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New Coalition Backs Community Schools, Focus on Partnerships

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 24, 2008 3 min read
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The debate over whether schools ought to focus solely on raising achievement in this era of high-stakes accountability, or whether they should also find ways to tend to students’ nonacademic needs, has been simmering in this presidential-campaign season. This week, a new group of educators and leading community organizations is joining the fray to push for its set of strategies to help struggling students.

More than 100 leaders from education, youth-development, community, health and social-services, and university organizations have signed on to the effort, which calls for more partnerships between public schools and local community groups, health-care providers, and other resources that aim to improve the lives of poor families, especially in the nation’s urban core and rural pockets.

The Washington-based Coalition for Community Schools is leading the drive.

“Community schools” work with local organizations and social-service providers to offer such services as school-based health care, counseling, and academic tutoring.

Called the Community Agenda for America’s Public Schools, the new group was scheduled to announce its “action plan” Sept. 24 at a news conference in Washington.

“One has only got to look at the status of American schooling, especially for poor children, and see that it’s not going well,” said Ira Harkavy, the associate vice president and director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the chairman of the steering committee of the Coalition for Community Schools.

Not ‘Either-Or’

In announcing its agenda, the group joins two other high-profile coalitions of education leaders and activists that are seeking to shape the debate around reauthorizing the federal No Child Left Behind Act and to make a mark on the education policies of a new presidential administration. (“2 New Coalitions Seek Influence on Campaigns,” June 18, 2008.)

The Education Equality Project was launched by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, and calls for increasing schools’ accountability for student performance, along with other steps that include giving parents more choice among public schools.

A second group, made up of researchers and former federal officials, outlined its priorities in a statement called “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education,” arguing that schools alone can’t close achievement gaps, and that better health services for children and high-quality preschool and after-school programs are just as essential.

“We are not in the ‘either-or’ category in this debate,” said Martin J. Blank, the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, which represents more than 100 local, state, and national partners. “What we do is take the next step and we say how this can be done. We need to get past this conversation that says it’s either one way or the other.

“Our poorest children need as much social capital as can possibly be created around their schools.”

To do that, Mr. Blank said the group, which includes such large organizations as the YMCA and the United Way of America, will push for changes in federal policies, including the No Child Left Behind law, that encourage the types of partnerships between schools and neighborhood organizations that have been successful in places such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Portland, Ore.

The group recommends that a reauthorized NCLB include measures other than test scores to gauge how well schools and students are faring, such as data on attendance, physical well-being, and family and community involvement. It also seeks more federal money for early-childhood programs, out-of-school-time enrichment, mentoring, preventive health care, mental-health services, and civic learning.

One of the group’s most prominent supporters is Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers. In her first speech to AFT members after being elected to the post in July, Ms. Weingarten strongly advocated a federal law that would help create and support community schools.

“When schools are community hubs, offering kids and their families access to health care, counseling, and other social services, students can thrive and have a greater chance of closing the achievement gap,” she said in an e-mail statement.

Leaders of the initiative hope the election season and the rising profile of education issues in the presidential campaign will bring attention and urgency to their agenda.

“[T]he bottom line is that we’ve seen that it’s not sufficient to only have the NCLB agenda,” Mr. Harkavy said. “We need a more comprehensive approach.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week as New Coalition Backs Community Schools, Focus on Partnerships

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