Community Schools Coalition Debuts Action Plan

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The AFT joined with 123 other organizations on Sept. 25 to launch "The Community Agenda for America's Public Schools"—a bold effort to improve public schools and to strengthen the communities they serve by broadening and deepening the ties between them.

AFT president Randi Weingarten joined with other education and community leaders at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to sign the Community Agenda. This action plan promotes "results-focused" partnerships between public schools and families, community groups and agencies. The goal of the effort is to see that all children acquire the skills, knowledge and opportunities they need to be active citizens and productive adults, and to support that goal through critical services such as school-based health centers, high-quality preschool programs, and learning opportunities that bring students into the communities and community resources into the classroom. Additionally, the agenda advances the concept of schools as extended-hours neighborhood resources—open and inviting to the community, offering the types of skills and support people of all ages need, particularly in neighborhoods hardest hit by poverty and limited opportunity.

It's a vision of public education that teachers and the AFT "have supported for a very long time," Weingarten told the audience. From New York to Oregon, teachers have seen school connections with the community work, and work well, for students, their families and their neighborhoods. "It's time to put it all together in a coordinated way" and return to the idea that schools are community centers.

Weingarten and several other speakers stressed that the Community Agenda is not a new vision but one rooted in the earliest, richest traditions of public education. The objectives set forth would have seemed familiar in communities more than a century ago, when public schools depended on and benefited from the active involvement of citizens, who, in turn, looked to schools as the community's cornerstone of resources and opportunity. This view is reflected in the Community Agenda's goals. Along with schools that enable young people to succeed academically and graduate from high school ready for post-secondary education and careers, the 124 organizations signing the Community Agenda pledged support for schools where:

  • children enter healthy and ready to learn;
  • students are engaged, motivated to learn and involved in their communities;
  • children and young adolescents are physically, socially and emotionally healthy;
  • families are actively involved in the education of their children and committed to post-secondary opportunities for them; and
  • children live in self-sufficient and supportive families and communities.

It's a view that takes the education debate beyond narrow definitions of accountability based exclusively on standardized test scores, Weingarten said. The coalition is "moving the term 'accountability' to responsibility—shared responsibility for all children."

Along with highly qualified staff and excellent school programs, education needs "more connections, support and learning opportunities" to help both students and communities do their best, Martin J. Blank, director of the Coalition for Community Schools, told the National Press Club audience. This "moves us beyond the divisive either/or debate" over accountability that inevitably occurs when schools are divorced from their communities.

The Community Agenda stresses that all stakeholders in a community have something to contribute. Invited to join in this vision are families; government; youth organizations; healthcare, mental health and family support agencies; higher education; unions; faith-based institutions; and businesses and community development groups.

The action plan asks partners to support internships, mentorships, job-training opportunities and other real-world learning opportunities that engage students. This strategy not only helps motivate students by highlighting the relevance of their coursework, it also helps communities improve themselves through student service and involvement.

The agenda also calls for partnerships that address physical and mental health issues affecting individual students and their families. Problems like chronic asthma are real "barriers to learning" and should be addressed before they become major impediments to student success.

And the Community Agenda stresses that schools should strive to be a resource-rich hub for the community, "open to students, families and community members—spanning the generations—for learning and recreation, before and after traditional school hours, into the evenings, on weekends, and during the summers. Families and residents participate in the life of the school and the school is a center for community dialogue and problem solving."

To make this vision happen, it will also take the involvement and leadership of federal, state and local government policymakers, the Community Agenda stresses. Additional resources will be necessary, including training to help schools work more effectively with families and the community. It is also key to have staff in every school who can integrate school and community resources based on the needs of individual students—while engaging even greater numbers of parents and community partners to play a role in the community-school opportunity.

The coalition also asked the White House and Congress to begin a national conversation on the agenda, defining legislative and program recommendations to support the effort.

Community Agenda partners will begin work immediately to craft policies that support their goals and help public education "function as a system, not just a loosely based coalition of organizations," said Warren Simmons, executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Also speaking at the event and signing the Community Agenda were: Anne Bryant of the National School Boards Association, Jodi Grant of the Afterschool Alliance, Ira Harkavy of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania and Linda Juszczak of the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care. [Video by Matthew Jones.]

Sept. 25, 2008