Are community schools the last, best shot at addressing education inequity?

A district in the Washington, D.C., suburbs may foretell whether a transformative approach to school improvement can address longstanding opportunity gaps in education.

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When Tiffany Allen and her husband first moved to a house in Montgomery County, Maryland, their plan was not to stay in the neighborhood for very long because the school their two young children would eventually be assigned to attend was Wheaton Woods Elementary. The school had a mixed reputation among parents in the neighborhood, she told Our Schools. It was designated a Title I status by the federal government, meaning its enrollment was mostly for students who struggle the most in schools—namely, children from low-income households. The school’s students were mostly Hispanic, and many of the children come from homes where the parents don’t speak English, according to Allen. The school had a middling summary rating of 6 out of 10 stars on Great Schools, the school rating site many parents rely on for choosing schools, and the test scores of Wheaton Woods were no better than the state average, according to the site. Even her husband, a school teacher in neighboring Howard County, was skeptical about the quality of education that would be provided by the school.

“Especially because my kids are African American,” Allen said, “I wanted them to have the best education opportunities they can have and give them access to whatever they need to neutralize the systemic effects of being Black children in a society that often discriminates against those children.”

Allen had attended a private school in the elementary grades, but had attended a Montgomery County high school, which she eventually graduated from, that was known as “the worst” high school in the county, according to her. That education experience left her “feeling segregated from most of the families in the county,” she said.

Montgomery County, which consists of a sprawl of suburbs to the north of Washington, D.C., is majority white, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 59 percent of its adults aged 25 or older completed a bachelor’s degree or higher between 2016 and 2020. Median household income is almost six figures, making Montgomery County “one of the wealthiest counties in the United States,” according to the county government website.

But Allen, who works as a social worker for the county, knew all too well there were pockets of poverty in the district, and she was leery about having her children educated in one of them. So when her oldest daughter became old enough to attend kindergarten, Allen somewhat reluctantly enrolled her at Wheaton Woods, with the reassurance that she would be there “only for a few years.”

As the 2022-2023 school year approaches, both her daughters are enrolled in Wheaton Woods, and Allen has had a change of heart about the school.

“I’m grateful now that we gave Wheaton Woods a try. I now feel we have our kids in the best school for them, and I always advocate for the school,” she said.

What helped turn around Allen’s attitude toward Wheaton Woods had much to do with a recent state-mandated Blueprint in Montgomery County and across Maryland to implement an education approach called community schools.

The Blueprint calls for designating schools that serve highly concentrated populations of impoverished families as “community schools” and providing these schools with extra funding and support.

The extra funding is supposed to be used to hire a health practitioner and a school-based staff person who conducts a needs assessment of the school, and based on that assessment, coordinates and manages a wide range of services—including academic, health, mental, and other services—to help address the negative impact that concentrated poverty often has on children and families.

Nineteen schools in Montgomery County, including Wheaton Woods, have been designated as community schools, according to the district’s website.

Now in its third year of implementing the approach, Wheaton Woods has poured new energy and resources to engage families more deeply in the operations of the school and respond to their needs by providing them with access to new programs and services.

According to Allen, the school is constantly reaching out to parents with surveys, volunteer opportunities, and invitations to participate in committees. There is an active Parent Teacher Association and a parent engagement committee. She serves on the NAACP Parents’ Council. Meetings and communications are carried out in multiple languages to accommodate the high proportion of Hispanic families.

“The school has given our kids so many opportunities,” Allen said.

During the school year, many families participate in a popular after-school program called Excel Beyond the Bell, which is free for qualifying students, and for a modest fee of $5, provides additional learning opportunities to students, including classes in art, Spanish language, and soccer.

During the summer months, students can attend a summer camp that provides sports and recreational activities. The program requires an affordable fee to participate in the camp and includes free bus transportation for children to their homes in the afternoons.

After-school activities are important to Allen’s family because both she and her husband work full time. “Our daily schedules are tight,” she said.

A great deal of the school’s outreach effort is due to the work of Daysi Castro, who serves as the school’s community school coordinator called “liaisons” in Montgomery County.

“We haven’t had the opportunity to offer the services we can now give our families because we are a community school,” Castro told Our Schools.

Many of the services offered by Wheaton Woods are the result of Castro and the school forming partnerships with local nonprofits and county agencies. The Excel Beyond the Bell after-school program Allen mentioned is the result of a partnership with a local community organization Action in Montgomery. The school also collaborates with a local charity, the Children’s Opportunity Fund, to bring soccer, art, and Spanish language classes to students, along with the opportunity to participate in school clubs for homework and cooking classes. Other partnerships offer parents driving classes, English language classes, and food safety classes. The Montgomery County Recreation collaborates with Wheaton Woods to offer after-school activities as well.

“All these programs expose students to experiences they might not [otherwise] have,” Castro said.

While the Allens are just one family, and Wheaton Woods is just one elementary school, others who Our Schools spoke with in Montgomery County believe that the community schools approach may be a solution to a much bigger education issue in Montgomery County and elsewhere in the U.S. public education system.

Addressing the systemic issues

Wheaton Woods’ Principal Daman Harris is one of those who believe in the advantages of the community schools approach.

When he was being courted to, initially, take a job as the school’s vice principal, he was aware Wheaton Woods was a school with “greater needs,” he said, because of its performance levels on state tests and its student demographics.

According to Harris, 83 percent of the school’s students qualify for federally subsidized free and reduced-price meals, a common measure of poverty, and 55 percent are English language learners. The student population is largely made up of first- and second-generation immigrants from Central and South America along with a significant population from northeast Africa.

In addition to the learning challenges posed by his students, Harris believes there’s a greater challenge posed by a prevailing “belief system” in education, which is the tendency to believe that certain families, like those enrolled in Wheaton Woods, have deficits rather than believe that there’s something wrong with the system.

In trying to “fix” the educational deficiencies of these students, he said that educators and policymakers continue to change the “keywords” they use for the supposed remedies they recommend—promoting, for instance, that schools cultivate their students’ “grit” or “growth mindset”—but they aren’t addressing the systemic issues, like racism and poverty, that thwart some students’ education attainment.

In Montgomery County, a systemic issue that dogs the district’s otherwise highly touted reputation is the yawning gap between how white and Asian students perform on achievement tests compared to their Black and Hispanic peers.

As far back as 2008, the district was divided “into two distinct areas,” one with high-performing schools and the other with low-performing schools, according to Education Week.

In 2019, a report by the nonprofit Education Resource Strategies found that although Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) outperform other Maryland districts with similar levels of students receiving free and reduced meals (FARMs), “not all student groups in MCPS experience this outperformance. Performance gaps still exist both across and within schools, particularly for FARMs students and students of color.”

High-poverty schools in MCPS not only have lower performance levels than low-poverty schools but also the “African American and Hispanic FARMs students who live in poverty but attend more affluent schools do not perform significantly better than their peers in schools with higher concentrations of poverty,” according to the report. “African American and Hispanic FARMs students do not perform substantially better in low-poverty schools.”

When the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) looked at the achievement gap in Montgomery County in 2019, it found the district’s attempts to address those gaps had made virtually no progress since 2015, “the last time the oversight office published a study on achievement gaps,” the Washington Post reported.

“For 50 years, the achievement gap in Montgomery County has grown in the shadows while many of our county’s schools and students garnered well-deserved praise and earned awards,” former MCPS superintendent Jack R. Smith wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post in May 2019. “Despite efforts by county leaders, the gap continued to grow,” he said.

The district administration’s attempts to address these inequities “have been of questionable value,” according to Jennifer Martin, current president of Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), an organization that represents teachers in collective bargaining and contract negotiations. Reforms that adhere to a philosophy of “data-driven” outcomes have been especially harmful, she believes.

“No teacher goes into their position with the intention of being driven by data. We’re not here to fill out spreadsheets. Being data-informed is important. But being student-centered and child-centered is more important,” she said.

Martin, Principal Harris, and others that Our School spoke to about the expansion of the community schools approach agree that it is a viable way to recenter schools on the real needs of students and families that struggle the most with schooling and address the deep inequities that are rife in the public education system.

‘We weren’t listening to our families’

If the community schools approach is going to have any impact on addressing these long-standing inequities it will only be because of the highly structured process it entails, according to MCPS educators.

Every implementation of the approach starts with conducting an assessment consisting of an internal scan of the school’s needs and resources, an external scan of neighborhood assets, and outreach efforts, through surveys and interviews, to students, parents, and community members.

Early on in implementing the approach, Harris felt families at Wheaton Woods held a level of mistrust for the school. They had a hesitancy to challenge authorities and a tendency to think of themselves as, “not being school people,” he said.

The reason for the lack of trust became clear as he worked through the community schools process.

Harris discovered, “We weren’t listening to our families. We started off thinking our families needed things like food assistance and English classes—providing what we assumed families in poverty need. When we started listening to our families, we found out that what we didn’t have was enough out-of-school time and activities for their kids, not enough athletics. We found out that rather than English classes for adults, parents wanted their children to learn Spanish to retain their culture. They wanted employment training for adults and more help with child care.”

‘A learning curve’

Jenny Mendez-Guerrero had a similar experience at Oak View Elementary School, another community school in Montgomery County, where she is the community schools liaison.

“This job has posed a learning curve [for] me,” she told Our Schools. “I came into this job with a lot of ideas and expectations but realized very quickly that I had to take a step back and get to know the students, build relationships with the families, and make connections with the community.”

Oak View Elementary, which includes grade three to five students as well as a Pre-K program, has a unique aspect to it. While its general education program is composed of mostly Hispanic students from low-income households, the school also has a center for enrichment studies geared toward students who have advanced abilities in English language, arts, and math.

This makes for “an interesting dynamic,” according to Mendez-Guerrero, because the “center students,” as she calls them, tend to be from more affluent families whose parents often have more time to be engaged with the school and their children’s learning. More than 90 percent of center students come from English-speaking families, she said, while the majority of students in the general education track do not.

“As the community schools liaison, I have to conduct outreach to both sets of families,” she explained, which has led to some interesting observations.

In face-to-face meetings with the separate groups of families, Mendez-Guerrero asked students and parents to make a list of services they felt their family needed from the school. Parents and children in the general education track were more disposed to ask the school to provide programs for family needs, such as child care and English classes for adults, while parents and students in the enrichment center frequently requested the school to provide more avenues for parent involvement and opportunities for leadership.

However, both sets of families requested that the school provide student mental health services. Also, students in both tracks expressed a need for a more “interesting” and culturally relevant curriculum. Both the Hispanic and a small minority of African American students said they didn’t see themselves represented in the current curriculum.

“Conversations between the two sets of families can be very different,” Mendez-Guerrero said, with parents of children in the enrichment center being more eager to offer their time and resources, while parents with children in the general education program tend to be more guarded in expressing their families’ needs.

Also, some parents of students in the general education program may be undocumented and therefore scared to tell the school staff much about themselves.

Mendez-Guerrero came to realize she had to reassure families who may be struggling with food, housing, or multiple jobs that, “I’m not here to judge you,” she said. “I’m here to help.”

‘Missing a sense of community’

At Wheaton Woods, Castro and her colleagues conducted listening sessions that involved having “authentic conversations,” in her words, with parents and other family members.

One family need that quickly came to the fore was child care. Many parents also said they were “missing a sense of community” in the school, and they expressed the desire to meet other families and participate in school activities.

Another top concern was for the school curriculum to be more multilingual and reflective of the children’s cultural origins. Parents wanted their children to see themselves reflected in lessons and readings and didn’t want their children to completely lose their cultural identities.

Using this feedback, both Oak View and Wheaton Woods have created new partnerships with local nonprofits and county agencies to address a wide range of student and family needs.

“Since we started on the community schools approach, we’ve developed more than 30 partnerships,” Harris said. Among the partners are local nonprofit organizations that provide dental care, vision screening, child care, assistance with housing, and a partnership with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library that provides Wheaton Woods families with free books for early readers, “so families have their home libraries even before their children come to school,” Harris said.

A revelation

None of this is to say that adopting the community schools approach has not come with some uncomfortable change and ambiguity.

Montgomery County educators caution that listening to parents and responding with relevant programs and services is not enough—that along with adopting this way of addressing family needs, there also needs to be a change in leadership philosophy that departs from the traditional ways that policymakers and educators have chosen to address the impact of poverty in education.

A revelation Harris had early on in his school’s implementation of the community schools approach was that he realized his leadership style was “ill-suited to the approach,” he said. “I had this blind spot that I thought I alone knew what’s best, and what I realize now is that it’s impossible for me to always know how to lead.”

He also realized that he had to work hard to ensure all the school’s staff, including teachers, understood and were committed to family involvement in all aspects of the school.

“We want families in meetings to actually determine priorities and make decisions. That takes getting used to.”

In her union’s most recent contract negotiations with the district, Martin noted that MCEA had called for the creation of school-based councils made up of teachers and parents that would have some decision-making authority on school policies and programs. The idea was “shot down,” by the district, according to Martin. “Central leadership has a tendency to say, ‘We know what’s best,’” she said.

Also, because the district is so early in its implementation of the community schools approach, and because of interruptions posed by the COVID pandemic, none of the sources Our Schools spoke with in Montgomery County could point to any data indicating whether or not the approach is having a positive impact on narrowing the district’s deep education inequities.

Nevertheless, Castro feels confident the evidence will eventually be there. “I can’t wait to see the result of our efforts on the data side,” she said.

Although Harris is leaving his position at Wheaton Woods to write a book and build up his nonprofit work, he expects that the programs and services he helped put in place at the school will continue, and the school will turn more of its attention to measuring and evaluating the impact of its community schools approach. He is confident that after three to five years of using the approach, better results will be there.

In the short term, though, if Montgomery County schools have any real prospect of narrowing its chronic achievement inequities, the district has to retain parents like Tiffany Allen and her husband—parents of African American children who are full-time professionals, relatively affluent, and highly engaged with their children’s education. So far, it seems that using the community schools approach is helping these schools do that.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

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