Jeff Bryant: How can community schools rescue a “troubled” district?
Writing for Our Schools, Jeff Bryant looks at how the community school model can help one district in Maryland.
“Why are we still fighting for basic needs?” asked Karen Guzman, a parent and community organizer for the local teachers’ union in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a suburban sprawl of communities that lie just to the east of Washington D.C., Guzman’s union, the Prince George’s County Educators Association (PGCEA), is currently embroiled in contract negotiations with the district administration, and the negotiations are not going particularly well, according to her assessment. “Almost everything we’re asking for is being rejected,” she said.
Her union president, Donna Christy, agreed. “We’ve submitted more than 100 proposals,” she told Our Schools, “and [district leaders] haven’t given much acknowledgment to most of our points.”
According to contract proposals PGCEA provided to Our Schools, much of what the union is asking for are common requests from teachers and school employees, such as beefed-up support staff for addressing widely-acknowledged student needs, adequate planning time and space for teachers, mutually agreed-upon limits to class sizes, and upgrades to well-worn school facilities and technology. In other words, things that tend to cost money.
But not all of the union’s requests include monetary items. Many have more to do with how decisions in the district are made and who gets to make them.
For example, one proposal calls for instructional improvements to be determined by “collaborative planning” that involves “teams” working collegially. Another proposal calls for a review of mandatory state and local assessments by a “committee” made up of “stakeholders impacted by such tests.”
Yet another proposal, labeled “community schools,” calls for schools to have “a joint governance structure” at the start of the 2023-2024 school year. The joint decision-making body in each school will consist of administrators, teachers and other staff, parents and community members of the school, and for high schools, the governing boards will include students as well.
These proposals seem to align with Maryland’s new effort to scale up an approach to school improvement, which is generally defined as “community schools.” The term community schools is interpreted differently in different places that have adopted it, but there is a general understanding that the approach includes forming partnerships in schools, in the district, and across the surrounding community to address the root causes of student learning problems.
According to experts, collaboration and team problem-solving involving multiple stakeholders are essential facets of the community schools strategy, because that’s the only realistic means that schools have for identifying actual problems, rather than the assumed ones, and then forming appropriate partnerships to address them.