Magic Numbers: Community Schools and the New Federal Promise Neighborhoods Funding

It’s hard to be new. Four years ago, new to California and a new Community School Coordinator, I found myself in a fiercely proud community that wondered who I was and what I thought I was doing at their high school. I didn’t look like many of them, I didn’t sound like them, and even when I played by the rules, I felt like everyone was waiting for me to screw up instead of lending a helping hand. They thought I was just going to be another flavor of the month in education reform. I get it. It is hard not to be skeptical; LA is not an easy place. Here, it feels like education reform tosses us around, beats us up, and catches us in its complex web, not always seeing the faces and lives being impacted.

But education reform ended up empowering us, or at least it empowered me. As I listened, learned, slowly became part of the community’s history and built relationships, the complexity became opportunity, which takes us today…and to tomorrow…
Tomorrow is the first day of school, and it’s a big one here at CCLA—the Cesar E. Chavez Learning Academies in San Fernando, CA, where I am the Community School Coordinator. CCLA’s four autonomous, public high schools will open their doors for the third time, but this year to some huge changes that build from our already novel work.  Before you can understand anything of what will happen this year, you have to understand the history that comes with this beautiful but complex campus.
2008: Pacoima and San Fernando
When Angelenos hear “Pacoima” or “San Fernando” (our communities), they think rough, dirty, gangs, failing schools, crime, landfills, gunshots, caged by freeways, and trash. Yet, the community is proud of its indigenous heritage, many nonprofits, and a strong base of parents, youth, art, community events, and cultural activists. With this backdrop and per the request of the community, partners, and the schools, the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP)—an education reform organization who helps high-poverty students in high-need schools improve their academic achievement by partnering with educators, parents, and the community—pursued and became one of the original Full Service Community Schools (FSCS) Grantees.
2008: LAEP and FSCS
Like many FSCS Grantees, LAEP decided to place a community school coordinator on a campus to help the school community identify barriers that prevent it from achieving its mission. The selection of a barrier drives the work of the coordinator to build systems, collaborators, and resources at campuses that will provide academic and non-academic supports to break down barriers.
2009: Public School Choice and the rise of Humanitas, Community Schools
So I began working as a coordinator, but soon it became much more. Ripe with the FSCS spirit of reform, LAEP (and I) also became an active team player in “Public School Choice,” a reform strategy passed by the Board of Education to spark innovative, rigorous school plans for underperforming and newly built schools. As a new school designed to relieve the overcrowding of two neighboring community schools, CCLA fell under this reform. To increase personalization and innovation, CCLA would be comprised of four autonomous schools cohabitating the campus, and nine teams were bidding for these spots.
As a design team member for one of these schools, the Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA), I can honestly say that this process was all consuming. There’s nothing like waking up at 4am on Thanksgiving morning terrified that part of the plan was left out, or spending Black Friday in a cold, dark office building to edit the 160+ pages due in a week, or going to community meetings until 10pm to make sure the community had educated voters.
When the building was almost ready in 2010, LAUSD accepted two plans (for the four school spots) that included community schools strategies,  as well as the LAEP-supported Humanitas model of teacher collaboration and leadership, inquiry-based teaching, interdisciplinary instruction, rigorous academics, and solutions-based learning—a powerhouse and novel combination. SJHA was one of those plans as was the other Humanitas plan for the Arts, Theater and Entertainment School (ArTES).
It was time for me to switch campuses and try to make all four plans, regardless of what was in their proposal, take on the good work and strategies of community schools.
2011 – August 13, 2013
Since opening two years ago, we’ve grown from having zero supports and no college counselor to bringing multiple community partners on campus, into classrooms, setting record test scores in the first year (highest API in our region of non-magnet pilot schools) and graduation rates (92%, compared to district average of 65%), extended learning opportunities, and more.
Yet when the doors open tomorrow, things will change even more. In December of 2012, the Youth Policy Institute (YPI) was one of seven agencies nationwide to be awarded the Promise Neighborhood Grant. $30 million of funding, cradle-to-college-and-career services, and innovative public-private partnership is, as the name implies, promising for our school and community.
But it’s not that simple.
The complex history of our campus’ creation—in addition to the existing work LAEP, the community partners, and the schools have done under the FSCS grant—means that we have a lot of integrating to do. There will be new staff members, new strategies, new metrics, new relationships, and most importantly, new trust to be built.
This has to be more than just another flavor of the month –it’s too important and too much is at stake.
Tomorrow we will see what happens when PN funding meets the prior FSCS Grant in a school hosting a variety of education reform efforts. Even more, tomorrow we will see what happens when already successful Humanitas, Community Schools—rich with collaboration and teacher leadership—connect with a Promise Neighborhood initiative which, by design, is supposed to create the same type of collaboration at a community-systems level. Enriching the community with new resources? Taking our successes to the systems level? High quality schools for all youth in our community? It’s going to be a big year here at CCLA, and I’m optimistic.
Related Resources
The paper explores the relationship between various place-based strategies and the potential associated with the alignment of these strategies operating within the same geographic areas. The paper demonstrates that community schools offer a powerful vision and strategy for what schools should look like within broader place based initiatives and how community schools can benefit from alignment with other efforts. One of the local sites highlighted in this paper is Los Angeles.

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Comment by Ruben Castorena on August 21, 2013 at 3:42pm

I can totally relate. Reverse agencies, but same work and defintely the same challenges.

Comment by Melissa Pena on August 23, 2013 at 1:02pm

Jennie, thanks for sharing your experience.  I didn't realize that  LAEP's FSCS model at your school and YPI's PN iniatiative were set to merge this school year.  It's even more fascinating that there are two different and very vested agencies will need to collaborate on this effort.  I'll be interested to hear more from you as the year progresses tolearn about the opportunites and challenges that this partnership brings. 


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