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Re-Imagining What a School Can Be

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Why do so many schools have auditoriums?

Why do they have athletic fields?

We take features like those for granted today, but there was a time when a school building with anything more than classrooms and chalkboards was considered wildly unorthodox. But, more than a hundred years ago, educators came to realize that schools can be more than simply places for instruction: they can be the center of their communities.

The community schools movement was dedicated to the idea that, as the great educator John Dewey put it in 1902, "The conception of the school as a social center is born of our entire democratic movement." That idea helped make the school building a place for towns and neighborhoods to come together -- to cheer at games, to participate in civic clubs, to get a vaccination, to attend adult courses, and even to vote.

Today, the community schools tradition is experiencing a dramatic revival. It is being driven by the first-hand reports of teachers: again and again, we've heard the stories of students whose struggles begin long before they enter the classroom. These students don't have what so many of us took for granted in our childhoods -- three square meals a day, regular doctor visits, or the lightness that comes from being a child free of the worries a difficult life can impose. So many schools and teachers work hard to provide safe havens for these children; but even the most sheltering schools, the best teachers, and the most dedicated students can't erase the effects of all of those challenges without help.

That's where community schools come in. Just as they -- as well as the old settlement houses for recent immigrants -- once made great strides to enrich their neighborhoods, today they can enrich the education of millions of our children. Their success depends on more than the classroom, which is why leading educators and teachers unions, along with President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are throwing their support behind a new generation of schools that use community schooling to help students and teachers achieve their best.

Full-service community schools work with local organizations and the private sector to coordinate a wide range of services for students and families. At a full-service community school you might find health clinics or dental care, mental health counseling, English lessons for parents, adult courses, nutrition education, or career advice. For high-need communities that require social services, there is no more welcoming -- or efficient -- place to house them than in a public school. Schools like these quickly find a place at the heart of their communities, staying open long after school hours and on weekends, giving neighbors a place to come together and participate in the education of their children.

To take one example, the Mirabal Sisters Campus is a group of public schools serving sixth- through eighth-graders in New York City. It offers a full-service school-based health center with medical and mental health clinics; after-school and summer programs that include athletics, performing and visual arts, technology, design, and leadership training; and English language, computer, GED, and vocational classes for parents and the community. Largely as a result of such innovative programs, the Mirabal Sisters Campus has seen a steady increase in parents' involvement in their children's education and -- most importantly -- rising student achievement.

Those results are hardly unique. A decade of research on full-service community schools has consistently shown that they promote higher student achievement and literacy, stronger discipline, better attendance and parental participation, a reduction in dropouts, and increased access to preventive health care (a factor that is especially urgent as we face a possible flu epidemic).

With these benefits in mind, Congress is considering legislation that could greatly expand the number of full-service community schools in America -- one of the most important pieces of school legislation in recent years. It would provide grants for states and school districts to work with community organizations and businesses to create the kind of programs that have had so much success at schools across America. Strengthening services in schools also has the potential to save our country money on everything from prison systems to emergency room visits.

A century ago, American educators re-imagined what a school could be; today, we have an opportunity to do the same. In fact, we have an obligation to -- because only by strengthening communities can we meet public education's mission of getting the most from every single child.


Rep. Steny Hoyer is the House Majority Leader and Randi Weingarten is president of the 1.4-million-member American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO

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