“What sense does it make to try to reform urban schools while the communities around them stagnate or collapse?”
Mark Warren, Associate Professor of Education at Harvard University, asks this fundamental question that is largely unaddressed in the current debates over school reform and the race to the top in education.
He wrote this in 2005, and it is even more insightful and on target today given the increases in job loss, housing foreclosures, education cuts, and the harsh realities of community life for many Americans. How can schools get to the top if their communities remain at the bottom? How can the race to the top increase the wellbeing of both schools and communities?
His paper, Communities and Schools: A New View of Urban Education Reform, makes the case that the fates of urban schools and communities are inextricably linked yet education reformers and community developers often work in silos. Following the outlines of the reform agenda of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, it seems that school transformation is positioned largely out of the community context—out of the set of institutions and relationships that fully shape the learning experiences and well-being of the K-12 population and their families.
Communities and Schools is particularly important to keep in mind today as the stimulus package is providing historic levels of funding for school improvement, as charter school networks and other third party school management organizations are expanding in districts, and as “disruptive” innovations (online learning and virtual schools are the recent popular examples) are gaining attention. There is an opportunity to open up the scope of reform and do things differently. If school improvement remains constrained in the education reform box, gains in school and community well-being may only go so far.
Why Community Matters
Warren offers a compelling case for why we need to link education reform and community revitalization and he provides a framework for thinking about strategies to implement collaborative school-community transformation.
1.) Kids can’t learn if they lack adequate housing, nutrition, safe, and secure environments.
2.) Schools can’t teach children well if they don’t understand their students (their lives and culture) and they lack meaningful relationships with their families.
3.) When school and community are isolated from each other a culture of power in schools can exacerbate “deficit” views of low-income parents, fueling tensions and undermining efforts at collaboration, and overlooking potential social and cultural resources.
4.) Structural inequalities of low income urban schools, such as their lack of resources compared to suburban schools, requires broader political engagement to sustainably address.
By joining school reform and community revitalization, Warren says that reform strategies “ emerge in a dialectic between experts and an engaged community of stakeholders in and around schools.” Authentic participation enhances commitment and success. Reform efforts take root in the values, concerns, and conditions of local communities. It seems that any effort to scale school “turnarounds”, “restarts”, and “transformations” would need to involve some kind of school-community collaboration in order to be relevant and avoid a “cookie cutter” approach.
Approaches for School-Community Collaboration
Warren’s framework for understanding the possibilities for school-community collaborations hinge on two important concepts: social capital and relational power. He defines social capital as “the set of resources that inhere in relationships of trust and cooperation.” Schools with high social capital are able to make the most of the assets they do have and can mobilize their social capital for greater resources. These are the intersecting relationships that bring people and resources together toward shared goals. This web of trust and cooperation also provides what Warren calls, “social closure” for children, a shared context among children and adults in which there are unifies sets of expectations and behaviors and coordinated actions to achieve their development holistically. The Harlem Children’s Zone comes to mind here, in which the institutions in the “zone” bring sets of relationships, resources, and a common vision together to improve the lives of its resident school age population.
Social capital does not necessarily imply power, particularly in the case of the urban communities where poverty and racism exist. Warren contrasts relational power (the power to get things done) with unilateral power (power over others). Relational power is developed through collaborative, problem solving approaches. It is necessary for working through community tensions and confronting tough challenges collectively. Relational power helps build the capacity of the school to actively co-create solutions with community organizations rather than be a passive recipient of their services.
Warren describes several case studies of school-community collaborations in which social capital and relational power were developed to make school-community improvements. They represent three distinct models for school-community collaboration.
1.) The service model: schools develop as a full service site for a range of programs for children and their families. These neighborhood hubs are often open beyond normal school hours and can provide health services, afterschool ESL, adult education and other programs for community residents. In this model, the community extends into the school to wrap services around the needs of the school population.
2.) The development model: includes the community sponsorship of a new school such as a charter school, and are typically oriented around a set of shared values and perhaps a pedagogical approach, such as many of the recent charters that are organized around technology and project based inquiry methods in the classroom.
3.) The organizing model: community organizations, like neighborhood associations, collaborate with schools to develop leadership skills, relationship building, and public action among community residents and within the school to improve the school-community. School sites become hubs of political organizing and parent leaders emerge as key links between school and community issues.
While these models differ in their approaches for developing relational power and social capital, they all work toward creating public schools as “institutional anchors for low income, urban communities.” This is a significant difference from the reform efforts we hear today. Besides Obama’s public (and financial) support of the Harlem Children’s Zone, school improvement remains disconnected from its social, economic, and political context—the broader community that surrounds it. Schools may succeed in bringing down their dropout rates, and may gain a few points in standardized test, but the communities they inhabit, and that their students eat, sleep, socialize, live and learn in, will still languish.
(next, part 2, A Resilience Model for School-Community Collaboration)