Every school in New York City should become a community school, because it is the right thing to do, and because it’s better for students.
Community Schools, which I’ve described in depth here, are essentially schools which offer services beyond those of a typical school in order to meet a wider range of students’ needs. They tend to stay open longer during the day and during the summer, and they might offer health services to students or social services and adult education to parents and families. But, all of that is secondary to another one of their defining traits: Every Community School is also partnered with a Community-Based Organization that helps deliver those extra services and enrichment activities for students.
Many different kinds of organizations can serve this purpose. Examples include Fordham University, Bronxworks, The Door, and the YMCA. At the moment, they mostly provide services considered secondary in education, like access to health and fitness education, food, mental health counseling, housing, and legal assistance.
However, there is no practical reason that they couldn’t take on greater educational responsibilities such as teaching certain subjects or groups of students. Perhaps a school could even partner with multiple community organizations to provide an even wider variety of opportunities to students. They could partner with a nearby community garden to offer environmental education. They could partner with a local hospital to both provide student healthcare and health or biology education. Schools could form networks of partnerships between schools so that students can benefit from other school’s partnerships.
In order to coordinate this, I propose that the DOE hand over some of its power to more localized school boards. These boards could be composed of members elected by students, parents, and teachers, as well as representatives from community organizations.
Giving control over a school or a district to a board of community-elected members is called decentralization, and it was attempted in NYC in 1968. But, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) union quickly stopped it with a 36 day long strike, in a deliberate attempt to take control over black students’ education after the Board of Education had decided to let three school’s local communities decide how their children would be educated.
Decentralization lets schools respond more effectively to their unique needs. Members of a particular community should be the ones who decide what that community needs, and because Community Schools are meant to give communities what they need, the two together are a perfect match for caring for whole communities.
A decentralized school would be much better suited to create curricula and find teachers well suited to a particular community’s students by accounting for the abilities of its community based organizations and community members. Different communities also have different cultures, values, conventions. They should be allowed to take advantage of these differences instead of trying to standardize all of their students to make them interchangeable and easily manageable.
Community Schools have also been found to increase feelings of “shared responsibility for student success” among teachers in elementary and middle schools. When paired with the school board of a decentralized school district, this presents a potential cure to the politician’s favorite game of placing all the blame on one person and pretending to fix something when firing them, without changing anything about the system which that person ran.
If instead of principals, boards of representatives of whole communities directed schools, it would be more difficult to scapegoat an individual person for the failures of a system. This would make systemic change not only possible, but essential to any school’s educational plans.
This is why I propose that every school become a Decentralized Community School. If they like the status quo so much that they collectively decide to change nothing, so be it. But, for schools where change is desperately needed, those schools’ communities should be allowed to lead the way.