEA means helping grow the practice of having a full-time coordinator to manage and sustain partnerships and school-community trust. "The strength of the community school strategy is that it provides a designated person, a community school site coordinator, who develops systems that teachers, administration, students and their families can access in order to effectively overcome barriers to success."

"The teacher does not have the time or resources to provide high-quality academic instruction and thorough nonacademic supports to students, their families and the larger neighborhood," she said. The support provided by the site coordinator "allows teachers the opportunity to teach and students the opportunity to learn. It allows parents to trust the school institution, partners to invest in their community, and public and private service agencies access to the people their missions seek to serve."

There are other opportunities for Congress to help in this effort, said Kickbush, who urged lawmakers to support recommendations contained in a recent letter to Congress from the Coalition for Community Schools. Federal law also should treat before- and after-school and summer learning "as an integral part of a student's success and well-being, not an add-on." Federally supported training should be broadly available in schools "on how deficits in the areas of health, mental health or family stability can and do affect a child's behavior and learning," she added.

A well-designed update of ESEA will recognize that "schools cannot do it alone," Kickbush said. "They need strong community partnerships, public-private partnerships, to give students the level of education they need for the 21st-century workforce, and to give our nation the strength of a well-prepared and highly successful generation."

[Mike Rose/photo by Michael Campbell]