07/15/2015

Community schools drum up support in Austin, Baltimore

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AFT members at schools across the nation have discovered something in common: When you look to your union and your community for help in supporting disadvantaged kids, you will find it.

In Austin, Texas, it took a crisis of threatened school closings that threw parents, the district and Education Austin into each other's arms to rescue their once-successful middle and high schools.

Austin community schools panel"I didn't even know the term 'community school,' but it's just common sense," said Alan Weeks of the nonprofit Austin Voices for Education and Youth. "A community school is just doing whatever it takes so that all kids succeed. It's an 'all hands on deck' mentality. People ask if it takes a lot of money; it takes a lot of relationships."

Communication drove those relationships. The result—a coordinated set of community partners—saved Webb Middle School and John H. Reagan Early College High School. The partners brought in social workers and wraparound services for the entire family to help deal with such thorny issues as mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness. For example, partners brought in the Seedlings Foundation for children with incarcerated parents. The black, Hispanic and LGBT chambers of commerce got involved, and a grocery store chain donated $25,000 in books and materials.

Without these resources, Austin would have closed two schools, the product of deficit thinking, said Austin schools Superintendent Paul Cruz. "You know what happens when you close a school," he added. "It devastates an entire community."

"Community schooling brings healing to those who are broken," said Webb Middle School teacher Alonzo Blankenship. "It brings liberty to those are oppressed. It brings love and comfort to the insecure, and it brings confidence to those whose voices have been silenced."

The tight school-community relationship in Austin even changed the conversation at the state level, said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin.

'We should have a resource'
In southeast Baltimore, it's a similar story of students who need a hand. Wolfe Street Academy, a Baltimore City public charter school, teamed up with the Family League of Baltimore to serve a growing English language learner population.

Baltimore workshop panelistsPrincipal Mark Gaither said the teachers, custodians and other staff want to help, but all they can provide is a single coat, or a dinner, or some other one-time contribution. Turning Wolfe Street into a community school converted this one-off approach into systemic support for the children, he said.

Before comingto Wolfe Street six years ago, teacher Katrina Kickbush used to spend all her "free" time either on lesson plans or in emergency mode helping children in crisis.
"It felt very lonesome," she said, because her whole job as a teacher is to deliver instruction, yet she was spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get kids basic services so that they would be present and available to learn. Her constant refrain: "We should have a resource for this. Why don't we have a resource for this? We should have a resource for this!"

When she became part of a community school, Kickbush found she was able to secure the immediate resources her students needed, like help processing food stamp applications, which allowed her to teach more and to advocate for kids in other ways. As an active member of the Baltimore Teachers Union and as Wolfe Street's building rep, she's able to join AFT-Maryland in pressing for school funding at the state level, where a new governor has been slashing the education budget.

With thousands of volunteer hours donated by community partners, such as Johns Hopkins University, and supported by the Family League of Baltimore, the school went from being ranked 77th to second in student performance in the city over 10 years. And today, community schools have blossomed across town, along with reductions in chronic absences and suspensions, and improved outcomes.

"It's been amazing the change I've seen in the eyes of the children and their academic growth," says Kickbush. "The difference is now they're coming ready to learn."

[Annette Licitra/photos by Erin Scott and Jim Darling]