Community Schools — and the organizing it will take to build them

Netroots Nation is 10 years old, and over the past decade has become a preeminent gathering point for people at the intersections of progressive politics, social change, and technology. As such, it’s been interesting to watch various aspects of the conference shift — from keynote speakers, to panel topics, to vendors — as the larger progressive movement has shifted.

Nowhere is that more stark than education. Writers like Jeff Bryant point out how for many years, education wasn’t even on the radar of many progressive activists and organizations — and when it was, they would usually gravitate to the well-funded outreach of corporate reform outfits like Students First and Stand for Children.

But the crisis in public education worsened and the broader progressive community began to see the effects of an inherently conservative ideology in practice, often in the hands of otherwise liberal policymakers: mass school closures in low-income, Black, and Latino communities; slashed K-12 funding, hitting poor districts hardest; the shine wearing off the charter school model as scandals piled up; the astonishingly high rate of Black, Latino, LGBT and disabled students being pushed out of their classrooms and into the criminal justice system; and reformers’ insistence on blaming teachers, parents, and students — anyone but themselves.

Recent Netroots conferences have highlighted inequities in school funding, the school-to-prison pipeline, and this year featured a session on the community schools model led by Schott Foundation grantees and partners: The Real Progressive Solution: How the community schools model supports students and revitalizes entire neighborhoods.

Community schools across the country are already proving themselves to be better solutions to underserved districts than private charter conversions or undemocratic state takeovers. As moderator Kyle Serrette of the Center for Popular Democracy pointed out, cities are finding out that community schools improve the lives of students, teachers, and parents by almost every measure. Serrette brought up Cincinnati as a prime example: there they built the first community schools starting in 2010. They were able to reduce the opportunity gap for low-income students from 14.5% to 4.5%. Their graduation rate was 51% in 2006, now it’s 82%. Kentucky’s use of community school models has allowed it to jump from the bottom of state rankings for student achievement to the middle of the pack. A Baltimore school was able to take chronic absences down from 10% to 1.5%.

Serrette pointed to six key elements to a successful community school strategy:

  • After-School and Summer Enrichment
  • Parent Involvement
  • Adult Education
  • Medical, Dental, Mental Health and Social Services
  • Early Childhood Education
  • Community and Economic Development

Biology teacher and National Education Association member Eric R. Brown emphasized that ending the school-to-prison pipeline is crucial to building community schools that educate all students. As he put it:

“We have to change how we think about discipline. The school-to-prison pipeline is when you have those policies and practices that are pushing students out for minor offenses. They’re pushing them out of the classroom, pushing them out into the street, and pushing them out possibly into the juvenile justice or criminal justice systems. Once they’re in the streets, they’re not getting an education, they have no opportunity for success, and they’re at a higher risk of imprisonment. The school to prison pipeline is something that has to be abolished, and Restorative Justice practices are something that can do that.”

Eric Brown noted that the NEA adopted a landmark policy resolution this year on the school-to-prison pipeline and is providing guidance to its member educators on how to implement Restorative Justice practices. He also emphasized that Restorative Justice helps out not just the students, but has a larger impact throughout the community. As he put it, the community schools model “doesn’t just invest in students: it invests in the entire community. It talks about providing resources for communities, students and parents.”

Jitu Brown, National Director for the Journey for Justice Alliance, has been organizing in Chicago for decades, working on the front lines fighting privatization and trying to build a more equitable public school system. He and other Chicago public school parents gained national attention last year when they went on a hunger strike to convert Dyett High School into a sustainable community school that would serve the local community. “Why in 2016,” he asked the audience, “does my son have a worse school system than I had in 1980?”

“We make this very complicated, as if creating good schools is a mystery. But we know around the world the US ranks 19th in education, but when we take out poverty we’re 2nd. That says one of two things: either there’s something wrong with our children, or there’s something wrong with the system. I maintain that it’s not a problem with our children, we have a system that has as its core value, and I’ll say this nicely, a devaluing of black and brown children. [...] There is no such thing as a ‘failing’ school in the United States: we’ve been failed.”


Jane Quinn, Vice President for Community Schools at The Children’s Aid Society, spent time debunking some of the myths that forces for privatization have used to justify their reforms. A common refrain is that all students need is good instruction and a “no excuses” attitude. “They forget to point out,” Quinn said, “that we used to have school nurses, and we used to have school social workers, and we used to have a lot of the supports that community schools are bringing back.” Another myth and largely the unspoken assumption at the heart of No Child Left Behind, is that the neediest students can achieve at a high level with fewer resources: that somehow “all children will achieve at the same standards, but we’re going to give the lowest income children the least qualified teachers and the least per-pupil expenditure.”

Quinn explained that with community schools, in contrast, they are working from an evidence-based strategy. “The theoretical evidence is very strong, and the empirical evidence is very strong. These other narratives are based on ideology, not evidence.”

Jitu Brown closed by reminding the audience that historically, the only way marginalized communities have been able to build and sustain public investment — be it transit, healthcare, jobs, or education — is when they were able to build power: “A critical component to creating successful and sustainable community schools is community organizing. […] Public demand is key. Parents, community members and students are not customers, they have to be leaders in that fight.”

Building popular power from the bottom up through grassroots organizing was also the central theme of another Netroots workshop, convened by Schott Foundation’s co-founder and Board Co-Chair Greg Jobin-Leeds: When We Fight, We Win!: The Role of Art and Culture in Movement Building.

Based on his new book, the session’s panelists showcased the importance of art and cultural work as both a product of and an impetus for popular struggle. Jobin-Leeds framed the discussion by encouraging movement organizations to “invest more in creating art and culture as part of a winning strategy for social change.”

Dey Hernández discussed work she did as part of the AgitArte collective, creating art that is responsive to and amplifies grassroots organizing.

Paulina Helm-Hernandez shared insights from her 10 years as Co-Director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG) and how they have been able to incorporate cultural work as a key part of their organizing and outreach strategies, as well as signal ways for those hurt by the present system to engage in self-care and healing. She emphasized that within movements, “we need dedicated spaces for people with a shared identity along with spaces of unity. We need both!”

Featured outside the workshop room was a large quilt that AgitArte uses as a storytelling and organizing tool. After the session concluded, AgitArte members Dey Hernández and Jorge Díaz gave a performance, singing in Spanish the narrative of repression and resistance that the quilt tells.

This year’s Netroots was based in St. Louis, and its proximity to Ferguson was no accident. Struggles for racial justice were front and center throughout the conference, and if Netroots continues to act as a barometer of where the larger progressive movement is heading, we all have cause for optimism.

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