By Mark Naison
Community Schools are public schools with wrap around services that become places where all residents of low income communities can find spaces where they can learn, organize and find a voice. The concept was once at the forefront of social justice organizing in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but was pushed aside for a vision of test based accountability from the top down in which all schools must promote mastery of a common curriculum. Bringing back the original ideal of Community schools, along with curricula which incorporate community traditions and cultures, is one of the best responses public school advocates can make to the Corporate sponsored charter school offensive.
What complicates this effort is that those promoting charter schools, now that charters have lost their luster due to fiscal improprieties and academic abuses, are starting to call corporate charters “Community schools” This is taking place in Memphis, and is also occurring in Youngstown, where state education officials propose to charterize the entire district.
The only way to challenge this effort and prevent Corporate reformers from hijacking and derailing the Community schools movement, is to spell out the differences between public community schools and charters which take some elements of the community school concept and reject others.
Here are some of the key features of Community schools as developed over the last fifty years.
- Democratic participation and control. The school is a place where all community members are welcome and access services, take classes and hold meetings, not just families of children at the school.. Charters almost NEVER do that. They separate families in the school community from those in the larger community.
- Culturally appropriate curricula and school culture. Community schools draw on the cultural traditions of the people in the communities where they are located and incorporate them into the school culture and pedagogy. They refuse to sacrifice those traditions to achieve high test scores. Some community schools ask for exemption from state testing so they can better created a culturally relevant curriculum. By contrast, most charters are obsessed with student test scores and turn instruction into test prep.
- Disciplinary policies and instruction which are infused respect for students and teachers. Community schools arose in part, because traditional public schools often showed insensitivity to students of color and disciplined them disproportionately. Their philosophy was to work with students when they become challenging, not expel or suspend them, and ultimately transform their rebelliousness into an asset. Most charters do exactly the opposite. They expel non-conforming students in enormous numbers, sending them back into the public school system. This may be the single largest difference between real community schools and charters adopting the label.
- Respect for teachers and recruitment of lifetime educators who will live in the communities they teach in. The community school movement was forged by educators and activists who wanted teachers to be sensitive to the cultural traditions of the students they taught and part of the communities the schools are located in. They actively recruited teachers of color and encouraged teachers to live in the communities they taught in. Most charters do the opposite. They prefer having revolving door staffs of young white teachers who can be easily intimidated by administrators and will accept the abusive disciplinary policies and regimes of test prep they promote.
If you look at these four criteria, you will see that most charter schools which call themselves Community schools fail to respect the original vision. Community schools were not just intended to be institutions which provide wrap around services; they were intended to be centers of democratic education and community empowerment.
Those are the kinds of schools we need. Those are the kind of schools we still must fight for.
Mark Naison is Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University.