Linking Home and Classroom, Oakland Bets on Community Schools

A district bleeding students every year has a new strategy: draw them in with a holistic education that brings academic and home life together.
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Noah Berger/The Center for Investigative Reporting

Fremont High School's campus in gang-entrenched East Oakland is just three blocks away from International Boulevard, famous for its booming sex trade. The school is known for abysmal test scores, numerous student suspensions, and low graduation rates. Many local families have had enough. Of roughly 600 possible freshmen living in the neighborhood this year, only about 200 chose to attend Fremont. Even those who do register often leave. "There's a perception of violence and safety issues and marijuana use," said Nidya Baez, a Fremont grad who is now an administrator at the school. "We constantly have kids transferring out."

Now, under growing public pressure to improve student safety and achievement, the Oakland Unified School District, which has lost more than 16,000 students since 2000, is attempting to reinvent itself by turning its 87 schools -- including Fremont -- into what are known as "full-service community schools," equipped with staff trained to support students' social, emotional and health needs as well as their academic growth.

The concept is one that has been around for decades, but is now gaining traction in districts across the U.S. as other reform efforts run up against problems related to poverty. Embrace of community schools is a stark shift from the "no-excuses" movement, which held that schools should be able to push all students to success no matter what their background. That idea dominated education reform for much of the last decade.

Community schools are just the opposite. At its core, the concept represents an explicit acknowledgement that problems with a child's home life must be addressed to help students succeed academically. "There's actually a lot of agreement that we need to work on both improving schools and addressing poverty," said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president at Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank based in Ohio and Washington, D.C. "Particularly, as reformers get into the work of trying to run schools and make the system work better, they see in black and white just how important addressing the larger social problems is."

Marty Blank, director of the non-profit Coalition for Community Schools, which connects organizations and school districts doing community school work, estimates that at least 50 school districts around the country are launching similar initiatives. Chicago is home to more than 175 community schools. Portland, Ore., has 67 and Tulsa, 31. New York City, the nation's largest school system, has 21 community schools and that number may soon grow, depending on the 2013 mayoral election; the United Federation of Teachers is pushing for the city's next mayor to adopt the strategy.

In most places, though, only individual schools adopt the model. Oakland's goal of transforming the entire district makes it among the nation's most ambitious efforts. District officials say that 27 schools have a designated employee to coordinate the implementation of the community schools initiative and that the goal is to turn every school in the district into a community school.

Some schools say they haven't seen any changes yet. With little federal or state money available specifically for community schools, Oakland has spent much of the $40 million it has won in competitive public grants during the last five years on services to help students with non-academic problems. Money to support community schools now comes from a combination of private fundraising and collaborations between individual schools and Bay Area nonprofits that provide services to students. These partnerships vary; sometimes nonprofits foot the bill, other times the school does. The district has also reworked its budget, in part by consolidating and closing schools.

"There will never be enough money coming into public schools to accomplish this," said Curtiss Sarikey, Oakland's associate superintendent for family, school and community partnerships. "We don't have any illusions that we're going to wait for any grant funding to make this real."

There's no one model for community schools. Advocates say each school reflects the particular needs of its students and parents. The goal is to handle whatever issues students bring to school that may affect learning: trauma, abuse, neglect, violence, gang tensions, immigration problems and a wide range of other physical, sexual and mental health issues.

At the heart of many community-school efforts are campus resource centers. Unlike a traditional guidance office, the centers are a one-stop shop for any social, emotional or health need; students can get confidential counseling from nurses, therapists and social workers or get referred to other organizations for help. Fremont's center, which opened this school year, is called ASAP―for Academic Excellence, Social Responsibility, Accountability and Proactiveness. Students choose to drop in or teachers can refer them when they're having trouble in class. Fremont pays for two full-time employees at a total cost of about $75,000. Other mental health providers work in the center, but are funded by Alameda County.

Daniel Hurst, who stepped down as Fremont's principal at the end of this school year, said that these new services have reduced suspensions, including a two-thirds drop in the number of ninth graders kept out of class. But teachers give it mixed reviews. Some have complained that they send students to ASAP just to see them return quickly, along with their disruptive behavior. Many teachers are concerned―even angry―about their diminished power to suspend kids who keep other students from learning. "There's a sense that punishment is needed," said Hurst. Hurst knows Fremont's problems well: he joined the school 28 years ago as a teacher. Two years ago, he said, a teacher was robbed at gunpoint before the first bell. "The school gets regularly burglarized," he said. "Teachers' cars get broken into. Laptops and cell phones get stolen."

Inside the center on a school day last fall, an 18-year-old named Darrell checked in with counselors. Darrell said he did not want his last name used because he doesn't want people to know he is seeking counseling. He has been a chronic truant and it was his last day at Fremont. He didn't want to leave but said he had no choice because he wouldn't graduate on time unless he transferred to one of the district's "continuation schools," designed to help older students make up missing credits. Darrell said he will miss ASAP; there isn't a similar center at his next school. "If I'm having a rough day, I come through," he said. "I've been trying to change my bad habits and be a better student."

Darrell had some success in his English class at Fremont, which was based on community school principles and used literature to explore social and cultural differences. "It's less like an academic situation and more like a family," he said. "If we could get the whole school on that program, the whole community, it would be great."

Some studies have shown that community schools can improve student performance. Cincinnati, one of the pioneers of the current community schools push, has seen higher test scores and graduation rates since beginning its Strive Together initiative in 2006. Community schools in New York, Chicago and other California cities demonstrated improvement on test scores, better attendance and reduced dropout rates compared to traditional schools, according to the Coalition for Community Schools.

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Presented by

Trey Bundy and Sarah Butrymowicz

Trey Bundy is a contributing writer for The Center for Investigative Reporting. Sarah Butrymowicz is a contributing writer for The Hechinger Report.

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