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Class Struggle

The rise and fall--and rise?--of Baltimore's community schools movement

Photo: Emily C-D, License: N/A, Created: 2010:10:27 14:34:11

Emily C-D


If a child has to squint to see the blackboard, she may have trouble learning the multiplication tables. If she is often absent to stay home and babysit her brother, her understanding of history will be patchy. If her mother is a drug addict, diagramming sentences isn’t going to be a priority. This is the sort of logic that has led to a nationwide push for what are often called community schools. Schools that serve as full-service community centers engineered to address a wide range of so-called “barriers to education”—from family unemployment to parent illiteracy to medical complications—do a better job of educating children, advocates say.

It’s not a new idea: John Dewey talked of “school as a social center” a century ago, and New York City’s Children’s Aid Society opened the first of its much-lauded community schools in 1992. But the idea has lately been on the lips of powerful people. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said, “Every school should be a community school.” In a 2009 interview on Charlie Rose, Duncan said schools should be open “12, 13, 14 hours a day” six or seven days a week with a “wide variety of after-school activities: drama, arts, sports, chess, debate, academic enrichment, programs for parents, GED, ESL, family literacy nights, pot luck dinners.” Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Randi Weingarten, the influential head of the American Federation of Teachers, were both featured speakers at this year’s National Community Schools Forum, attended by more than 1,000 people. And federal education grants, such as the new Promise Neighborhoods initiative and the Full Service Community Schools Program, increasingly fund efforts that mirror those of community schools.

One wouldn’t know it now, but Baltimore embraced the community schools strategy years ago. (If you want to raise the hackles of an advocate, refer to community schools as a “project” or a “program.” Proponents like to emphasize that community schools are a whole new way of looking at the function of school, not simply a new component tacked on to an existing structure.) In 2000, a group of volunteers formed the Baltimore Coalition for Community Schools and took to lobbying city administrators, nonprofits, and other local power brokers. Interest gradually built, and in 2003, advocates created Baltimore Community School Connections (BCSC), an organization that provided technical assistance to developing community schools. By 2005, Baltimore was sending a delegation of 40 people—including then-City Council President Sheila Dixon—to the national community schools conference in Chicago. That same year, then-Mayor Martin O’Malley created the first official community schools in Baltimore. There were 46 of them, at least on paper.

In most other cities, community schools had emerged slowly, school by school. But Baltimore decided to go for broke and create many community schools at once, primarily by transforming existing schools that already had some outside partnerships. Partly as a result, the city was briefly in the national spotlight. “Everybody came to Baltimore because we were like trailblazers,” says Jessica Strauss, one of the chief catalysts behind the coalition and the community schools movement in Baltimore. “We were considered national leaders in this work,” agrees Lisa Bleich, who worked for BCSC for three years, starting in 2005. “We were asked to give Community Schools 101.”

Now, 10 years after the formation of the coalition, Baltimore’s pioneering community schools initiative is, by many estimates, nearly deflated. The BCSC is defunct and city funding for the initiative has dropped substantially since the early years. Only 20 schools in the city are officially community schools, and early champions of the effort say that few of these truly fit the model. Many community school coordinators—the on-site air-traffic controllers who make sure the services in a community school mesh and address student needs—agree that the initiative has not lived up to the dream. Even as the term is becoming a buzzword in education circles, some supporters fear that the community schools movement in Baltimore may have outlived its glory days.

 

This decline is disheartening, proponents say, because the model works. Community school advocates tend to speak a particularly deadly dialect of jargon. What with all the “stakeholders” “coming to the table” to “facilitate discussion” on “standard deliverables,” one might conclude that the concept is just so much bureaucratic gibberish. But several of the city’s remaining community schools show the model’s promise. In his first gubernatorial debate with former governor Robert Ehrlich, Gov. O’Malley singled out a Baltimore community school—Patterson Park Public Charter—as a place “where kids are making progress.” And though little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of Baltimore’s community schools, district surveys show more parental involvement when compared with other city schools.

Wolfe Street Academy, a Fells Point elementary school that became a community school in 2006, is a case in point. Daily morning meetings in the school cafeteria are packed with parents, most chatting in Spanish. (The student body is about 67 percent Hispanic.) “At any given meeting or assembly, we’ll easily show 50 to 60 families, which is about half our population,” Principal Mark Gaither says. “I think a lot of that comes from the sense that we’re trying to meet them halfway.”

Edith, a shy young parent who did not want to give her last name, concurs. “I like this school because there are a lot of programs, like English classes for adults,” she says in Spanish.

Like other community schools, Wolfe Street offers numerous services outside the usual academic sphere, ranging from a food pantry to free dental care to string-instrument instruction. Gaither says most of these services exist because the school is a community school, and more to the point, because it has a community school coordinator. “This fall we will pass the $1 million mark in terms of how many resources—actual items, in-kind services, volunteer hours—have come to Wolfe Street over the past four years that are a direct result of the community school coordinator,” he says. (The costs associated with having a coordinator over that same time period come to about $300,000.)

Every community school in Baltimore—or community resource school, as the city puts it—has a full-time coordinator. A school’s “coordinating partner,” generally a nonprofit organization or university, hires for the position with funds funneled through the Family League of Baltimore City, the quasi-public nonprofit that manages city contracts associated with community schools and after-school programs, among other affairs. (In Wolfe Street’s case, that coordinating partner is the Y of Central Maryland.) The coordinator is to identify needs in the school that have not been met, seek partnerships with outside entities to help meet these needs, organize all the services coming into the school, ensure that the school’s physical space is efficiently used for programming, and eliminate duplication of services. For the 2008-’09 school year, for the first time, community school principals were asked to provide $20,000 of their coordinator’s salary from their own school budgets, or lose their coordinator. Of the 26 community schools then in existence, 25 ponied up the money. (Community school principals were required to do the same this year.) “That was a significant statement on the part of principals and school communities that there’s something here that really matters,” says Michael Sarbanes, executive director of the city school system’s Office of Partnerships, Communication, and Community Engagement.

Indeed, those involved in local community schools tend to be fierce advocates. “Some people think that it’s kind of a huggy-feely type of thing and we don’t really do a whole lot,” Eric Ford, community school coordinator at Patterson High School since 2006, says. “But principals see us as resources.” Ford has brought a variety of programs to Patterson, including a truancy court program that brings in volunteer judges to work with students who are often absent, and a “mini med school,” in which graduate students from the University of Maryland School of Medicine give guest lectures. On a recent school day, Ford was looking for hospital bed donations for the Certified Nursing Assistant program, which was short a few, and talking with a volunteer from the Maryland Institute College of Art about a possible dance class incorporating the visual arts. And he was still glowing from a recent event with the soccer team, which is comprised mostly of resettled refugees. Ford obtained copies of Outcasts United, a book about the struggles of a refugee soccer team in Georgia, and brought the author to speak to Patterson’s team. “Those are the kinds of things that keep me going,” he says.

Some community school principals have come around to the idea as well. Mark Gaither of Wolfe Street has the passion of a convert. “When I first was approached about the idea, I was skeptical,” he says. “I now see it as such a central part of what we do here.”

The model is also appealing for nonprofits, says Kate Scherr, community schools initiative coordinator at the Family League. Prior to accepting her current position, Scherr worked for a nonprofit that links corporate employees with volunteer opportunities. “I always picked the community schools because there was [a coordinator] there,” she says. “Other schools, what I found was that I couldn’t always get in because the principal is so busy, the teachers are busy. Who do you go to?”

Liz Obara, community schools coordinator at Patterson Park Public Charter since 2006, was previously a teacher. “As a teacher I was frustrated by the things I couldn’t control in the classroom,” she says. “Family issues, health issues. . . Sometimes parents had so much else going on that they weren’t able to prioritize helping their kids.” As coordinator, Obara says she can help address those problems, allowing the teachers to focus on teaching.

Related frustrations have surfaced during the ongoing fracas over a proposed new teacher’s contract, which would link teacher pay to student performance. Tom Proveaux, an English teacher of 33 years, told The Baltimore Sun, “Our kids come to school hungry, they come to school broken in many ways, and when we’re dealing with that it is not reflected in a test score.”

Data from numerous other cities indicates that community schools can help students—and teachers—surmount obstacles like hunger, and thus improve outcomes ranging from attendance to test scores. In Chicago, for example, the 150 community schools delivered standardized test results from 2001 to 2007 that showed a steady closing of the achievement gap with other local public schools. Disciplinary incidents are also lower in these schools. Studies have found that Communities in Schools, a long-time national initiative, produces students who excel in math and reading when compared to other schools, and have higher rates of attendance and reduced drop-out rates. Parental participation is also often higher in community schools, which tends to have a positive effect on education outcomes.

In Baltimore, however, the movement has encountered a number of obstacles, including school and city leadership in flux, a resistance to collaboration on the part of various city entities, and a reluctance to fully commit to the community school model, financially and otherwise. The current school administration has expressed renewed support for the community schools concept, and even taken a few concrete steps toward making it a reality. But if Baltimore is ever to have a viable, sustainable network of community schools, advocates and administrators alike will need to understand what went wrong the first time.

 

In the beginning, the local community schools movement was characterized by fits and starts. Nonprofit organizations and public agencies had been providing piecemeal social services in Baltimore schools for decades. In 1998, the Greater Homewood Community Corporation, a civic group in North Baltimore, began introducing a greater range of services into local schools with the aid of AmeriCorps VISTA members. (The organization continues to work with eight schools, three of which are currently part of the city initiative.) But attempts to bring about change on a systemic level hadn’t worked out so well. For years Communities in Schools “tried desperately to implement the . . . model in Baltimore City,” Sheila Drummond, who worked for the organization on and off for 30 years, says. These efforts were unsuccessful, she says, largely because city government failed to commit, and the city schools’ CEO kept changing. Then, in 2003, Drummond and Jessica Strauss co-founded BCSC. After years of lobbying, advocates had finally gained meaningful support. In 2005, Baltimore suddenly had 46 community schools.

But that first year was by all accounts a flop. In lieu of hiring community school coordinators, the mayor’s office decided to saddle after-school program coordinators with an extra set of duties. The city allocated a pittance to the effort and gave the coordinators little to no training. “It was kind of a test year for community schools,” says Charmayne Turner, who oversees the city’s community schools. “We figured out that that model does not work.”

But for the 2006-’07 school year, the initiative had a new start. The city—with a new schools CEO, Charlene Cooper Boston—invested $2.3 million in community schools, from the then-flush budget surplus. Coordinating partners were given the money to hire full-time community school coordinators for 26 schools—including 11 that were failing—and the BCSC was paid to train them. Energy was high.

“We did extensive training with [the coordinators],” Drummond says. “And we took them to visit community schools in other places.” These included Children’s Aid Society schools in New York City.

“It was very new, and the momentum was definitely different at the beginning,” says Raegena Lawrence, community school coordinator at the now-defunct Chinquapin Middle School from 2006 to 2009. “There was a lot of excitement. Everybody was learning at the same time.”

Mid-school year, O’Malley was elected governor. But community school advocates had no reason to fear his departure from City Hall because incoming Mayor Sheila Dixon was a strong supporter of community schools. In a December 2006 interview, she told the Sun community schools would be “a major priority” of her administration.

A key element of the Baltimore model was tested that year. Early on, it had been decided that, along with nonprofits providing services in community schools, Baltimore’s city agencies—from the Housing Department to the Department of Social Services to the Health Department—would “co-locate” employees within schools. Families would have a one-stop shop for all of their social service needs, and with enough collaboration on the part of city agencies, the cost for creating a community school would only be about $100,000, covering the coordinator’s salary plus a small stipend for a parent in each school to conduct outreach.

“From a fiscal planning point of view, the bulk of the dollars that serve people are public dollars that go to city agencies,” Strauss says. “The biggest problem with service delivery is that they’re disjointed, not integrated. The full-service community school approach . . . provides that coordination and integration.”

That year several city agencies relocated workers to community schools. But according to current and former community school coordinators, the tactic was almost immediately a failure due to poor planning. “There were a lot of issues in terms of sharing space,” says Leigh Dalton, community school coordinator at Barclay Elementary/Middle School from August 2006 through June 2008. “Who pays for the phone line if Housing uses it one day and Social Services the next? It was ridiculous, petty stuff, and it was a barrier to progress.”

“The Housing Department was there every day and then when tax season came, they left the building and never came back,” Lawrence says. “That’s when the partnerships with city agencies died, going into 2007.”

“Nobody was sending resources,” Strauss says. “You funded a coordinator with nothing to coordinate.” She blames this early failure on the “turf-oriented” nature of Baltimore. “It takes a tremendous amount of collaboration, and Baltimore isn’t famous for that,” she says.

The next school year, 2007-’08, brought yet another schools CEO, Andrés Alonso, and the beginning of the recession. By fall 2008, city funding to community schools had dropped to $1.6 million, and school principals were asked to pitch in. In 2008, the dwindling funding for BCSC was pinched off for good and it closed its doors, drastically reducing training and support for coordinators.

“That was a huge loss for us,” coordinator Liz Obara says. “[BCSC] helped formulate the initiative. Having a good impartial outside force was really important.”

Last year only 17 schools had community school status, and city funding remained static this year. This year and last, the city put $750,000 into the initiative. (The slight uptick in the number of schools this year is due to money from a state School Improvement Grant.) Some coordinators say they fear the initiative might blink out altogether.

 

Everyone has a theory about why the community schools initiative failed to take off. “At the time it was introduced, it was sort of, well, here’s a good idea that’s out there that we’re going to sort of introduce,” says Michael Sarbanes, who joined the school district mid-initiative, in 2008. “It wasn’t integral to the definition of what schools were and how they operate and evolve.”

Others say the constant changes in leadership have made it difficult to create a sustainable community schools system. “It got off the ground quickly [in Baltimore],” says Martin Blank, director of the national Coalition for Community Schools. “There were mayoral and school system transitions, so it did not get as fully embedded as we would have hoped.”

Strauss pins some of the blame on what had seemed an innovation: the use of a separate funding stream to pay for the community school coordinators. Such a plan only works, she says, if city agencies do their part. Plus, she says, that funding stream is currently precarious. Every year the Family League submits a budget proposal to the city suggesting what portion of a given pot of money should go to after-school programs and what portion to community schools. Strauss says this pits after-school programs against community schools, when community schools are (remember?) a strategy, not a separate program. “This was a crucial mistake. No other initiative in the country considers the coordinator as a separate thing,” she says. “A real site coordinator manages all of the partnership programs in the building.”

Kate Scherr, the community schools initiative coordinator at the Family League, says after-school programs and community schools are not in competition. “The idea was that they should go hand in hand and one complements the other,” she says. “The feeling is that there’s good value in both of those.”

The initiative has departed from certain components of the original vision. For instance, Sarbanes says city schools are dedicated to expanding the community schools model, but putting representatives from city agencies in schools will not be central to the plan. “We haven’t fundamentally set out to say, ‘Community schools are about establishing a one-stop shop for government services,’” he says. “We’re focusing on what are the partnerships that are really going to support student achievement.”

Coordinators also complain that their job descriptions have subtly changed. Now, in addition to their regular duties, every year each must meet with 20 students with truancy problems and another 20 with behavioral problems and try to find resources to help them. Sarbanes says these new duties are part of an effort to improve school climate and attendance outcomes, but some coordinators aren’t convinced this is the way to do it.

“When we first came on board, it was stressed to us that you should not be providing direct service to anybody,” Patterson High coordinator Eric Ford says. “You’re big picture people, bringing in partnerships. To hold us accountable for that stuff is to me a bit of a stretch.” But Sarbanes says having coordinators work with individual kids as an “additional layer of intervention” is “a direction I’d like to see us go in a lot more.”

Coordinators are also now responsible for increasing the number of Free and Reduced Meal (FARM) applications that are turned in. The school district gets a nearly $5,000 reimbursement from the federal government for each qualified student. Sarbanes says the rate at which these forms are returned can also serve as a measure of family engagement.

Liz Obara disagrees, as do other coordinators. “I think some of the things that the city asks us to do are a little tangential,” she says. “I don’t think FARM forms are a fair indicator of family involvement. Parents who don’t get involved all year might be the first to fill out the form, because it’s needed.”

In general, those who spearheaded the movement tend to express disappointment when asked about the initiative. “Nothing saddens me more than when I go other places and speak about the principles of community schools and people ask me what’s happened in Baltimore,” Lisa Bleich says.

“There is always a certain amount of sadness, disappointment, and a little bit of anger around trying to create Baltimore Community School Connections and having it go away,” Sheila Drummond agrees. But Drummond says she is also hopeful, and there are indeed signs of renewed interest on the part of the city. In 2009, a community schools city-wide coordinating council—made up of advocates, principals, nonprofit representatives, and others—was formed, with a directive to report to the mayor and city schools CEO Andrés Alonso. For the last three years, Sarbanes’ office has injected $14,000 per year in extra funding into community schools, partly using Title I money. And last spring, the Family League created a position dedicated solely to community schools, now filled by Kate Scherr.

In Jessica Strauss’ opinion, the current school administration is more committed to community schools than any in the last 20 years. “I think there’s hope now with the federal government putting tons of money into it,” she says. “And our new CEO [Alonso] really understands community engagement.”

Sarbanes says there’s good reason for optimism. “My sense is that there’s a really, really important movement that’s in the process of happening,” he says, “from community schools being a boutique program that existed because there was some money for it coming from the city during flush budget times to actually being kind of an integral part of what school means.” He says the district’s goal is for all city schools to lie somewhere along a “resource continuum,” where some have full-time community school coordinators, others just receive money devoted to improving family engagement, and still others are encouraged to leverage partnerships with parents or staff, without any accompanying resources.

Drummond, now co-chair of the coordinating council, says she will likely take a back seat to the new effort to revive the movement. “I really believe in it, but now it’s time for those folks who’ve said they know what they’re doing and they can take it on to do that,” she says. “And the rest of us who were really involved will stand back and hold our breaths and hope that it really happens.”

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