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Where School and Community Join

  • 05-31-2013
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Week of May 28-31, 2013


In 1911, 400 civic leaders held a national conference in Madison, Wisc., to explore an educational and civic role for public schools that extended far beyond teaching students the defined subject matter of the academic school curriculum. They were a diverse group, including various political leaders, religious leaders, representatives of the labor movement and the business community. Today, that perspective on communities and schools, called “Community Schools,” is expanding from the margins of educational policy and practice into a full-fledged movement.


A forum convened this week by InnerCity Struggle in East Los Angeles brought together school district officials, health providers, students, parents, community organizers and others to discuss the myriad of roles schools can play and are accepting at community schools. These schools take holistic approaches to student learning; they don’t just prepare students to “take their place” in the community, they enable students to investigate issues and concerns in local community life. Community schools also connect students to health and social services. Students at Torres High School in East Los Angeles can access such services at a wellness center located on their campus.


The idea of community schooling is gaining political traction around the country. In Oakland, for example, despite the departure of Superintendent Tony Smith, school leaders remain committed to implementing an impressive plan that could transform each of Oakland’s 87 schools into full-service community schools (EdSource Today). In Philadelphia, community schools could be the strategy to revitalize neighborhoods in the wake of widespread school closings (The Notebook). And in New York, mayoral candidates continue to point toward community schools as part of an overall education platform (Epoch Times).


What are politicians, educators, and community advocates supporting when they call for community schooling? They want schools to take on both a larger and a different role to address problems of inequality. In John Dewey’s words, schools should not be “place[s] set apart in which to learn lessons.” Dewey’s argument suggests a set of principles that still serve, or should serve, today’s community schools.


First, community schools are not specifically “set apart” for academic learning. They are concerned with the whole child. In addition to academic curriculum, they provide services that promote the growth of healthy young people, willing and able to participate in society. Such services represent a strategic response to the past failures of social policy to meet the needs of low-income communities.


Second, community schools do not “set apart” a specific time and place for learning. Learning is not restricted to the period between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. and it is not confined within the walls of schools. Community schools expand the traditional school day and extend learning opportunities into the local community. This expansion addresses the growing class gap in learning time between those families with the financial means to invest in out-of-school enrichment opportunities and everyone else. 


Third, community schools are not “set apart” from the neighborhoods they serve. As educator Elsie Clapp once said, “Where does school end and life outside begin? There is no distinction between them.”1 Because of this interconnectedness, curriculum can integrate neighborhood issues. And community schools can serve as social centers, providing a location where community members can gather and discuss local concerns and problems. By encouraging civil exchange and promoting social trust, community schools address inequalities in civic participation.


It’s easy to see why the idea of community schooling is becoming popular again. By reaching beyond the bell and borders of a school, community schools are primed to address the rising inequality that forms the often unacknowledged backdrop of our educational landscape. They remind us that the project of educational reform cannot be divorced from providing universal healthcare and investing in healthy and participatory neighborhoods.  

1 Clapp, E. (1939). Community Schools in action. New York: Viking, p. 39.

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Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.