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.

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.

But Petrilli cautioned that the body of evidence supporting community schools is not yet conclusive. "I think it's worth trying," he said. "But we certainly don't have evidence that this is going to make a huge impact on student learning."

Oakland has a history of trying trendy strategies to cope with inner-city problems that spill into the classroom. In 2000, the district was one of many across the country to embrace the idea of breaking down large schools into smaller ones in order to nurture closer relationships between students and faculty, which would, in theory at least, improve academic performance.

Early signs of success―parent satisfaction and better test scores―led the district to grow the small schools model into a citywide reform effort. Backed in part by a 2004 $9.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a major supporter of small schools, the district closed a dozen large schools and opened 48 small ones in their place. (Disclosure: the Gates Foundation is among the various supporters of The Hechinger Report)

Fremont, with 1,862 students, was broken into five high schools. Nidya Baez, a student at the time, was skeptical that small schools would help. "It doesn't really matter how many schools there are if we're still doing school wrong," she said.

When Baez returned to Fremont to teach in 2007 after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, her fears were proven out. She found a campus full of disengaged students, an excess of administrators and a cumbersome bureaucracy. Elsewhere in the district, there was some improvement. Oakland students in small schools had higher standardized test scores than those at large schools and parents rated them as safer. But middle school and high school performance was still far below statewide goals.

Around the same time, national fervor for the small school movement began to diminish as national studies showed mixed results. The Gates Foundation, which spent $2 billion from 2000 to 2009 to create small schools, stopped funding the movement in 2009 after admitting the strategy had essentially failed. Last fall, the small high schools on Fremont's campus were consolidated back into one large school. Schools at another high school campus were also merged into one, and five elementary schools were shut down, according to district officials.

When Oakland superintendent Tony Smith, who resigned his post unexpectedly this April, first began selling the community schools concept around the district in 2009, not everyone embraced his pitch. Hurst and two other principals went to Smith and spent hours arguing against the plan, fearing it would distract teachers from academics by placing such an emphasis on problems outside of school.Hurst eventually agreed that the community schools concept was worth trying. Providing intensive services, he said, is more likely to improve learning than merely punishing bad behavior. "In the past, we just dealt with behavior," he said, "but when you do that, it will happen again and again." Still, he understands that it's not reasonable to expect quick results. "If you're dealing with the fundamental cause behind the behavior, it's going to take some time to see movement on that," he said.

Nidya Baez is hopeful. She said she managed to get a decent education at Fremont in the 1990s, but she remembered that many top students transferred to better high schools. Her job at Fremont now is to help recruit and coordinate the work of community-based organizations to provide the help that students need.

One of the biggest problems is that students don't feel safe at the school. Even if they are not directly involved in violence, they are often witnesses to it. Baez remembers a morning last year when a group of students from another high school showed up with baseball bats to face off against some students at Fremont.

Sandra Muniz, Fremont's 17-year-old student body vice president, said that young people in East Oakland are inundated with violence and gang culture from an early age. It's a culture that breeds distrust of authority figures, even those who just want to help. "Kids in Oakland have that mentality―don't ask questions, don't get so close," she said. "With family and friends, I can let my guard down. In the streets, it's always up."

To address fighting on campus, the school this year started a program called Upstander's Challenge. When students stop a fight from occurring, the whole campus gets an extra 20 minutes for lunch on the following Friday. This has happened at least a dozen times this semester, Baez said. "Last year, there was a carnival atmosphere around fights," said Hurst, "with kids standing around and cheering. We still have these fights but the kids are breaking them up before the adults even get there."

While Fremont's community school rollout is well underway, other schools have yet to see any changes. At Oakland's Cleveland Elementary School in a quiet neighborhood near Lake Merritt, teacher Mary Loeser didn't think the community schools concept changed much for her students; the school worked to fill in gaps on its own. "Our PTA paid for a retired psychologist to work part-time with our kids," she said."We have so many troubled children at this school―and this is a high-performing school. These children are in transition: divorce, immigrating, people moving around because of the economy." Those involved with community schools efforts around the country stressed that communication and collaboration are crucial to launching a successful initiative. "You can't do it all in a day," said Ellen Pais, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Education Partnership, which helps run several community schools.

Sankofa Academy is one school that has managed to offer a range of crucial services without much help from the district and without dipping deeply into its own funds. A Pre-K-8 school in North Oakland, Sankofa was almost closed down four years ago before principal Monique Brinson took over and began writing her own grant proposals and reaching out to nonprofits around the Bay Area for help. As a result, her school has two full-time mental health professionals from a neighboring children's agency and two organizations running after-school tutoring and enrichment programs five days a week. "We were doing this before it became the initiative of the district," Brinson said. "And if you're consistent, people want to work with you. There's really no magic to it."

Teacher and resource specialist Jonathan Hasak came to Sankofa, where more than 70 percent of students are African-American, three years ago. Hasak credits Brinson with wrangling the community organizations that now provide on-campus student services. "Otherwise we wouldn't have tutors, we wouldn't have intervention people after school or a science program," he said. "We just don't have the money for it."

Hasak, like many of his colleagues, believes progress will come from individual school sites. Despite a shoestring budget for support and enrichment programs, Sankofa's Academic Performance Index, a statewide measure based on standardized test scores, has risen from 691 to 773 since 2009, according to state data.

Others in Oakland hope he's right, especially now that Smith, the primary advocate for community schools, has stepped down. District spokesman Troy Flint called Smith a visionary, adding that he was leaving the district in good shape to see the community schools initiative through. "I feel the staff at this point has a clear vision of what needs to be done," he said. "I don't think we feel adrift."

Because of the financial crisis in California's public schools, Hasak said, the administration ultimately has little power to turn every school around. "I don't know what the district can do besides offer a vision for what type of school district we want to be."

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University and The Center for Investigative Reporting.