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Bold Leaders for Our Public Schools

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Strong leaders are key to building strong and innovative schools, and so I want to share some insights about the tremendous people who are leading the community schools movement. I'm talking about people like John Porter, Jan Christensen, and Richard Carranza, all superintendents and, all of whom are working to transform their local schools into community hubs.

I had the opportunity to see many of these superintendents in action at the 2012 Community Schools National Forum, which took place recently in California -- a part of the country where the community schools movement is taking off.

As I listened to these superintendents share stories about how they build community schools -- schools that offer an engaging curriculum and surround children and their families with supports, resources, and opportunities offered by non-profit, community, government, and business groups -- I realized that these leaders have a few special qualities in common.

First, they think big and set ambitious agendas. Their agendas don't simply aim to move student test scores up a few notches. Rather, they aim to improve the overall quality of life for children so that children are ready to learn everyday when they arrive to school. Many of these superintendents oversee districts with large numbers of disadvantaged children and families facing economic stress in this great recession. These leaders look for ways to provide children with academic support and essentials -- essentials like health care or eye glasses or enough food to eat, and the kind of opportunities that wealthier families are able to provide on their own.

John Porter is one such superintendent. He leads the Franklin-McKinney School District in San Jose, California, which serves students from high-poverty neighborhoods. Porter shared his bold agenda with us at the National Forum. He said: "Our number one priority is student achievement. Number two is income for families. We have families that are in crisis and we have created a program for parents to get their economic lives back in shape. And third is [neighborhood safety]. We couldn't stand anymore hearing third graders sitting at a table during lunchtime talking about how they were going to get home safely."

Like John Porter, superintendents who embrace the community schools approach, see the connection between the quality of a child's life outside school and their level of engagement in school. They work to tackle some of the root problems -- like hunger, family stress, and poor health -- by bringing community groups that can help into the school.

And that's the other special quality that I see in those who lead community schools -- the ability to organize many different groups around a common agenda. At the National Forum, John Porter explained how he helps keep an orchestra of community groups all on the same page, working towards the same goal: "We created a governance system that had signs offs from everybody -- the county, city, San Jose State University, the Community College District, probation, the police department, Second Harvest Foods ... and we divided our focus into three areas: safe neighborhoods, [student achievement], and adult empowerment. Then, the partners started to co-chair those work teams."

Getting many different groups to row in the same direction is no easy task. Jan Christensen, the superintendent of Redwood City School District in California, is working to bring the community school model to more schools in her district. At the recent National Forum, she explained that building partnerships with community groups requires a willingness to hear other perspectives:

"You have to give up your silo mindset and be willing to share. Anytime you have different people sitting at the table, you are always going to have possible conflict over turf ... and when there is an issue we are all able to talk about how we solve that in a positive manner. When you have a common vision it's much easier."

Christensen said that children can benefit immensely from these partnerships. She shared a recent success story from her district:

"Just this past week we recognized corporate and faith-based partners for work that they had done at three of our schools. Hundreds of volunteers came to these schools to do construction, cleaning, remodeling, planting trees and flowers."

Another superintendent who is building partnerships between schools and community groups is Richard Carranza, the new superintendent of San Francisco Public Schools. At the Forum, he shared why he is passionate about the community schools approach:

"In San Francisco we ask how are we going to improve educational outcomes for our most disenfranchised children. We find folks who can help us do this work and coordinate the pieces so that all students have a shot at being successful."

Carranza added that, with the help of various community groups and resources, many students are now achieving at higher levels:

"And ... it's because they had this fabric of support woven in so that if a student isn't doing well in class, the teacher can help connect students and families with resources whether it's in city government or a community-based organization. It's a much more comprehensive approach to looking at how students achieve."

Richard Carranza, Jan Christensen and John Porter are just a few of the many bold superintendents who are changing children's lives by bringing together the entire community to help their student succeed. The approach is working. Let's learn from the example.