Often when I talk to teachers about teaching in low-income areas their biggest complaint is about apathy. I ask them where they think that apathy comes from and they overwhelmingly respond, “home!” So if apathy is such a huge problem in our disadvantaged schools and it stems from home, how do we solve the problem? How do we get our disadvantaged kids and their families more involved in school and school life? How do help them see that school can help them, all of them, have a better life? I think there is an answer, but it is one that will take some serious national discussion and some changes in how we think as a nation about schooling. It lies in the idea of community schools – integrating services and the community within the local schools.
First, I believe that we as a nation need to change our perceptions of poverty. The official poverty rate in 2007 was 12.5%; that percentage of our population equates to 37.3 million people. 19 The largest percentage of those people are African American or Hispanic. Among children, 18% of the population lives in poverty.19 That’s nearly 1 in 5 children! For a country with our wealth, that is an awful statistic. It’s a statistic that every U.S. citizen should be ashamed our society hasn’t changed. The poverty thresholds would stun the average American: a single individual is considered living in poverty if they earn $10,787, single parent with one child, $14, 291, family of three, $16, 689, family of four, $24,744. 18 None of these figures is a realistic amount of money for a family to live on, particularly in an urban setting.
In addition to the statistics of poverty, there is a global discussion about the link between poverty and education. It’s not a new discussion; it dates back to early societies and the development of formal education with the industrial revolution in Europe and progressed further when the welfare states developed after WWII. Europe, devastated by the war, developed national healthcare, national education systems that extended all the way through higher education, social services, pension plans, and other support systems for their countries. The UN has taken the discussion further into this century to put child-centered education, the raising of literacy rates, and increasing hours of instruction to 800 hours a week on its agenda for those countries that are currently in extreme poverty globally. 12
With all of this clear evidence pointing to a link between poverty and a lack of education, what about our own country? The U.S. also developed a social welfare system along the same timeline as Europe, but ours has always been somewhat different. We didn’t feel the same kind of pain and devastation as other areas of the world after WWII. We instituted Social Security, Welfare, Medicaid, and Medicare, but we never instituted national plans. We’ve had debates about national health care for years, but there is huge resistance to the idea. We developed a national education system, but there has been constant debate about curriculum, structure, accountability, accessibility, assessment, and funding. I believe much of this stems from the way that our system originated. Our system was born out of a group of charitable organizations taking control of needs that needed to be met and simply filling those needs. For example, the Societies For The Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed in New York and became our country’s first child protective agency. There are those in our society today that believe we can still operate in this manner. Obviously there is a huge role for non-profits and charitable organizations in our society, but government is also critical. The child protective agency, for example, is better suited to a government social agency where it can have consistency and guidelines across our large country.
As we look to how to improve our schools and address the issue of poverty in our nation I come back to the idea of education. Education is how we attack poverty on a global basis and it should be our best defense here in the U.S. We have a long history in this country of community–based solutions from which to draw inspiration and ideas for a new scheme of community schools that will help this generation. If we look at social settlements, the platoon-plan , and various community school plans developing around the country, I believe there are solutions in the making.
The Platoon Plan was born in the city of Gary, Indiana in 1906. It ended up dying a slow and painful death with much criticism as the result of the unintended segregation that occurred with the area and the high cost of maintaining the schools. There were many good points to be gained from William Wirt’s plan, however. The plan was a progressive plan based upon a work-study-play philosophy that focused on educating the whole child. The curriculum was expanded beyond regular academic subjects to include shop, cooking, recreation, nature study, public speaking, music, art, and other activities. The classrooms were kept in constant use including nights, weekends, and summers. The school even included adult education and health care was provided at the school. These concepts of child-centered education, adult education, extended hours, health care, and community involvement are still key concepts in a good community school ideal for this century.6
In the late 1880’s, London developed its first social settlements in response to problems created by urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. The original settlements were run by religious and university students who volunteered time to educated the poor. America’s most famous settlement house was Hull House, founded by Jane Adams in 1889 in Chicago. Hull House was secular in nature but many settlement houses were run by religious organizations. In 1911, Chicago had 35 settlement houses. Hull House grew over the years and by the 1920’s it offered daycare, Kindergarten, an employment bureau, an art gallery, a library, English classes, citizenship classes, theater classes, art classes, music classes, a variety of clubs, cultural events, meeting places for trade union groups, and more. It was a first living quarters for many immigrants and a hub of the community. Settlement houses were the nations first community centers. The Chicago settlement groups helped found the NAACP. Key concepts like daycare, Kindergarten, ESL classes, community clubs, job support and assistance and the general support of the community learned from these early community centers are key concepts that are applicable to a good community school ideal for this century.11
Looking into this century, the models for community schools that are being built are indeed growing out of those early seeds. The Hull House Association lives on today as does the Gary Community Schools Corporation. The Hull House Association continues a tradition of “neighbors helping neighbors.”11 The services it provides carry on Jane Adam’s values and then some. They currently serve 60,000 Chicagoans annually with everything from after school programs to ESL programs to community schools to senior services. They follow the creed that “Ignorance, disease, and crime are the result of economic desperation and not the result of some flaw in moral character.”11 In addition, Chicago is making huge strides with the Coalition for Community Schools and the tremendous amounts of high quality research they are producing. Its close ties to the Administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will help in making Community Schools a national discussion. New York has the New York Children’s Aid Society born out of a group formed in the early 1900’s. In community schools in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, social and health care services are integrated into the schools from infancy through high school, foster care services are available, there is on-site daycare, and preventative care. Countee Cullen Community Center in New York City is located at PS194 and is open from 9am to well past midnight plus weekends and summers. It offers homework help, on-site social services, parenting workshops, child welfare services, drug awareness programs, movie nights, basketball, street clean-ups, voter registration, and more. 10 Many New York public schools are making inroads to change.
Within the city of Philadelphia, there are also some schools experimenting with the idea of community schools. Sayre High School has a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania faculty and students in medicine, nursing, dentistry, social work, education, law, and arts and sciences. Sayre students are prepped to deliver health promotion and education to their community especially in the areas of hypertension, obesity, and diabetes. They receive free tutoring services from volunteer students as well as health care services. These services are also extended to eight other Philadelphia schools within the area serving K-12 aged students. 14 The Francis Scott Key School in South Philadelphia serves a high immigrant population and offers services including extra hours and adult language classes. West Oak Lane Charter School offers a longer school day and year, smaller class size, research-based curriculum focusing on math and science, links to community resources, and a low cost after school program.10
So what are the key components of a community school model that make it truly successful? The most successful community school models seek to “improve the material conditions of the neighborhood.” 10 The schools themselves become integral centers within those neighborhoods and provide missing links to all services and systems of support. The Chicago systems seem to be heading in the right direction. They have a grasp on the biggest gaps and seem to be filling them the best at this stage. Currently those key components seem to be:
1) Extended Learning Time
Extended learning time has the greatest impact on disadvantaged populations. In addition, adding time to the school day and year gives teachers time to participate in professional development with their colleagues during the school day as they bring in outside instructors for special presentations. By adding time to in-class time, teachers are eligible for increased pay.
2) Health Services
Disadvantaged communities rarely get the health care they need. By providing it at school, kids win.
3) Dental Services
Like health care, dental care is usually neglected. Healthy teeth leads to healthy kids.
4) Social Services
All varieties of social services are needed within disadvantaged communities and by making them easily available at the community school, parents are better able to find them and access them.
5) Parenting Classes
Parenting is a tough job. Many disadvantaged communities have high teen pregnancy rates and many young parents. Parenting classes can help these parents cope and become better parents.
6) Job Training for Adults
Supporting parents helps families and helps kids. Providing job training is good for the community.
7) ESL Services
According to the 2000 U.S. census, nearly 20% of school-age children speak a language other than English at home. Providing ESL classes for both children and adults is an essential need for many community schools.
8) GED classes
The dropout rate in many poverty-stricken communities is still high. Providing an opportunity for adults and teens to return to school easily is a must for community schools.
9) Housing support services
Quality housing has always been an issue for disadvantaged populations. Community schools can provide support services to find affordable quality housing.
Daycare for working parents and teen mothers returning to school is essential in a community school.
11) Full Day Kindergarten
Half-day Kindergarten needs to become a thing of the past in all schools, but especially disadvantaged populations. Early literacy skills and the needs of working parents are best met by full-day Kindergarten programs.
12) Substance Abuse Programming
Many poverty-stricken areas have issues with substance abuse and community schools are the perfect place to provide programming and refer counseling services to address these issues.
If academic needs are not being met in the normal school day, the community school can provide tutoring services often via volunteer organizations.
14) Food programs
Meals are often a source of stress within a disadvantaged community. Although this is one area that many of our schools are already doing an excellent job in coping with, it’s one that should be addressed formally in a community school plan.
If we create community schools in our poverty-stricken areas and include all of these features, it will not be an inexpensive undertaking. It will require money -- and more money than we are currently paying. It will cost more to operate these schools than other schools without these services, but not all of our public schools will need all of this support. Only 18% of our nation’s children live in poverty according to our current definition. I would argue that that number is low, for there are undoubtedly many more families existing near the edge of poverty. But even if the number is 25%, that means that 75% of our children do not need such extensive services in their schools. Currently, funding for community schools comes from a mix of federal funding, state funding, local government funding, the local school system, community funding, national philanthropies, and corporate funding. 7 Each individual school has to apply for its own funding. While the mix of funding is not a bad one, there has to be a better way of accessing it than forcing each individual school to apply for funding.
As a national agenda, many will be against the idea of funding such elaborate schools as these. The argument will be that they are unfair and too expensive. I believe that we as Americans need to ask ourselves what it is costing us to have such a huge portion of our population living in poverty? I believe it is time for us to ask ourselves if it is fair that a wealthy, industrialized nation boasts 1/5 to 1/4 of its children living in poverty? The problem isn’t going to fix itself and it isn’t going to go away overnight. It’s going to take dedication, activism, education, and people willing to stand up with a strong, solid voice for change in our nation’s communities in poverty.
Bibliography and Endnotes
1. Addams, Jane. Philanthropy and Social Progress. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company. 1893. pp. 1-26.
2. Blank, Martin J.; Melaville, Alelia; Shah, Bela P. Making the Difference: Research and Practice in Community Schools. Coalition for Community Schools. Washington, DC. May 2003.
3. Brown, Victoria Bissell. "Jane Addams," in Women Building Chicago
1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary. 2001.
4. The Children’s Aid Society
5. Coalition for Community Schools
6. Gary Community School Corporation
7. Grossman, Jean Baldwin; Vang, Zoua M. The Case for School-Based
Integration of Services. Public/Private Ventures GroundWork . 2009.
8. Haberman, Frederick W. , Editor. Nobel Lectures, Peace 1926-1950. Elsevier
Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972.
9. Harkavy, Ira; Blank, Martin. Community Schools: A Vision of Learning that Goes
Beyond Testing. Education Week, Vol. 21, No. 31. www.edweek.org
Also available at:
10. Hill, Paul; Campbell, Christine; Manno, Bruno. Building More Effective Community Schools. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Center for the Study of Social Policy. Baltimore, MD. 2000.
11. Hull House Association
12. Matsuura, Koichiro. Ending Poverty Through Education – The Challenge of
Education for All. UN Chronicle. Issue 4, 2007.
13. National Center For Children In Poverty
14. Philadelphia Community Schools
15. Rocha, Elena. Choosing More Time for Students. Center for American Progress.
17. United South End Settlements
18. University of Michigan, National Poverty Center Poverty Threshholds in the U.S.
19. U.S. Census Bureau Statistics on Poverty
“Most people don't realize how important librarians are. I ran across a book recently which suggested that the peace and prosperity of a culture was solely related to how many librarians it contained. Possibly a slight overstatement. But a culture that doesn't value its librarians doesn't value ideas and without ideas, well, where are we?”
― Neil Gaiman
― Neil Gaiman