Thursday, October 22, 2009

Arne and the Community

On Thursday morning, I was fortunate enough to be part of a group that got to hear a speech by Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a Children’s Aid Society conference on community schools. It’s kind of hard to know where to start because he touched on so many different points (though seldom went into any real depth). That said, let me give it a try.

But first, I have to say how much I love the idea of community schools. Check out that CAS link above. The basic idea is that schools should also serve as community centers that are open after school to serve both kids and members of the community. Further, schools should be partnering with all sorts of social service providers to address all the components of being a child in poverty, not just the academic issues. Count me as one who’s 100% with that.

You can count Duncan too, based on his speech. Given that he was speaking to a room full of community schooling advocates, I suppose that’s not terribly surprising, but it was sure nice to hear someone in charge really seem to get the idea that there’s a lot that needs to be done to really help educate kids. As he said, “We’re fighting a tremendous number of battles as a society.” No kidding. As I’ve often written, the host of issues surrounding kids in poor communities goes far beyond what we think of as traditional educational issues. If we want to make a difference, we’ve got to look beyond the traditional classroom roles.

Part of the reason for moving beyond the traditional model is that the role of schooling has fundamentally changed. Namely, the stakes are a lot higher now. As Duncan pointed out, 30 years ago, there was such a thing as an acceptable dropout rate because people could work in factories or other similar jobs. That’s just not the case in today’s economy. As Duncan said, “Now there are no good jobs in the legal economy for high school dropouts.” The stakes are higher because every child needs to succeed in school. That means that schools need to find ways to reach every child, which means that they need to go beyond what they did in the past.

That’s where the community schools model comes in. It focuses on all aspects of a child and involves the community in solving what is essentially a community problem. It even begins to solve some of the problems in the community itself. I’m really excited by the bold idea of re-imagining what a school is in a modern community. I know I’m late to the party (again, check out the CAS link), but I’m happy to be here now.

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