Maybe you already knew this, but I was surprised: Slightly more than 60% of Bonham Academy’s students are considered ‘disadvantaged’ under federal guidelines. And that makes Bonham a wealthy school when compared to SAISD overall, where 87% of students are disadvantaged. In some SAISD schools, the number approaches 100%.


I was speaking to Sarah Sorensen, our representative on the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) board, late last week, and she gave me those numbers. 


Students who come from disadvantaged families can find school particularly difficult, Sarah told me. They’ve got bigger problems to deal with than mathematics and spelling. They may have medical or dental problems that aren’t being treated; their parents may be exhausted from working two jobs; they may not be getting adequate nutrition. Just staying alert during class can be a challenge. And much of what is taught in school seems to have little direct connection to those students’ lives.


In a district like SAISD, those out-of-school issues have a direct and powerful impact on how a student performs academically, yet they’re outside the control of teachers and administrators.

Front of an old school building.

Bonham Academy on St. Mary's is 60% disadvantaged students.

3. Active involvement of parents and the neighborhood


For community schools to really work, they require involvement of parents and the neighborhood. There are three reasons for that: 


First, for the program to be successful, it has to meet the real needs of the community, not the school administration’s ideas about those needs. 


Second, it requires trust on the part of parents. Many poor families have a low level of trust in schools, which don’t seem to really care about their kids. 


And third, the program needs involvement from businesses and others in the community that can contribute to expanded learning opportunities for students.


I spoke in more detail with Sarah about the ‘parental trust’ issue.


“I think that those of us in leadership positions sometimes forget that schools are not necessarily as welcoming as we think they are,” Sarah told me. “Some of our parents have not had great experiences in school. They don't trust that it's an institution that's going to look out for their best interests or their children’s best interests.”


Schools need to work to earn that trust. 


On the subject of parental involvement, I asked both Adrian and Sarah about the popular belief that parents in poor communities simply aren’t interested in getting engaged with their children’s schools. Both of them pushed back.


Adrian’s own school, Longfellow Middle School, is one hundred percent disadvantaged, but his experience, he says, is very different from that popular conception. 


“Our parents deeply care about what their children are doing in school,” Adrian told me. “They care about their child's future and success. It just manifests itself in different ways than what some of us are used to. We think, well, if your parents are not showing up to the PTA meeting or aren’t donating cupcakes for the school fundraiser, then they're not involved.”


“We have to adjust our ideas of what engagement looks like.”


He also says that the school needs to work to break down barriers to parental engagement. As a simple example, he pointed to parent meetings.  “If we schedule the parent meeting at 5:00 PM, did we ask which parents are even off work? Or did we offer the option to come in the morning?” 


4. Collaborative leadership


This fourth pillar follows naturally from the third. Community schools aren’t designed for a top-down approach, and, because each school is unique, it’s necessary to keep all the participants on the same page — teachers, administrators, community members, parents — about where the program is headed and how it is supposed to work in practice. Somehow, each school needs to find a way to make program leadership a collaborative effort.


But the program can’t be run, day to day, by committee. Every community school program has one key employee — a ‘community school director’ — who is responsible for pulling all the pieces together.

COMMUNITY SCHOOLS


One approach to solving that problem — ‘community schools’ — has been making inroads across the country. It’s an approach that now has a body of data behind it to suggest that it works.


This past week, I spoke about the concept with Sarah and with Adrian Reyna, a middle school history teacher and an executive vice-president of San Antonio Alliance, the local teacher’s union, which is headquartered on Adams Street in King William. Both Sarah and the Alliance believe that community schools make sense for SAISD.


But first let’s define terms. What, exactly, is meant by the term ‘community schools’? The name seems to speak for itself, but there’s a more formal definition of the concept that provides a better explanation.


Community schools, according to the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL), are based on four ‘pillars’:


1. Integrated support for students and their families


Under the community schools approach, schools become a center for overcoming some of the out-of-school challenges faced by disadvantaged students. What that means in practice can vary from school to school, but it often includes things like tutoring, medical and dental care, nutrition assistance, and family programs like adult education and job placement services.


According to the IEL, a 2014 study at UCLA showed that schools in high-poverty areas lose instruction time because teachers take on informal responsibility for solving many of these non-academic problems. In community schools, these problems are attacked directly, often by integrating third-party providers into the school.


2. Expanded and enriched learning time


Community schools typically offer more time for learning, both with extended hours and extended calendars. This extended time can be used for tutoring, arts, physical activity, hands-on learning, and other activities that support and enlarge on what the students learn during the academic school day.


The IEL points out that students in more affluent communities have access to enrichment activities, like coding camps and tutoring, that aren’t available to students in poor neighborhoods. Community schools attempt to bring some of those experiences to their students. They try, in particular, to involve the community’s own resources — including businesses — in providing some of this enrichment. 


These extended hours and calendars also benefit families, by making it easier for parents to work.

MAKING IT WORK


When I started researching the subject of community schools, I was surprised at how many districts across the country were using the approach and where it found support, in places as diverse as California and Kentucky.


In particular, I was struck by how many programs were promoted by and even directed by United Way. In Erie County, Pennsylvania, for example, the program is driven by United Way, which directly employs each school’s community school director, provides technical assistance, and helps to measure achievements.


When you think about it, that makes sense, since community schools pull together a lot of United Way-type initiatives in one place.


Having worked with United Way in the past, I know that it is very data-driven. It wants the programs it supports to use data to measure success. And community school programs around the country have been reporting real success, including higher attendance, higher graduation rates, and more students moving on to college.


COMMUNITY SCHOOLS FOR SAISD


The local teachers union supports the community schools concept for SAISD and has already been working to bring people together on the subject. In fact, Sarah was one of the parents who participated in that process before running for the board.


Adrian described the importance of the initiative like this:


“It’s not just King William, it's not just Lavaca, it’s not just in the Jefferson Heights area. It's everywhere our kids are. We're all San Antonio, and whether it's the kids who are down the street from me, the kids whose neighborhood school I pass on my way to work, or the kids across town who we play in a big game once a year. They're all our kids. And if we know that they're getting the quality education and the quality schools and the wraparound services that they need, then that uplifts our whole community.”

Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.

Our parents deeply care about what their children are doing in school. They care about their child's future and success.

It’s not just King William, it's not just Lavaca, it’s not just in the Jefferson Heights area. It's everywhere our kids are. We're all San Antonio.

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