Pandemic reveals how much California needs more community schools

by Julio Angel Alicea
Originally published in EdSource

Despite decades of underfunding, California public schools have worked valiantly to uphold their ends of a fraying social safety net during the coronavirus pandemic.

Community schools — schools that offer health and social services as well as education — have made an especially noteworthy effort to keep families healthy and hopeful during these uncertain times. Community schools model the kind of partnerships all California communities deserve.

community school is a public school that works to address neighborhood nonacademic needs, including health care, dental care, preschool, after-school activities and summer school — anything that affects the well-being of the community.

Becoming a community school can look different across states and local municipalities. In Los Angeles, for example, a school must apply to the school district. Acceptance opens access to additional funding and staff assistance. This pathway, tied to the recent settlement between United Teachers Los Angeles and LA Unified, has paved the way for the creation of 30 community schools in that district by 2022.

As a former teacher at a non-community school, I filled many roles beyond classroom instructor: social worker, therapist, food-drive organizer — the list goes on. The community-school model leverages educational and community resources to address these needs and more.

There is no statewide database of community schools, but a conservative estimate would put the number upward of 200. In the Oakland Unified School District alone, there has been a decade-long to convert all of its more than 80 schools to community schools (to date, there are 42). Similar work is ongoing in Pasadena, Redwood City, San Francisco and Vallejo.

I have spent the past 10 weeks while Californians were sheltering in place conducting research with a team at Farmdale Elementary School — a newly minted community school in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Farmdale had in place community connections, student leadership teams and parent volunteers before the pandemic hit.

Now, the school has found new ways to meet the evolving needs of families. For example, a parent referred teachers to a family who needed a laptop computer or an iPad but was too ashamed to ask.

To keep abreast of student and parent needs during the shutdown, Farmdale’s community school coordinator held weekly student leadership meetings as well as bilingual forums with parents. Parents also credited Farmdale faculty with keeping them aware of where to get essential services such as hot meals and Wi-Fi hotspots as well as how to sign up for summer programming to counter learning loss. These kinds of social connections, a primary benefit of the community-school model, can be the difference between life and death for low-income neighborhoods.

Oakland Unified is demonstrating the potential of converting all schools to community schools. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the 36,000-student district has provided more than 2.6 million meals, 35,000 rides to pick up meals, more than 400,000 diapers, almost 8,000 feminine hygiene products, 5,000 dental products, more than 19,500 internet-ready devices and more than 2,500 hotspots for internet connectivity. This allows the school district to not only serve the whole child but the whole community.

Despite these successes, there aren’t enough Farmdales and Oakland Unifieds to go around. While Gov. Gavin Newsom recently proposed spending $100 million of CARES Act to support more community schools, that is not enough to meet the need.

And with the news of racial disparities associated with Covid-19 and the recent protests over police brutality, expanding community schools would be an important step in advancing racial justice and community engagement as well.

Every community in California needs and deserves access to the holistic supports afforded by community schools — the pandemic has revealed as much.

About the Author: Julio Angel Alicea is a former public school teacher and current doctoral candidate in urban schooling at the University of California, Los Angeles. His dissertation research focuses on the politics and pedagogies of race and place in South Central Los Angeles.

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