Rise Up for Equity: A Virtual Summit on Community Schools and Family Engagement

Even before a global pandemic loomed in early spring of 2020, the plans for a Los Angeles summit on community schools were ambitious. Called Rise Up for Equity, the event was designed to bring together classroom educators, scholars, parents and community activists from every corner of the U.S. as both presenters and participants to explore the importance of community schools in the American public education landscape today.

Rise Up for Equity

But in March, it became clear that the physical conference in Los Angeles was not to be; instead, the organizers at the Institute for Educational Leadership took a crash course in technology and prepared to go virtual; they re-jiggered 80 sessions to spread across 100 hours in the month of June, all online.

Just as challenging to IEL was the emergence of an entirely unexpected subject: how to educate students and support their families in a new era of stay-at-home orders.

IEL, with more than 200 local, state and national partners, is the umbrella group for the Coalition for Community Schools. It is dedicated to a broad mission: wrangling children, parents, educators, school boards, researchers, healthcare providers and local politicians to design and fund the community school model—a provider of education, healthcare and family engagement—all under the roof of a public school. The AFT is an IEL member and was a sponsor of Rise Up for Equity.

The community school mission began a century ago in John Dewey’s vision of the public school as a social center. It has now become a movement. The Rise Up for Equity summit looked at both its past and its future—and attracted 2,200 participants, its largest-ever attendance.

The upside of an all-virtual summit was that participants from every state in the U.S. were able to sign up; staff members of multiple school districts could afford to attend and all could view the video sessions later with links online.

IEL is committed to bringing “families, schools and community resources together as partners for the common good”; it supports well-resourced public schools as “the only viable public institution in a growing number of disadvantaged neighborhoods.” Or, as summarized at the summit by University of Pennsylvania Prof. Ira Harkavy, community schools offer “a way to deal with increasingly savage inequalities” in American society.

Another speaker, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, provided a current context. “This pandemic has been the great revealer—from Jim Crow to redlining to the Trump administration locking in racial disparities in education,” he said. “We can’t return to business as usual when this is over.”

Sen. Brown became a supporter of the community schools model after witnessing their success in Cincinnati. His hopes mirror those of AFT President Randi Weingarten whose detailed reopening plan calls for safety protections and curriculum adjustments—and the funding to provide them.

In the AFT plan, and in her comments to AFT members attending the Rise Up for Equity summit, Weingarten cited community schools as powerful players in AFT’s prescription for how to safely get back into school buildings for the 2020-21 school year. In fact, teachers and resource specialists in AFT community schools have been busy throughout the pandemic:

  • In Houston, they are dropping off supplies at homes of students in need while agitating for inclusion in reopening plans;
  • In Connecticut, they’ve supported the initiative Cards4Kids that delivered library cards to children who couldn’t afford them;
  • In Duluth, Minn., they’ve connected staff support circles with public health providers; and
  • In Alexandria, La., they’ve created hotspots and distributed laptops and food to students and families.

Though a relatively newer concept, community schools already have a mark in history. One of the sessions in the summit, “The Community Schools Movement Then and Now,” featured veteran organizers who pointed to a landmark launch in Oakland, Calif. where a top-down school district administration in a chronically under-resourced community took on the bold new commitment of educating the whole child in community schools.

Today, many consider Oakland to be the nation’s most ambitious community school initiative. The key to its success, said participants, was the conviction that equity requires “system change” in both school districts and every school site. “One school can’t do it alone,” the speakers agreed.

A session later in June, “The Way We Do School,” tracked the Oakland success story in more detail. In 2011, the Oakland school district was just coming out of receivership and boldly took on a $100 million loan to start fresh in a new direction, declaring every school in the district a community school.

Today, all Oakland public schools contain an integration of academic and social services along with healthcare, counseling and family engagement. And educators are happy. “Earlier, we worried that the community stuff would be a distraction and take time away from the classroom,” said one participant, “but it’s been the opposite.” The full story is told in a new book, “The Way We Do School: The Making of Oakland’s Full-Service Community School District” from Harvard Education Press.

Other sessions reflected the imperative to look through a remarkably wide lens when analyzing the complex operations of a community schools:

  • A session on students with disabilities examined a support system for the entire family as members learn to advocate for their disabled child and themselves;
  • A session on the importance of home visiting helped educators adapt to virtual visits in this time of COVID-19, with extra help on literacy for the entire family;
  • A session on trauma responsive practices included a sampling of playful and comforting videos sent daily from a Kansas principal to his shut-in staff;
  • A session on children in immigrant and refugee families addressed the urgent need for translation services;
  • A session on the overlooked and devasting costs of poverty, evictions and homelessness honed in on school children who must move between districts; and
  • A session on funding in a time of national upheaval also laid out ways to elevate new voices in the crisis and seek a deeper redesign of inequitable institutions.

Additional sessions found ways to embrace everyone in the complex community school world, from parent wisdom circles to principals burdened with creating coherence; and from young people who had their own Next Generation town hall to formerly incarcerated and gang-related parents and caregivers in “Homeboys & Homegirls are Opening Educational Doors” and much more.

At the summit, an often-repeated mantra was, “25,000 community schools by 2025.” This is also a goal embraced by the AFT. In her welcoming comments to the AFT delegation of 150 members, President Weingarten discussed her current experience of serving on the unity platform committee of presidential candidate Joe Biden. There, she voiced AFT’s strong support for the community school model; she also called for an impact assessment in every community that is considering a charter school. That assessment should answer this question: Wouldn’t a community school—which is more cost effective—better serve its neighborhood?  “This is now part of the real reform agenda to strengthen communities, to help kids and to put their wellbeing front and center,” she said.

In the final days of the summit, sessions bored into adapting to a COVID-19 world with sessions on “The Learning Loss Challenge,” “Supporting Students’ Mental Health Needs” and, optimistically, “Building a Community of Wellness,” which is not a new subject to community schools. Rather, it is their century-old promise.

[Connie McKenna]