Herbert Hoover High School in City Heights on Sept. 27, 2022.
Herbert Hoover High School in City Heights on Sept. 27, 2022. Hoover is one of the five schools San Diego Unified is rolling out community school strategies at this year. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

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The education world is rife with buzzy concepts that aren’t always understood by stakeholders. So today I’m going to break down one that’s all the rage in California, and at San Diego Unified – community schools. 

The term denotes a school that collaborates with community resources to provide wraparound services intended to remove barriers to student success. These can include universal free meals (which California already rolled out statewide this year,) health services or conflict resolution training.  

The resources provided at each school can vary depending on the community’s needs. But there are four pillars consistently present in successful community schools, identified in a 2017 report by the Learning Policy Institute and adopted by the California Community Schools Partnership Program, a $3 billion state program that awards grants to schools and districts to develop new community schools and support existing ones. 

Those four pillars are that community schools should foster engagement that turns schools into neighborhood hubs, involve community members, students and families in decision making, integrate student supports like social and mental health services that address barriers to success that exist outside of the school and offer additional academic instruction that may keep schools open later in the day or during the summer. 

Herbert Hoover High School in City Heights on Sept. 27, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Studies show community schools produce benefits ranging from improving student attendance, behavior, learning, graduation rates and reducing racial and economic achievement gaps. They also showed every dollar spent on school-based wraparound services yielded $15 in social value and economic benefits. 

Despite its trendiness, the concept isn’t new. Community school approaches first emerged about 100 years ago, and their history snakes through the Great Depression. They’re also indebted to the struggle for equal education in Black communities, some of whose schools sought to thrive in the face of disenfranchisement and segregation by creating collaborative relationships with community members and acting as gathering spaces. 

In March, SDUSD approved its first cohort of community schools, which includes ALBA Community Day School, Hancock Elementary, Hoover High School, Mountain View School and Millennial Tech Middle. And in May, the state announced the recipients of its first round of California Community School Partnership Program grants, with SDUSD being awarded nearly $13 million that will be doled out over the next five years. It also stipulates that the district provide a 1/3 match of the funds. 

The amount distributed to each school depends on the number of students enrolled, and the funds have several stipulations attached, like districts not being allowed to spend them to supplant existing funds or to acquire facilities. 

SDUSD’s Communications Director, Maureen Magee wrote in an email that all schools in the first cohort have hired site coordinators who will start in the coming weeks. The coordinators will work with educational and community partners to conduct a needs assessment for each school. 

“A variety of supports will be identified for schools based on a needs assessment and current resources. Services may address: physical health, mental health, expanded learning, parent workshops, community events, etc,” Magee wrote. 

The support of community schools by SDUSD’s board is likely to continue regardless of who’s elected to the district’s open seats in November. Of the four candidates, Shana Hazan, Godwin Higa and Cody Petterson, are all in on community schools. The lone conservative on the ballot Becca Williams, however, has expressed interest in the concept, but said she’s unconvinced the district can effectively develop them.  

Anna Maier, a senior policy advisor and researcher with the Learning Policy Institute, said developing new strategies in schools and effectively deploying major educational investments, like California’s Community Schools Partnership program – which she called historic – requires focusing on what’s worked.  

But, Maier added, substantive change won’t come overnight. The best results come from community schools that have been operating the longest. Samantha Cruz, a University City High School teacher and member of the Community Schools Coalition echoed the need for this to be a long-term project, both so schools have the time to develop connections and so they earn the trust of parents and communities. “There are trust issues because of the inequities that (communities) have experienced on all different types of levels,” Cruz said. She’s been encouraged by what she sees as an effort to collaborate with communities on things like who to hire as site coordinators, but hopes the district continues the work and eventually expands the program to all schools. 

“Every child, every community should have a safe space where they are supported in all of the facets of their lives because we know as educators and parents that what happens outside of school comes into school, and what happens in school goes outside of school,” Cruz said.  

Be sure to come to Politifest on October 8, where I’ll lead a panel with SDUSD school board candidates to hear more about their positions on community schools. 

The Content Bouncing Around My Mind Palace  

  • The COVID-19 pandemic was a galvanizing moment for people on every point of the political spectrum, but conservatives were particularly fired up. Perhaps nowhere has that activation been more visible than local school boards, where conservative organizations have mobilized a number of candidates to push back against the remnants of school pandemic policies, ethnic studies in schools and LGBTQ issues reports the Union-Tribune
  • EdSource reports that opponents of a bill that would require California schools to create water quality reports to determine the level of lead in water on campuses and remediate any fixtures with high lead levels are asking Governor Gavin Newsom to veto it. The bill has pitted various labor and educational groups against each other, as opponents argue the bill is an unfunded mandate that could cost districts hundreds of millions of dollars. 
  • In other veto news: Last week Newsom vetoed a pair of bills that would have extended the kindergarten school day and made kindergarten mandatory for 5-year-olds.  
  • The Union-Tribune reached into the archives and found that the first junior high schools in San Diego were launched 100 years and 10 days ago.  

What We’re Writing  

  • In November, San Diegans will vote on the latest bond proposal from the San Diego Unified School District – its fourth ask in fourteen years. Check out our rundown of what it means, and why the district says it needs the $3.2 billion.  

Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter.

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2 Comments

  1. San Diego Unified implemented “Community Schools” in the early 70’s, initially funded by the Mott Foundation, then by an override tax that was wiped out by Prop 13 in 1978. At the time, Lindbergh Elementary was the lead school, with principal Jimmy Craig being a supporter of kids, families, and the community. Six schools were involved from different areas in the district. Community surveys were conducted to determine needs and resources and various activities and services were implemented. Perhaps SDUSD has records that can amplify this information.

  2. There was also the New Beginnings pilot that was tried for a couple of years at Hamilton Elementary in the early 1990s. Seems every two decades or so educators reinvent the wheel, having no institutional memory to learn what went wrong with earlier efforts and to design a better program. What a tragic waste of resources to plow the same ground again and again.

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