When the families of Chicago’s Spry Elementary and I launched Spry Community Links High School, the city’s first community school serving students from pre-K through high school, we shared a vision to see our students graduate and experience postsecondary success. This was not the experience our elementary graduates were routinely having at local high schools.
Our driving force was a simple premise: Education does not occur in isolation from the rest of a student’s life. Family, community, nonprofit organizations, businesses and universities all play an important role in a child’s educational success. By expanding their boundaries, schools become stronger and engage parents and the community. Health services, counselors, social workers and nurses play critical roles.
Today, data show that three-quarters of our students graduate and about 60% go on to college, outpacing the traditional high school in our neighborhood and approaching the district average. Most importantly, 80% of the class of 2019’s college entrants have persisted in college.
Moreover, district data does not capture the full impact of our model. Community Links High School has also had a positive impact on Spry Elementary, which currently holds a Level 1 rating in the district accountability system.. The expectation to graduate and continue to post-secondary enrollment and persistence has increased the engagement of students and families in a successful pathway.
Our students are receiving an education that supports them in the face of major challenges: poverty, gang violence, undocumented status, language barriers and more. Schools cannot escape interdependence with outside factors that influence whether students learn. Rather than lament the prevalence of outside negative factors, schools must seize opportunities to connect students and families to resources and support.
Schools have the power to become the focus of the community, connected to daily lives and experiences. When that happens, schools can share the educational responsibilities with other educational partners. There must be a seamless connection between what happens in the classroom during traditional school hours and what happens after school.
A community school is not just an additional program. It is a way of thinking, acting, and working together so students can achieve and families and community are strengthened. A neighborly community which is inclusive and practices self-determination, localization and integration of services makes all people, institutions and organizations co-determinants of learning and achievement. Academic growth integrated with social and emotional development are the pillars of a successful education.
Community schools represent the core values of democracy in America. President Donald Trump has repeatedly tried to eliminate the federal grant that is their primary funding source: 21st Century Learning Centers. In his initial 2021 budget proposal, 21st Century Learning Centers were among 29 existing federal grants proposed to be folded into one block grant for states to spend as they chose. Congressional lawmakers ultimately chose to ignore this idea in the omnibus spending bill they passed in late August.
Meanwhile, presidential candidate Joe Biden’s education plan proposes to increase funding and bring 300,000 more students and their families into the community schools fold. Again, Congress would have final say over any budget proposal.
True democracy that will give to every person life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can be attained when the rights of childhood have been established and the guardians of childhood are consecrated to their work.
Elizabeth Harrison, founder, National Louis University.
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