Community Schools: Defend and Transform in Practice

Backstory Part 1 (Durham Association of Educators)

In 2015, Durham’s local affiliate of the North Carolina Association of Educators/National Education Association (NCAE/NEA), the DAE, had a leadership transition.  The majority of the new leaders were either elected or appointed based on a commitment to the following platform:

  • Building a DAE that:
    • Is relevant in members’ lives
    • Builds power for students, educators, and parents
    • Works for racial and economic justice
    • Is a meaningful part of the Durham community

We have worked hard to increase our activity and visibility, and we developed the “defend and transform public schools” framework to describe our approach.  Our mission, then, is to:

  • Defend our public schools from the efforts of powerful forces that aim to dismantle and privatize them
  • Transform our schools into places where each and every one of our students can achieve their highest potential

Over the course of the last three school years, we have achieved many of the objectives described in our platform, from a campaign to win a raise for Classified Staff to our efforts to stop the deportation of one of our students, and from winning coverage pay for extra-duty work to helping de-privatize the district’s custodial services.  We’ve engaged with the staff and leadership at every school in the district, are in regular communication with leaders in at least half of DPS schools, and have built positive working relationships with the School Board and central administration.

Backstory Part 2 (Community Schools)  

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DPS staff and parents wait for their turn to speak to the board about why they want the chance to pilot the Community School model within DPS.

As a result of the success of our work, NEA leaders from Milwaukee invited our local to send a team to participate in their Community Schools Institute, a five-day training in May of 2017.  In consultation with the leaders of the institute, DAE’s leadership invited a veteran elementary school teacher beginning her PhD program at UNC Chapel Hill who planned to research and write about Community Schools, and a teacher and principal each from Club Blvd and Eastway Elementary Schools.  Each principal was a member of DAE, and each school had high levels of staff participation in our campaigns, so it was reasonable to think that we’d have more success in engaging these communities in a conversation about this model than others. If it turned out that the model wasn’t a good fit, we could at least consider it high-level professional development and quality team building.  

Once there, we learned that the NEA had partnered with a variety of organizations to survey the landscape of Community Schools in the country.  Because they are heavily funded and well-organized, charter and private schools mass market themselves as centers of innovation and success, even if there is typically no evidence to back up their claims.  Proponents of public schools have been left saying that we oppose privatization and the charter movement’s dismantling of our school systems, but don’t have much to offer as an alternative to their mass communications campaigns.  The NEA and others were looking to the Community Schools approach as a model for the transformation of struggling school communities, and they were able to identify 6 key strategies that, when embraced, demonstrated remarkable results:

  • Rigorous, aligned, and culturally-responsive curriculum
  • Focus on high quality teaching rather than high-stakes testing
  • Inclusive models of school leadership
  • Positive discipline practices like restorative justice, rather than a reliance on suspension
  • Authentic parent and community engagement
  • Wrap around supports and services for students, parents, and the communities that feed our schools

We learned from teachers, parents, school administrators, district administrators, and union leaders from all over the country, and heard stories of remarkable transformations.  In addition to the 6 strategies, they argued that each successful model Community School:

  • Hired a full-time Community Schools Coordinator to facilitate this work
  • Conducted a comprehensive needs and assets assessment with the school’s students, staff, parents, and community base
  • Developed a strategic plan that flowed from the assessment and aimed at progress on all 6 strategies
  • Engaged community partners in the implementation of that strategic plan

Our team was excited and came back to Durham ready to get to work.

The Beginning of the Durham Community Schools Campaign

Upon returning, our team got to work in a few key areas:  building level organizing, infrastructure building, and engaging with Durham’s decision makers.

At Club Blvd, the work proceeded quickly.  The educator and principal who attended organized a series of discussions and workshops at the school before the year was even over.  To gauge interest, they held a referendum, and 94% of the staff said that they wanted to take up this initiative. With this mandate, the staff went to work.  They restructured the school’s decision-making bodies to emphasize shared leadership. They engaged with community partners to bring in fresh food for weekly distribution and installed a washing machine/dryer to ensure that students have clean clothes available.  The PTA raised $5000 to begin the needs and assets assessment and move the process forward while we worked to secure funding for a full-time Community Schools Coordinator.

At Eastway, the project has moved forward at a slower pace because, simultaneous to the beginning of our Community Schools initiative, the district applied for a federal School Improvement Grant for the school.  Those grants, while adding much-needed resources to a school community, include the engagement of teams of outside experts in a way that doesn’t allow for the kind of inside-out and bottom-up transformation of a school that the Community Schools model relies on.  Eastway remains in the Community Schools conversation, but we are moving slower and trying to figure out the best path forward together.

Beyond the buildings, this project requires the construction of a coalition of supporters and partners in order to make it successful.  Upon returning from Milwaukee, our team invited educator and parent leaders from Club Blvd and Eastway to help us build a core team along with other DAE leaders committed to this project, members of the Durham People’s Alliance’s education team, and a leader from Parents of African-American Children (PAAC)/the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.  DAE had worked with the invited individuals over a period of 3-10 years, and we felt confident that they could help guide this project. That team – we call it the “core leadership team” – has met every month to make decisions and offer guidance, and has since expanded to include leaders from 4 other schools, the North Carolina Justice Center, an individual with expertise in developing race equity programming in schools and school districts, and parent/union leaders from an emerging Language Justice workteam.

Finally, we built a strong relationship with a staff person that the National Education Association (DAE’s parent organization) hired to lead this work, Kyle Serette.  Our team brought Kyle down for a few days of workshops last summer, and he led discussions with both core team members and 5 out of 7 School Board members. All of the Board members that were able to attend left excited and ready to think about next steps.  

Fall 2017 and the Expansion of the Campaign

The 2017-18 school year began with a great deal of uncertainty for the project.  We had one school moving quickly, another stalled, major leadership transitions at DPS, and a lack of funding for Community School Coordinators at the building level.  The next step wasn’t obvious.

Adding to the challenges, the state identified 6 (and then narrowed it to 2) DPS schools for potential takeover by the Innovative School District.  The ISD, if successful, would take a school away from Durham, hand it to a charter, and further the dismantling of our system. Lakewood and Glenn Elementary Schools were being targeted for takeover.  In 3-4 weeks, DAE was able to mobilize thousands of people to take actions against the takeover, and both schools were removed from the potential list. During this campaign, and in its wake, the question emerged: if not the ISD, then what do these schools need to turn around?  

Employing the “defend and transform” framework allowed us to argue that just stopping the takeover wasn’t enough.  These schools needed to be transformed, and a fight to save them, alone, was not going to accomplish that task. Board members approached us to discuss the applicability of the model to these schools, and the conversation about Community Schools reemerged as a model for transformation.  

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Lakewood staff sporting “I Voted” stickers on the the day they voted 62-4 to join the Community Schools campaign.

Meanwhile, Kyle and the NEA staff were working to find resources to fund Community Schools work in locals that they assessed could be successful.  Durham was invited to join in a grant with several locals from around the country based on our strong track record of organizing and winning campaigns and support for our work in the school district.  The NEA agreed to fund an organizer to organize buildings, work with officials and allies in DPS and other parts of the community, and help us get this initiative off the ground.

In December, the core leadership team decided that it would consider organizing in other schools based on a criteria we developed in consultation with NEA and national leaders.  We wanted to ensure that this project could be successful in its initial sites, in hopes that it could eventually be considered for expansion to other schools that met a best-practices criteria established in partnership with the district.  We believe that the Community Schools model can work at any school, but we needed to have some success in a small number of pilot sites before we could discuss broadening the initiative. The criteria we developed was:

  • Does the school’s leadership have a commitment to an inclusive school decision-making model and a regular/ongoing/positive relationship with DAE—if we are providing training/support/resources/etc., we need to have trusting relationships with principals and administrators
  • Does the school have a positive building-level climate and established DAE leaders among the staff—again, if we were investing resources, we needed to have a place to start
  • Does the school have, or have the potential for, strong and diverse parent organization
  • Are there obstacles beyond our control that represent a significant challenge to carrying out the project, particularly since this would be our very first attempt (i.e. a federal SIG grant that imposes requirements in a way that can conflict with the bottom-up strategic planning approach essential to the Community School model, etc.)

This was not meant to be an exhaustive set of criteria, or anything that guided big picture choices—it was put forward as a place to start the next set of conversations past Club and Eastway.  Based on our work over the course of the last 3 years, we decided to have conversations with principals from 5 more schools that met this criteria. To be clear, we do not believe that these are the only schools that could successfully implement this initiative.  Similarly, we believe that there are other schools that also deeply need this kind of innovative transformation. Our hope is that it will be successful and can then be expanded. We did want, however, to ensure the highest probability of success, and began conversations with principals at: 

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Attendees at an Out of the Box (professional development) session in February, “Community Schools: We are the Answer We’ve Been Waiting For.”
  • Brogden Middle
  • EK Powe Elementary
  • Hope Valley Elementary
  • Lakewood Elementary
  • Southwest Elementary

January 2018 to Now

Because a transformation towards an inclusive school leadership model is a significant shift, we needed Principal buy-in first.  The DAE President met with each of them prior to Winter Break to discuss the model and a proposed process for exploring the initiative with staff.  Each were asked to read lengthy research reports over the break and let us know if they were interested in moving forward upon returning. All 5 said yes.  

Meanwhile, we hired Anna Grant, an experienced community organizer and bilingual parent liaison from Forest View Elementary, to work on the campaign.  Anna and the DAE President Bryan Proffitt have spent the following 3 months:

  • Having deep assessment/planning/trust building conversations with Principals
  • Speaking to entire staff meetings about the project
  • Conducting small-group information sessions
  • Participating in over 100 small group/1 on 1 conversations
  • Facilitating a two hour workshop on the initiative at the district-wide professional development in February (attended by over 150)
  • Supporting/coaching building level leaders in having conversations with their co-workers
  • Meeting with each school’s PTA to begin the kind of parent organization that is central to this model
  • Overseeing school-based referenda that saw 100% voter participation in 4 schools and every vote landing at at least 94% in support of the initiative

The work has not moved forward at Brogden for a variety of reasons, but each of the 4 other schools has now joined Club Blvd in looking for support for this initiative.

Counting votes
First grade teachers anxiously counting the votes at Hope Valley

Now that we have identified school communities that want to participate, we are working together to find support and funding for Community School Coordinators at each site.  The School Board has already passed a resolution in support of the initiative, and our initial meetings with City, County, and Duke University staff/officials have all been positive.  We will spend the rest of the Spring engaged in conversations with each of these entities, in addition to exploring possible foundation funding, to acquire money to hire full-time building-level coordinators.  

What This is Really All About

Lost in the conversation about the funding for the coordinators is the entire 6 strategy framework.  People tend to boil Community Schools down to one bullet point: wrap around services. We, like so many others, are drawn to this model because it not only focuses on meeting students’ needs beyond the curriculum, but argues that meeting these needs is actually a key factor in students’ academic success.  The solutions that other schools have employed to meet their students’ needs past academics is inspiring. Each of the strategies, however, is essential to the success of our students. None of them will be easy to achieve.

At its core, this project is really about school communities believing in themselves, committing to solve problems rather than complaining, and harnessing the resources in and around them to improve the lives of students, families, educators, and communities.  

No one is coming to save us, and the charter movement and privatization are not the answer.  We need to find one another, commit to solving problems together, and engage our whole community in generating the solutions that our students deserve.  If we’re in this together, we can accomplish anything.

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