Can Community Schools Dampen the School Takeover Fever?

community schoolsThe Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) released a new report on Dec. 17 that makes a strong case for collaborative, grassroots efforts to help turn around struggling schools. “Investing in What Works: Community-Driven Strategies for Strong Public Schools” points to examples of public schools that have improved student outcomes by becoming the center of a community while denouncing reforms that undermine local authority, such as school takeovers.

The focus of the report is recent activity in Georgia. In February, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 133 to create a state-run system—dubbed “Opportunity School District (OSD)”—that would control some of Georgia’s lowest-performing schools. One indicator would measure these schools: the College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI). If a school falls below 60 points of the CCRPI, it would be removed from local authority. Today, there are 137 schools statewide that would meet the proposed requirements of Senate Bill 133.

Georgia’s proposal mimics the misguided school reform efforts found in  Louisiana, Michigan, and Tennessee, which usurp local control as a way to transform struggling schools. Some of these strategies include charter conversion, indiscriminate staff and leadership removal, or school closures. According to Annenberg and SEF, the takeover models of Louisiana, Michigan, and Tennessee have neither shown continuous nor sweeping improvements in student outcomes.

“These state takeover districts have failed to consistently improve student outcomes, and failed to engage (and invest) communities and educators in any kind of visionary transformation that is needed in our public schools,” the report states. “Without such investment, even initial academic results will falter.” It goes on to say that these initiatives have created “bad will in the communities and schools that have been targeted by them.”

Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD), for example, was cited in the report for turning 18 of the 23 takeover schools into charters. Academic performance in most of the ASD schools has shown mixed results—and even some decline. Parent frustration has become an issue.

Chris Caldwell, a member of the Shelby County (Tennessee) School Board told the Commercial Appeal, “The way that (ASD) was implemented, it gave the families a feeling that they were being punished or isolated from the rest of the school system because of the performance of the school.”

If the Georgia legislation passes, Governor Nathan Deal would appoint an OSD superintendent who could enforce one of four interventions: direct management by the state, joint management by the OSD and local school board, conversion to a charter school, or closure.

The Georgia State Constitution, however, blocks the bill from easily becoming law, as it limits the control of public education “to that level of government closest and most responsive to the taxpayers and parents of the children being educated.” With that, OSD is considered unconstitutional. The Legislature will turn to voters in the next election (November 2016) and ask that the constitution be amended and a referendum passed to give the state control of public schools. If successful, the state would be “sent back to a dark past we’ve all worked so hard to overcome,” writes Kent McGuire, president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation, in the foreword to the report.

Countering the OSD Initiative

Another barricade to the legislation is the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE). “Investing in What Works” is not just the title of a comprehensive plan developed by Annenberg and the SEF to avert a unilateral state takeover of public schools; it’s also the mantra that has driven a group of concerned citizens to stand together on behalf of their respective community schools. Initiated by GAE, the coalition comprised of education organizations, community and business leaders, parents, and a sundry of other public education stakeholders, was forged in the wake of the Georgia governor’s OSD legislation.

Critics of the governor initiative suggest the referendum subverts the community aspect of public education by eliminating local control of schools and further erodes state funding. Moreover, GAE President Sid Chapman fears this could have dire consequences. Chapman said, “None of this Opportunity School District business addresses the real problems of the community.”

Because of the national implications, GAE Executive Director Chris Baumann solicited the aid of the National Education Association (NEA). “The NEA has been very supportive since we’ve started this effort to counter the OSD initiative,” he says. “If we weren’t part of a national organization, we wouldn’t have the resources to tap into for the high-level campaign we have to have here in Georgia,” Baumann said.

Meeting Community Needs

Annenberg and SEF penned “Investing in What Works” to propose a better way, specifically locally based strategies backed by proven research. These involve early childhood and Pre-K; collaborative and stable leadership; quality teaching; restorative practices and student-centered learning environments; a strong curriculum that is rigorous, rich, and culturally relevant; wraparound supports; deep parent-community-school ties; and investment, not divestment.

The report highlights the Cincinnati Public Schools as an example of meeting student and community needs via collaborative, homegrown partnerships. These partnerships have turned Cincinnati’s schools into community hubs, called “Community Learning Centers,” which might offer—depending on community need—after-care, English language classes, health care services, or arts programs. The idea is for schools to serve the entire community: students, parents, and residents. The school district has seen attendance and graduation rates increase, and student learning growth escalate.

Community schools can also be found in Kentucky, a state that has focused on providing all students, regardless of ZIP code, the support and tools they deserve. School based Family Resource Centers and Youth Service Centers provide pre-kindergarten programs, professional development for teachers, before- and after-school, substance abuse programs, and family literacy classes. The centers are in almost every school statewide and reach more than 12 million students and 4 million families annually. Student academic performance is improving, too.

The authors of the report suggest that Georgia lawmakers take into account the entire school community, which includes students, educators, parents, businesses, elected leaders, and residents, before making a decision that perpetuates unproven practices and have the potential to hurt students and communities.

“When public schools become community hubs—offering services and programs beyond the school day, creating strong learning cultures and safe and supportive environments for both students and educators—student outcomes improve.”

Photo: Associated Press