Forum Highlights Community Schools as Reform Model

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AFT president Randi Weingarten was among a group of high-powered educators, lawmakers and government officials who spoke about the promise of community schools at an Oct. 28 forum at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

The star of the event, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd, was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. By the end of next year, every public school in England will become an "extended school," which is basically the British version of a community school; extended schools are open longer hours and provide a variety of additional programs and services for students, parents and the community beyond the regular school day. The extended schools reform movement is based on legislation passed during Blair's time in office.

Blair called education "the great human liberator" that can offer vital opportunities to help every child succeed. What's more, he said, "we do know what works" to improve schools, but the challenge is actually implementing those reforms. Most of the presenters expressed some version of Blair's declaration that "the school should be the hub for the whole community."

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined Blair for a discussion on community schools moderated by CAP president John Podesta. Duncan, who helped establish community schools in Chicago during his tenure as superintendent, said we have a "huge moment of opportunity" right now to turn around schools, and the traditional school day and school year need to be re-examined as part of our discussion about improving schools. "The old model is broken," Duncan said, and community schools that stay open extended hours and offer additional services need to be part of new models.

During her remarks later in the forum, Weingarten was explicit about the need for the Education Department, as part of its various education reform initiatives, to make clear that community schools "are an important piece of the strategy for turning around low-performing schools."

Weingarten was part of a panel with Jane Quinn from the Children's Aid Society in New York City, a group that Weingarten and the United Federation of Teachers worked with to establish community schools in the city, and Roberto Rodriguez, who is a special assistant for education policy for President Obama. Weingarten mentioned that her first major speech as AFT president focused on community schools, which she called a way to help level the playing field for every student. "We have to do more than simply instruct children for seven hours a day," she noted.

Quinn said the way to think about community schools is as a strategy for bringing community resources to schools to promote student success, rather than as a specific program. Weingarten mentioned that one of the recent AFT Innovation Fund grants was awarded to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to work with partners in West Philadelphia to establish 10 community schools.

"The more information there is out there about how [community schools] are a transformative approach to education, the more parents and teachers will want them," she said. During her remarks, she held up a copy of the Summer 2009 issue of American Educator, which focused on community schools.

U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House majority leader, spoke at the event about legislation he has introduced that would provide grants to states and school districts to help establish more community schools. In his home state, there are 24 "Judy Centers"—named after his late wife—which are full-service early childhood and family education centers for low-income children.

In conjunction with the event, the Center for American Progress also released a new report on community schools.

October 29, 2009