08/31/2012 10:59 am ET Updated Oct 31, 2012

Giving Our Children an Equal Opportunity to Succeed

This is a challenging time to be young and poor in the United States.

The new global economy demands that our young people master 21st century skills and have the technical know-how by the time they graduate. And yet, many of our children will have completed the K-12 public school journey without the basic essentials -- like health care, enough food, or a safe place to call home -- that are vital for learning.

Not only do these children lack some of the basics, their families can't compete with affluent parents in the race to cultivate the "super child," made possible through financial investments ranging from private tutorials to summer camp or the latest educational software. In fact, a recent study finds that the gap between what upper income parents and working class parents spend on their children has increased exponentially in the last four decades.

The growing disparity between the children who "have" and those who "have not" is a violation of basic American values, which are premised on the belief that every child should have a fair chance to succeed in life.

How do we return fairness and equal opportunity to the lives of poor children? How can we improve their chances in life?

Here's one way: We can all work together to make public schools into the places where disadvantaged students and their families can tap into a network of community services, opportunities and supports. Vision screening, food assistance, after school enrichment, family counseling and early childhood opportunities are among the services that could be available. The community schools model requires that people from the nonprofit, high education, local government, business and faith sectors forge close, working partnerships with the public schools.

When this approach is done right, it can make all the difference in the lives of young, low-income Americans. Take, for example, Glencliff High School in Nashville, Tennessee. Glencliff used to be known for problems like low graduation rates, truancy, gangs and teen pregnancy. But a few years ago, education and community leaders worked together to transform the school into a community-invested school.

Today, Glencliff has a new reputation -- one based on student leadership and community service. Glencliff's students serve on community advisory boards, they work as interns at local health clinics, they show up in great numbers at college fairs and they take leading roles in school and community service projects. "Our students have a new confidence in themselves and in their ability to change the world," says Virginia Pupo-Walker, an education leader who helped bring about the transformation at Glencliff.

A visitor to Glencliff feels this positive atmosphere the moment they walk into the school. The school is abuzz with student projects and student clubs, especially in the afternoon. A visitor sees that one group of students is busy writing up a school improvement project; another group is meeting with the principal to offer suggestions about school policy, while still another group of students is hard at work in the school garden, mulching and watering the plants.

The community school strategy is what re-energized Glencliff High School and re-invigorated student life there. Community groups worked closely with school leaders to infuse the school with exciting projects and critical supports. A community group opened a health clinic on the school campus and encouraged students to work as interns at health clinics around town. Local universities and colleges offered college level classes to students. Nonprofit groups worked with teachers to craft a teaching plan centered on community service and student leadership. Businesses welcomed students into their offices and oriented them to the skills and education needed to become an employee. Youth advocacy groups offered workshops on preparing for college.

"The community partnerships have opened doors to many, many opportunities for our students," says Pupo-Walker. "As a result, our kids now have confidence in the future, and they have confidence in themselves. We used to have only a few students show up at college fairs. But not anymore. Now, we have very strong attendance. Now our students think, 'college is for me.'"

Glencliff High School's students also now have a better chance of getting into college as well. Since the transformation, more students are graduating with some college credit or college course experience, more students are taking advanced placement courses and student performance on writing tests has improved markedly.

The transformation of student life at Glencliff High School in Nashville shows what can happen when a community and a school join forces and get behind the city's children. The young people are now poised to become leaders, organizers, engaged citizens, creative problem-solvers and assets to their community.

This transformation also shows how a community can, as my colleague in the national equity movement Angela Glover Blackwell puts it, "take advantage of a pivotal moment and find a way to connect the changing demographics to the needs of the nation".

Glencliff High School's students, roughly equally divided among black, Latino and white, are the face of America's future. It is an exemplar of the kind of change that is happening in many communities across the country. If schools and communities can work together to bring about similar transformations to student life at more schools across the country, our future, indeed, will be bright.