Schools: Is This Their Time?
Neal Peirce, The Washington Post Writers Group, May 26,
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Overshadowed by the exclusive academic focus of the federal
government's "No Child Left Behind" initiative, a strong
movement for full community-based schools has been building
around the nation.
The idea is that schools which engage the whole child and his or
her family--with active after-school recreation and learning
activities, crisis assistance, medical and mental health
services, student service learning, programs for parents--can
help many more kids succeed, both socially and academically.
The Bush administration apparently isn't convinced. Its budget
would cut 40 percent of the $1 billion appropriated last year
for the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program,
which was inaugurated in the late '90s and grew rapidly with
enthusiastic support from President Clinton.
The Bush budget office is justifying the proposed cut by citing
research from Princeton-based Mathematica Research purporting to
show few academic gains for children who take part in
Not true, cries a broad-based Coalition for Community Schools,
backed by more than 160 national and local organizations.
There's "a whole body of research," Coalition director Martin
Blank said to a conference last week, "to show that after-school
programs help improve academic performance, provide kids with
safe places, help parents find work, and help youth with whole
sets of competencies."
Common sense would seem to say as much: Children spend only a
few of their waking hours in traditional classrooms. If their
family is in crisis, if a beleaguered principal can't enforce
order, if no one pays attention to students' physical or mental
health problems, if they go home to the opiate of daytime
television, who truly believes they're likely to succeed?
Especially in disadvantaged communities, community schools are
positioned to make critical interventions. Take asthma, a key
reason for school absences. In one 24-block area of Harlem, 26
percent of children suffer from the disease. Regular schools
can't cope with such conditions; community schools can, either
through on-site clinics or connections into medical care
Community schools are polar opposites of a defensive education
establishment and the idea of the fenced-off school that's open
at 8 a.m. and shuttered by 3 p.m. Instead, they're open every
afternoon and evening and involve a variety of
partnerships--with Boys and Girls Clubs, local YMCAs, social
service agencies, local police and probation officers, health
Often there's a lead partner, like the University of
Pennsylvania's West Philadelphia Improvement Corps. One of the
Corps' sites, the Charles Drew Elementary School, in 1999 showed
more improvement on the state's standardized reading and math
tests than any other school in Pennsylvania.
With their partners' support in every area from student health
to tutoring to drama to parents who help direct sports
activities, schools become more orderly so that principals can
concentrate less on discipline, more on academics.
There were some 3,000 such schools in 1998 and close to 5,000
now, according to the Coalition of Community Schools, an
affiliate of the Washington-based Institute for Educational
And now the mainstream political system is beginning to take
keen interest. Chicago's public school system, run by CEO Arne
Duncan under the direction of Mayor Richard Daley, has just
created 20 community schools and aims for 100 in five years. The
goal: to make the community schools centers of their
communities, open 12 hours daily, offering every service from
health and counseling to English as a Second Language.
Providence's new mayor, David Cicilline, ran for office on a
promise to introduce community schools and renewed his pledge at
his inaugural. Until "we open our schools to community
partners," Cicilline proclaims, it won't be possible to unite
the two Providences--the one that celebrates diversity, a
revitalized downtown and a remarkable concentration of higher
education; the other with 40 percent of children living in
poverty, an underserved and growing immigrant community and
unacceptably low student performance.
Opening the schoolhouse door to business partners, parents, arts
and higher education partners, says Cicilline, will unlock
opportunities and make it possible "to bring the two Providences
And in turn, say proponents, for young people to become engaged
in service learning opportunities--protecting streams and
wetlands, for example, or studying why in a poor neighborhood so
many lots are abandoned, or why there are so many liquor stores
"In today's wave of fear and terror, we need young people to see
themselves as part of democratic activism," says Blank. Or in
the words of the Community Schools Coalition chair, the
University of Pennsylvania's Ira Harkavy, "to engage youth, to
strengthen democracy, to see that the frightening social chasm
in America does not get even worse."
Does that mean continuing pressure for higher academic standards
isn't imperative? No way. It's just a forceful reminder that
schools don't operate in a vacuum, that community involvement
and across-the-board academic improvement are codependent--we
can't have one without the other.
For further information on community schools, please visit
About Neal Peirce
Neal Peirce is a foremost writer, among American
journalists, on metropolitan regions - their political and
economic dynamics, their emerging national and global roles.
With Curtis Johnson, he has co-authored the Peirce Reports on
compelling issues of metropolitan futures for leading media in
20 regions across the nation (most recently the San
Diego-Tijuana citistate area for San Diego Magazine, South
Florida for the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and Fort
Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, Kansas City for the Kansas City Star,
and South Texas for the San Antonio Express-News).
In 1975, Peirce began - and continues today - the United States'
first national column focused on state and local government
themes. Syndication is by the Washington Post Writers
Group. His 10-book series on America's states and regions
culminated in The Book of America: Inside 50 States Today (W.W.
Norton, 1983). His more recent books were Citistates: How Urban
America Can Prosper in a Competitive World, and Breakthroughs:
Recreating the American City.
can be reached at
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