Jim Groth sits in front of newspapers from November 1978 from The San Diego Union and the Los Angeles Times taken at Harborside Elementary School in Chula Vista.
Jim Groth sits in front of newspapers from November 1978 from The San Diego Union and the Los Angeles Times taken at Harborside Elementary School in Chula Vista. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

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Jim Groth moved to Chula Vista in early 1975. He’d come from Minneapolis, where he worked in community education, largely on summer school programming. John Pletcher, the principal of Harborside Elementary in Chula Vista, had recently come back from an education conference where he learned about the concept of community schools – schools that provide students wraparound services alongside local resources. Excited by the idea, he hired Groth to make it a reality.

Now, nearly fifty years later, community schools are in vogue again. Groth has reflected on his experience as he’s watched their renewing popularity. 

During his ten years at the helm of Harborside’s community school initiative, Groth said he worked in tandem with locals to provide services to both students and the community surrounding Harborside. In 1978, for example, California passed Prop 13, a measure that limited the amount that property taxes could increase each year. It was a blow to school funding, which at the time came largely from property tax revenue. Across California, schools immediately began cancelling summer school.

Jim Groth looks at an old newspaper from November 1978 from The San Diego Union taken at Harborside Elementary School in Chula Vista on Oct. 7, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

“But our parents relied on summer school for educational reasons, and also for childcare,” Groth said. Community members began asking Groth to create a summer school. He knew a bit about how summer schools were run from his work in Minneapolis, and also that some teachers would be willing to work because they relied on pay over the summer to make ends meet. So, despite apprehension from the district, Groth was able to convince them to give it a try.  

“We put together a summer school that pretty much mirrored what a regular summer school would look like,” Groth said, though it was a little shorter than normal summer school. They used a small pot of grant money to pay staff and tapped into a federal program to get free food for the students from a community center, and parents volunteered to help prepare it. 

“I had a Datsun pickup truck, and every day I would drive up to National City, fill up my pickup truck with the food for the lunch for the day and the breakfast for the following morning and bring it back down to Harborside,” Groth said. For him, it’s a prime example of the localization necessary to create an effective community school. “The parents came forward and said, ‘Hey, we have a need, what can we do?’ And I said, ‘Hey, let’s get creative here,’” Groth said. 

Another hyper localized aspect of Harborside’s program was the “adopt a grandparent” initiative. During the 70’s and 80’s, a trailer park for senior citizens sat across the street from the school, and Groth said when he looked at it he saw a resource – and another need. 

“There were seniors there who were lonely,” he said. “They lived alone, maybe they’d lost their husband or wife, and we were able to connect with them.” 

Every week he walked through the trailer park and got to know the folks who lived there. They ended up with 30 seniors who “adopted” Harborside’s third graders. The pairs got together monthly to work on projects, have potlucks with the children and their parents and go on field trips. The program ended up running for nearly a decade. 

 “It was looking at not just the needs of the school, but needs of the community within the trailer park,” Groth said. 

Harborside Elementary students eat a Thanksgiving meal with their adopted grandparents in a Los Angeles Times article.

He and his team launched other community-building initiatives. They took neighbors – some of whom, despite living just a few miles from the border, had never gone to Mexico – on a trip to Ensenada, created a monthly food bank and launched a preschool program and adult classes like English as a second language and classes to help people prepare for citizenship tests. 

“We had a Spanish class for seniors, and they walked across the street, came on campus, and it became their campus,” Groth said. “It wasn’t just that building across the street anymore.” 

Harborside wasn’t the only Chula Vista school experimenting with community schools. Lauderbach and Muller elementary both had their own programs, Groth said. San Diego Unified also had community schools. Eventually, the funding dried up and Harborside’s community school program came to an end in the late 80’s. They didn’t go away because they weren’t successful, Groth asserted, but because of a lack of funding. 

After running the program for over a decade and working at Chula Vista Elementary School District for over 40 years, Groth is excited to see the concept coming back. SDUSD is building out its first cohort of community schools this year, and Chula Vista was recently awarded $200,000 in state funding to begin planning.  

“It’s an old concept, and hopefully in these economic cycles, it’s not something that will just go away again,” Groth said. “Because the need is there, the need never went away. October 5 of 2022, versus October 5 of 1975, the needs are the same for many communities.”  

Groth said the four pillars upon which California’s community schools program is built are spot on in his experience. But he had four main bits of advice for those setting up new community school programs. 

  • The principal must be fully committed. 
  • The district must be committed to supporting the program, but also has to stay out of the way. 
  • Those involved have to understand that each school site is unique, so each program will be unique.  
  • Establishing and maintaining healthy relationships between local resources and agencies is vital. 
Harborside’s 1984 class of third graders wrote notes to their adopted grandparents.

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Jakob McWhinney

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

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1 Comment

  1. The examples described are not truly “community schools”. Yes they have some interesting programs that connect them more to the community, but they do not facilitate schools setting their own curriculum (or at least modifying the school district’s traditional one) or autonomous hiring and firing of teachers and other staff. ‘Community Controlled Schools” was attempted in New York City in 1968 (I taught then), but the teacher’s union shut it down.

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