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Community Schools and Community-Building from PTA Magazine (February/March 2007)

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On a typical weekday night, Monroe Elementary School in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood is a hive of activity. Parents, children, and community residents fill the halls and classrooms. Some adults take Mexican folkloric dance classes while their children get help with homework. Other adults are learning English or pursuing their general equivalency diplomas (GEDs). In one classroom, faculty from Chicago State University are teaching a group of parents who are enrolled in a college degree program that will lead to bilingual teaching certification; upon graduation, the parents plan to take positions as teachers in schools like Monroe in this neighborhood. In another room, a small group of teachers and parents plans literacy-oriented home visits that they will conduct together at the homes of other families.

Monroe is one of a set of eight schools that has partnered for more than 10 years now with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), a long-standing community-based organization. LSNA uses a community organizing strategy to build parent participation and leadership at the schools. Parent leaders helped establish at Monroe and other LSNA partner schools the community learning centers that offer many of the programs mentioned above. These community learning centers were some of the first established in the city and have been cited as a model by Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan.

Games can help you learn!

Games can help you learn!

Monroe and LSNA have built their partnership in conditions that have proved challenging for many public schools. Ninety percent of Monroe students are Latino, mostly from new immigrant families in which English is not the primary language, and more than 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. And Monroe is a big school in a big city, with more than 1,300 students in kindergarten through 8th grade. Yet Monroe and LSNA’s other partner schools have made steady gains in student learning as measured by a standardized test called the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Monroe and LSNA are proud that through their collaboration the school has made significant gains in student achievement. But there is something more going on here. Monroe and other community schools like it are showing how public schools can become sites for community-building. They are creating a set of “public goods” beyond the academic achievement of students, even if student learning remains at the heart of their mission.

Connecting people, building trust

Community schools provide places for parents and other community residents to meet. In many low-income communities, public schools are disconnected from families. Parents who don’t speak English, or who feel that they themselves were “failures” as students, are often hesitant to enter schools. They end up doing so only when their children have problems. Parents enter community schools like Monroe, however, for positive reasons—to take classes or, in other cases, to receive health services. These parents become familiar with the school environment, meet school staff, and consequently are more likely to be involved in their children’s education. They also meet other parents and community residents. The school becomes a place to build relationships and get to know each other’s children. It becomes a place where parents can discuss common issues they face raising their children or trying to get GEDs for themselves. As they participate in activities together and discover their shared interests and common values, parents begin to build trust among each other and with school staff.

In recent years, social scientists have been actively engaged in showing the many benefits of these trusting relationships, what they refer to as “social capital.” Like financial capital (money) and human capital (education), social capital is a resource that can help individuals and groups achieve their goals. In other words, when people are connected and know each other well, they can work together to make their schools and communities better. For example, in community schools like Monroe, parents and teachers can set learning expectations and standards for student

behavior and then work together to make sure children get the same message from all the adults around them—in the home, in the school, and in the neighborhood. This kind of collaboration helps children become successful in school and in life.

Social capital also promotes civic engagement, another public good for schools and communities. Parents and other community members are more likely to participate in activities when they know other people and trust them. Schools and individual parent activists often get frustrated when they send fliers home for events and few people show up. But research has consistently shown that people are most likely to attend a meeting when someone they know invites them. Absent real relationships, fliers don’t work well. With a network of social relationships, however, schools have a resource for action.

"When parents, teachers, and community members build relationships and work together, they start to forge a shared and positive identity."

Parent involvement means community involvement

Parents are active in a wide range of activities at Monroe Elementary School. About a dozen parents serve as parent mentors for 10 hours a week, supporting teachers in school classrooms. Other parents act as literacy ambassadors, accompanying teachers on home visits to families. Still others serve as parent tutors. In addition, parents organize the after-school and evening programs and teach some of the classes offered. At Mozart Elementary School, another LSNA partner school, parents run a Tuesday-morning reading program in the school cafeteria. Every week, 50 or so parents come to take out books for their children to read at home. Meanwhile, these parents get a chance to socialize and build more social capital.

But the action doesn’t stop at the school door. Parents from schools in Logan Square have become active in the neighborhood through LSNA. They work together to lobby the city government to support the building of housing that’s more affordable. They participate in LSNA’s Health Outreach Team, through which they have connected thousands of low-income families to affordable health services and state insurance. Parents also helped develop LSNA’s newest health initiative, Active Living by Design, which is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The goal of the program is to increase physical activity in the neighborhood.

When parents, teachers, and community members build relationships and work together, they start to forge a shared and positive identity—another public good. Many families find themselves isolated in modern urban life and feel alone and overwhelmed trying to raise their children. Meanwhile, many teachers tend to see only the problems of low-income communities, such as crime, violence, and broken homes. Community schools offer the opportunity for people to move from “I” to “we” as parents contribute in positive ways to school and community life. Parents at Monroe repeatedly refer to the school community as a family. As a result of this sense of family, parents care not just about their own children but about all children in the community. And they feel empowered to do something for them. For example, Sylvia Gonzalez, a parent tutor at Monroe Elementary School, says she wants to “make a difference in a child’s life—not just my own but in someone else’s child. Just boosting their self-esteem and letting them know they can do it. That’s what parent involvement is—helping other children, not just your own.”

Joanna Brown, LSNA’s senior parent organizer, sees the parent mentor program as a model for leadership development, particularly for immigrant women. “Over and over again, the women themselves speak about being transformed by the experience,” says Brown. “Many were isolated in their homes by language, culture, and small children. For many, it is their first step out into the public sphere. This works in part because the school is the safest public institution, filled with women and children.”

A strong, shared identity encourages people to work together, making the school more than a collection of separate classrooms and programs. The strongest community schools work hard to integrate community into the school. In them, parents, teachers, and community members learn from and collaborate with one another so they each can do their own work better. Classroom learning advances when parents serve in the classroom, when teachers are familiar with the families from which their students come, and when health-care providers in the school work with teachers to address student needs. Moreover, when parents, teachers, and community members feel a shared identity, all students benefit, even those whose own parents aren’t involved.

"The strongest community schools work hard to integrate community into the school. In them, parents, teachers, and community members learn from and collaborate with one another so they each can do their own work better."

Creating community schools

How did the community schools in Logan Square come about? While community schools are physically located in public schools, they typically form through collaborations between these schools and community-based organizations with deep roots in the lives of families in the surrounding neighborhoods. LSNA is just such an organization. Its work stretches back to the 1960s and is defined by a commitment to community organizing. While most community schools and most community-based organizations work to build social capital, those that emphasize organizing are particularly strong at engaging parents and community members in meaningful and powerful forms of civic engagement in schools and communities. This is true for several reasons.

First, in addition to focusing on relationship-building, community organizing groups place a high priority on leadership development. LSNA organizers work closely with parents, offering training on a wide range of issues in education, child development, and the skills of civic engagement. In this way, parents emerge as leaders in the school while the capacity of the school community grows exponentially. One example of this process in action is the creation of the community learning centers at LSNA partner schools, formed at the instigation of parent leaders, in collaboration with principals, of course.

Also, community organizing groups focus on building power. The idea of power can frighten many school leaders. Yet, to forge relationships based upon respect and trust, community schools must address differences that exist across lines of race and social class, say between a largely white, middle-class teaching force and parents from low-income communities of color. LSNA makes sure to take a highly collaborative approach to addressing these issues. It builds what many organizers call “relational power,” that is, the power to get things done together. Collaboration requires a shift from top-down approaches to sharing of power. James Menconi, the principal of Monroe Elementary School, describes what has happened at his school: “Teachers respond to parents who get involved. Teachers have come to share power. They have moved from ‘sages on the stage’ to facilitators, to empower parents and aides to help, and kids to help themselves.”

LSNA is not alone. Many other community organizing groups have worked hard to collaborate with public schools, finding social capital and relational power to be effective ways to increase the capacity for both school improvement and community development. For example, the Industrial Areas Foundation, one of the oldest and largest community organizing networks in the country, has built an Alliance School network of 120 schools across the state of Texas. There is no one model or program that must be implemented in Alliance Schools. Some schools open after-school learning centers; others, health centers. The power of the organizing approach is that it starts from the needs and interests of parents and the community. It starts where the people are and builds from there as trust, relationships, leadership, and collaboration advance. Through the active engagement of all of a school community’s adults, the power and capacity of the school to educate children increases, as does the school’s ability to support families and contribute to community-building.

There is a long history in the American educational system of seeing schools as vital institutions for community and democracy. John Dewey, a leading educational philosopher of the progressive movement in the early 20th century, believed that schools played a critical role in preparing children to become citizens capable of working together to solve society’s problems. In other words, he believed that schooling had public value beyond imparting knowledge to individual students. Over the years, though, public schools have become progressively disconnected from the communities they serve, particularly in low-income urban neighborhoods. And public schools have recently been subject to relentless pressure to narrow their focus to student achievement as measured by standardized tests. Schools are struggling to raise test scores on their own, but if they partner with community-based organizations and reclaim a broader democratic vision, they don’t have to struggle alone. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that bringing the school and the community closer together improves learning for all students.

Schools that work with community organizing groups bring the community into the school to expand the school’s resources. They also bring the school out into the community as they offer a modern-day way to implement John Dewey’s democratic vision. Working with community-based organizations, schools can educate children better and serve as dynamic sites for community-building and civic engagement.

Mark R. Warren is associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the author of Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2001) and “Communities and Schools: A New View of Urban Education Reform,” published in the Harvard Educational Review (summer 2005) and available in part online.