In recent months, people in Philadelphia have been hearing a lot about “community schools.” Both Jim Kenney and Darrell Clarke have made public commitments to this reform, which would potentially transform public schools into neighborhood hubs by expanding community partnerships and bringing in external providers for services important to students and families. Creating community schools has become a growing strategy nationwide, with major recent commitments to these schools in cities like New York and Baltimore.
While the pledges of our next Mayor and our City Council Speaker have garnered big news, they come in the context of years of advocacy by the organizing coalition PCAPS, which has pushed to bring community schools to Philadelphia, beginning with a pilot in at least 25 schools. Community schools have also been in the news recently as PCAPS and school community members have campaigned to have Huey, Cooke, and Wister elementary schools become community schools, as an alternative to the School District’s proposed charterization plan.
With this rapidly developing movement towards a new school model, the Caucus of Working Educators has a few questions for students, families, and PFT members to consider:
How will new services provided at a community school be funded and supported? Many previous initiatives organized by the school district have been lauded as “the solution,” only to fall to pieces when the funding or political support dried up. Moreover, we must make sure that any new funding will come free from special interest strings.
Who will be responsible for oversight of community schools? Community schools are a strategy for connecting resources and services to student needs -- they are not a one-size-fits-all model that can be applied in the same way to every school. Decisionmaking for these schools should reflect that. In the field of education, we always have to be mindful of the ways that powerful interests can hijack “reform” models to advance their own interests (be they cost-saving politicians or curriculum-peddling corporations). Individual schools must have their own decisionmaking abilities, and power should be wielded by the stakeholders at that particular school.
Will any educator positions at these schools be outsourced? Some community schools models replace longtime educators with part-time employees who provide learning support, health and psychological services, giving students a lesser version of the expert resources they previously had access to.
Will positions lost to the “Doomsday Budgets” be restored? After years of cutbacks, it has become unacceptably common in Philadelphia schools to lack a full-time nurse, counselor, and librarian. Contracting with external providers must not be used to allow policymakers to avoid returning to a budget that restores certified, full-time school professionals to every school.
If implemented well, the community school model could provide students with the comprehensive support they need for academic success, while addressing critical needs of students and families. If implemented poorly, however, the model could actually undermine the stability and sustainability of what schools currently offer Philadelphia’s children.
The PCAPS Community Schools Task Force, which includes members of the Caucus of Working Educators, will soon release a platform setting out specifics for what a community school should look like. As we approach the inauguration of Mayor Kenney, it is crucial that educators are asking the hard questions to make sure any new model for our schools does right by our city and our children.