Blair, Duncan Push Schools as Community Hubs

Britain’s former leader joins U.S. education chief in urging expanded role.

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The campaign to turn more schools into community hubs got an injection of star power last week from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who headlined an event on the topic sponsored by the Center for American Progress.

The occasion was the release of a new reportRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader by the Washington-based think tank pointing to England as a model for the nationwide spread of community schools, which offer a venue for both academics and social services.

By next year, all of England’s 23,000 public schools will become “extended schools” open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. throughout the year—a key education priority of Mr. Blair’s administration, which aimed both to make schools a place of learning and to give them a central role in the community.

The schools in England offer day care, after-school activities, social services such as health care, and central spots for communities to gather.

“The school should become the center for the support and nurture of the future generation, and a hub for the whole community,” said Mr. Blair, who served as prime minister from 1997 to 2007 and is currently a visiting professor at Yale University.

The report by the Center for American Progress says that community schools are not just another program, but a way of changing the “school’s role in the lives of students, families, and the surrounding community.”

Specifically, community schools usually have extended hours before and after school, and during the weekends and summer; social services, including health care and parent education; activities to engage parents and the community; and a partnership with at least one other community organization or public entity, such as a university.

The report names the Chicago public school system, Achievement Plus Schools in St. Paul, Minn., and the Children’s Aid Society’s community schools in New York City as successful models.

Chicago’s Example

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, during his tenure as the chief executive officer of the Chicago district, partnered with private funders to launch 21 community schools in that city in 2001.

“Why do we continue to build Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCAs? Let’s get out of the bricks-and-mortar business,” Mr. Duncan said at the Oct. 28 event. Such community groups can, instead, be housed inside schools, he said.

Mr. Duncan and Roberto J. Rodriguez, a White House education adviser, who also appeared at the event, both said the notion of community schools is central to the Obama administration’s aim of providing what Mr. Rodriguez described as a “complete and competitive education.”

Whether the community schools movement takes off in the United States as it did in England remains to be seen. The new report says that increased federal funding is a key part of expanding the number of such schools.

Several funding opportunities are in the works. Mr. Rodriguez, who serves on the White House Domestic Policy Council as a special assistant on education, said that President Obama has proposed $10 million in the federal fiscal 2010 budget for planning grants for “Promise Neighborhoods” programs, similar to the Harlem Children’s Zone. That broad-based program aims to meet the educational, health, and social service needs of residents in a 97-block area of New York City. ("President Envisions Anti-Poverty Efforts Like Harlem's 'Zone'," March 11, 2009.)

That $10 million proposal, however, pales in comparison with other administration initiatives, such as the $420 million increase the president has proposed for the Teacher Incentive Fund, a grant program for districts to create merit-pay programs for teachers.

But community schools also have powerful allies in Congress. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who is the House majority leader, has proposed legislation with Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, to establish a five-year, $200 million grant program to encourage the growth of community schools.

Rep. Hoyer, who spoke at the Center for American Progress event, argued that not spending the money now would cost the country more later.

“Investing in community schools will be far cheaper than investing in the failures of our students,” he said.

Vol. 29, Issue 10, Pages 17-18

Published in Print: November 4, 2009, as Blair, Duncan Press School-Community Link
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