By Barbara Gross
In early April, I was one of about 1,700 attendees who travelled to Albuquerque (NM) for the Coalition of Community Schools’ bi-annual national conference, where we gathered to share knowledge, learn from each other, and celebrate the growth of community schools across the country. Most participants were connected directly to community schools as teachers, service providers, principals, counselors, and other staff. There was also representation from the two teachers unions and from community and youth organizing groups, almost exclusively linked to the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), which AISR supports in a myriad of ways. We have worked diligently and persistently with the leadership at the Coalition to carve out a space for youth and community voice, and particularly for those groups of young people and adults who are organizing to ensure that community schools are more than just wrap-around services slapped onto whatever is happening in the school day.
While there is no doubt in my mind that all of the people in attendance were well meaning and very hard working, I was struck repeatedly by the descriptions of neighborhoods, which were often characterized as dangerous, depressed, drug- and gang-infested, and housing families who are in no shape to take an active role in their children’s education and the life of the schools. The family outreach therefore is geared toward connecting families with services, and the approach to students is “to remove the barriers to learning.”
It is true that high-poverty, struggling neighborhoods have a critical need for services and healthcare opportunities that are high quality, accessible, and culturally attuned. But there are also remarkable things going on in these neighborhoods: organizing for resources and programs and affordable housing; music and art and culture; many languages spoken, with residents who are bi- or trilingual; immigrant families with rich histories and skills; all families with stories to tell and skills to share; and great resilience in the face of systemic racism and under-funding.
I say all this to say that I was proud of the workshop that I planned and co-presented with others from AROS to try to shift the paradigm toward acknowledging the assets and leadership that parents and community members bring to education reform efforts. I was joined by , the executive director of AROS; Ken Zarifis, president of ; and Natasha Capers of the NYC (CEJ). We presented AROS's vision for “The Schools our Children Deserve,” based on the belief that every child has the right to attend a high-quality sustainable community school in their own neighborhood. We engaged participants – more than 30 teachers, principals, and organizers – in envisioning such schools and identifying the obstacles that need to be overcome to make them a reality.
To exemplify the willingness of the Coalition for Community Schools to open its “tent” to parent organizing, this year the first ever award for Family and Community Advocacy was presented to CEJ and accepted by Natasha. In her acceptance speech, she said:
The voice that parents and community bring is so critical. It is the greatest asset of every community. We are the assets that often get overlooked, especially in Black, Brown, and immigrant communities. . . . Parent organizing is scary because to give voice to parents so you can hear what they really think is scary, but it is key. And without it we wouldn’t be standing where we are in New York City with 130 community schools, a community school policy, and thinking of ways to make it sustainable and pushing it across the state.
Natasha credited Marty Blank, director of the Coalition, with the statement that a community school model should provide “a way not just to allow communities to point out their problems but, at its core, it should be a way to give communities a license to solve them.”
I felt that throughout the conference, those of us connected to AROS – parent and youth organizers and leaders, teacher union partners, and AISR – were able to hold up this important perspective as our movement continues to grow.
Barbara Gross is principal associate of Community Organizing & Engagement in AISR’s New York office.