The Austin Chronicle

The Heart of the Community

SXSWedu gathers voices on schools in communities, communities in schools

By Richard Whittaker, February 28, 2014, News

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Yet between No Child Left Behind's culture of high-stakes standardized testing, the reform movement's bullish attitude to bulldozing tradition, and punitive accountability systems that treat neighborhood schools as piñatas, U.S. education policy has slowly but steadily turned that thinking inside out.

Allen Weeks, executive director of Austin Voices for Education and Youth, sees that trend finally changing, as education policy – at least on the ground – has begun considering more than just test scores. It's hard to talk about "communities and schools" in Austin education without talking about Weeks. He's been at ground zero for some of the most contentious conflicts in local education, like the fights to keep open Eastside Memorial and Reagan High Schools, Pearce and Webb Middle Schools, and the Allan Elementary campus. The struggles have often gotten heated – but when tempers have been raised, the tall, soft-spoken Weeks has always been a calm voice, trying to build consensus and a sense of belonging.

Allen Weeks: Asking and Listening

Last year at SXSWedu, Weeks put together a workshop on campus family resource centers, and this year, he'll be part of the panel called "Reclaiming the Promise Through Community Schools." His premise is pretty simple: If school districts listen to the school community – really listen – then the community will provide the support the campus needs. He said, "You hear among community school advocates the term 'conditions for learning.' The idea is that every kid can learn given the right conditions." He compared education to farming: "You can throw great seed down, but if it's rock hard cement, it's not going to grow."

Weeks argues that people have forgotten that public schools are the heart of a community. He said, "I remember when I was a little kid, my parents walking to the local high school to help with landscaping. Every time the door was open, we were there, because everyone owned the school." But in the last 40 years, both the opportunities for engagement and the avenues of access have collapsed, Weeks said: "Education's become a land of experts with different ideas dropping in, and it's pushed the communities away from schools. In some cases, it's a long history of disappointments that have alienated folks, and in some cases, the community has broken down, and they've lost those connections. Com­mun­ity schools really say, 'Let's bring that back.'"

In a way, what he proposes is nothing new. Yet the name "community schools" has given the nascent movement a banner to gather behind, much as the high-stakes accountability crowd grabbed the term "school reform." There's no standard formal definition of what community schooling means, but Weeks sees some common components. "They generally open early and are open late. Neighborhood association meetings are held there. Adult education happens on the campus. Afterschool programs are very, very active. For different community groups, it's their community hub."

If the community is going to be there for the schools, then the schools have to be there for the community. A regular talking point for the anti-public education right argues that wealthy neighborhoods support their schools, but the poor won't. That ignores the basic truth that it's a lot easier to hold bake sales if you work a regular 9-to-5 than night shifts at a factory, two jobs, or scramble for overtime to make family ends meet. For Weeks, the first step in community schooling is getting administrators to understand that families want to be involved, but the schools have to work around and with the families' schedules. "They say, 'Volunteer on our terms.' Well, in our neighborhood, people work those hours. We're taking care of the small kids in those hours." Some families may not even know how to engage with a school. "Let's say I'm a parent, and I don't read English. I'm not literate in any language. Papers are coming home, I don't know what to do with them, and I'm scared to go up to the school. A community school finds ways, whether it's an [English as a second language] class, or parent coffee, or a celebration, to slowly get parents lured in. Then they start to think, 'Well, I can do this.'"

The real key to community schooling is working out the needs of each individual campus. Instead of a one-size-fits-all model, policymakers and administrators must listen to the communities, including educators. That's a lesson Weeks learned in 2007, when AISD considered closing Webb Mid­dle School. His group sat down and interviewed every teacher about the situation on the campus, and he was astounded to discover that no one had sought their input. "Even the principal hadn't been asked, 'What would you do, given the freedom to do it?'" Many of the reforms that helped pull Webb out of the ditch came out of those very meetings. Weeks said, "Teachers know what's going right and going wrong in their schools. They don't need someone from outside coming in and telling them."

Randi Weingarten: Community Transformation

Unfortunately, the autocratic approach has held sway the last few years. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who will be joining Weeks' panel at SXSWedu, sees malice in the debate over how to fix schools. She said, "There is a common language around 'what children need' and 'how community is important,' but there's a huge difference in the rhetoric." On one side are the community schools advocates, like Weingarten and Weeks; on the other, the self-proclaimed "education reform" movement, within which a coalition of right-wing lobby groups and the increasingly aggressive charter networks have created a system putting public schools under attack, both economically and culturally. Weingarten said, "They're using austerity to starve schools, and then using that starvation to say, 'See, these schools aren't working!'" That's often when school voucher and "parent-trigger" bills are introduced, as politicians who want to erode the public school system try to effectively privatize campuses, thereby handing it back to what they describe as the "real community." Weingarten describes the rhetoric as nothing more than a sales pitch from for-profit education firms. "It's a sound bite that sounds good on the surface," she said, "but I've always called [parental trigger] a 'charter charter.'"

However, she argues, those policies are at odds with how the average American sees the role of the public school. In spite of what she called "a vitriolic smear campaign" against public education by the reform movement, popular support for charters and vouchers is actually slipping. She said, "The broader society is aware that a community is not whole without a public school." Moreover, the more deeply involved a community is in its schools, the more it realizes the value of wraparound services, like on-site dentistry and free meals. She said, "If a child has a toothache or is hungry, they're not going to be learning."

She agrees with Weeks that, before any changes are made, policymakers and administrators must have a clear understanding of the school's context. She cited Cincinnati Public Schools, which undertook a needs survey "not just of the parents who had kids in the school, but of the whole community." The end result is that the school can provide services that the community desperately needs: For example, placing a medical center on a campus helps not just the kids, but their families, too. In Florida's Broward County, at night and on weekends, a school gym provided keep-fit classes for senior citizens, plus ongoing education for the broader community. "In that instance," said Weingarten, "a community schools strategy becomes a community transformation strategy."

Bryan Wunar: Drawing Connections

Just as families are coming to the campus, so the school sometimes flows out, into the city. For some students, a field trip to the local museum is their first experience of education beyond the school gates. Since opening in 1933, Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry has played a key role in expanding the worldview of Illinois' children. But recently, according to its director of student experience, Bryan Wunar, "We have gone through a reinvention of thinking about what it means to play a role in education in our museum."

As part of the "Makers, Geeks and Men­tors: Community Learning Hubs" panel, Wunar will be talking about reaching not just kids, but their influencers – their schools, families, and communities. "We have developed a series of programs that establish linkages between each of those audience segments." One example of which he is particularly proud, developed jointly with the city's 72 libraries, involves breaking high school students out of "those isolated moments of education" that come with a museum trip. "Over the course of a school year they're immersed in science as near-peer mentors for younger children. They're going out into the community, using the resources of the museum, and they're working directly with younger children, and the families of those younger children, in order to engage them early in science opportunities." Across the summer, those students enter five-week, paid summer internships, and every Friday effectively become museum tour guides, "so they could share what they had learned with a broader audience. ... These high schoolers become science educators right there in their own community."

The museum also reacts to major changes in education policy, such as the Next Gener­ation Science Standards, that change how the science is taught. That's part of why the institute redesigned the Science Storms area. "It wasn't to turn it into the curriculum," said Wunar, but to reflect a new emphasis on methodologies, and how scientists and engineers problem-solve. In fact, in those science standards and the rebellion against teaching to the test, the education behemoth is slowly turning its path closer to the interdisciplinary, hands-on approach that the museum has been doing for decades. Rather than thinking in terms of topics, Wunar said, "We've placed an emphasis on developing the ways of thinking, and highlighting those big ideas that draw connections between those areas. We think that's actually what's helping kids learn and be able to apply what they're learning."

Gary Henderson: Mentoring Denton

Not every city or school district has easy access to world-class libraries and museums. Just northwest of Dallas, the city of Denton is a little like Austin in the Forties: a small but growing city of around 100,000, with two large universities – North Texas and Texas Woman's – swelling the population seasonally. It's also got its share of problems, with roughly a third of its 25,000 K-12 kids classified as "at risk." United Way of Denton County President and CEO Gary Hender­son explained, "Many kiddos will start their first day at school behind. What can we do as a community to close that gap?"

As part of the "Unifying Your Community Around Education" panel, Henderson will posit that Denton's solution has been to get everyone at the table – city, school district, county, nonprofits, and colleges. He credits former Mayor Euline Brock for starting quarterly meetings between the city and the school district, and argues that similarly regular meetings between the mayor's office and the president of UNT have broken down silos. "When the powers-that-be say they're going to collaborate," he said, "it makes it that much easier for us." That diversity of institutions allows them to take a holistic approach to the issues that restrict opportunities for kids, such as family poverty. With several bankers on the United Way Denton board, they have started programs like "second chance" bank accounts, and worked on steering people away from predatory payday lenders and gouging for-profit tax preparers.

Yet it's not just big institutions at work. The city's large population of university students plays a particular role in the Mentor Denton program, designed to help kids directly with their schooling. According to Henderson, education and social activists asked themselves a very simple question. "With 40,000 university students, why can't we deploy a thousand volunteers to mentor at-risk kids?" After a year of talking to every school, church, and community group about the program, they actually exceeded that target: 1,200 volunteers, with five of every six a college student. Henderson said, "Our long-term goal as a community is that, if we can get to 1,000, then the next goal is 10,000."

But beyond the city limits there is a whole new world of need. "You get rural rather quickly," said Henderson. On the positive side, he added, "The scale is smaller, so you feel like you can make a difference by reaching fewer people." Neverthe­less, most of the thinking on education reform has been concentrated on big cities. "It's challenging to build programs that are as effective in a rural setting as they are in an urban setting."

Davy Rothbart: Saving Medora

No one needs to explain that to the folks of the crumbling community of Medora, Indiana. About an hour and a half's drive south of Indianapolis, it's dying on its feet. Name a social problem, Medora's got it: low incomes, no jobs, no stores, drink, meth, nothing for the kids to do but skateboard and shoot each other with pellet guns. As recorded in the film documentary Medora (screening as part of the eduFILM strand), the 600 or so citizens are proud of their school and their community, but there's a sense of desperation engulfing them. As one resident puts it bluntly, "This town will die when that school goes away."

It's a story that has been repeated around the state. Medora co-director and Found magazine founder Davy Rothbart said, "First the factory shuts down, and a lot of people move away, and when the school gets consolidated, people have little reason to stick around." The phenomenon is not limited to Indiana. "California, Texas, people around the country and really around the world are dealing with the same kind of stuff." Yet unlike most cities in rural Indi­ana, the tiny town has resisted the temptation to pool resources by consolidating its high school with its neighbors. Rothbart heard a lot of the arguments for consolidation: It saves money, the kids get more options and are exposed to a broader selection of course and career paths – but none of that cuts it for the people of Medora. "Their take on it was, these Medora kids, you put them in a big consolidated high school, they're poor farming kids, these are the kind of kids that fall through the cracks. They wouldn't make the basketball team at a giant high school, and, for a lot of these kids, sports and athletics is what kept them involved and kept them motivated."

Medora focuses its lens on the Hornets, the Medora Junior/Senior High School basketball team. In fact, the team is how the Ann Arbor-born, Los Angeles-based Roth­bart first found out about the struggling community. "I was reading The New York Times one night and I read this article by this great sports writer called John Branch about the town of Medora and this basketball team that rarely wins." He and co-director Andrew Cohn made the six-hour drive from southern Michigan to central Indiana, and found "a no-stoplight town. One bank, one liquor store, one library. It was eerie in its stillness. We were just mesmerized." That quick road trip morphed into a one-year residency as the pair recorded the hardships and struggle of the town and its kids. As lifelong hoops fans, they were quickly drawn to the Hornets.

In a state where basketball is king, there would seemingly be little pride in being the losingest varsity team, from a school so small that it can barely muster a full roster. But day in, day out, they turn up to practice, lose, and practice again. Rothbart praised "these amazing kids. We have so much admiration for their courage and their resilience. You see in the film just how dire some of their circumstances are and what some of them have been through, but just like the team, they don't give up." Similarly, hardworking volunteers, scrabbling to hang on to their day jobs, sacrifice their nights and weekends to give these kids a shot. "The cop, the preacher, and the stonecutter – it sounds like the beginning of a joke, but they're really special, dedicated guys," said Rothbart. "For many of these kids, the coaches are the only constant male figure in their lives."

Girls Who Code: Be What You See

There are similar gender mentoring issues in another community, but it's one not limited by geography. The tech sector is male-dominated, and the closer you get to the hardware, the more imbalanced the situation becomes. While social media has a strong female presence, there are alarmingly few women working in fields like chip design, infrastructure development, systems administration, and sales engineering. New York-based nonprofit Girls Who Code is tackling one subset of that problem: training the next generation of female hackers. The group's CEO, attorney and activist Reshma Saujani, rejects any notion of this disparity being a question of aptitude. Yet while institutional sexism is undeniably a factor, Saujani (whose colleague Dana Led­yard will be speaking for the nonprofit alongside Wunar on the "Makers, Geeks and Men­tors" panel) argues there is also "a supply-side problem. You ask high school girls what they want to do, and 90% say they want to change the world, and computer science isn't seen as the way to do it."

The group has two programs dedicated to getting high schoolers to the keyboard. First, Girls Who Code Clubs: Piloted in New York and Boston, and expanding to Detroit and the San Francisco Bay area in 2013, the school-based clubs use monthlong projects to engage the students. For the more committed students, there's a seven-week immersion program, a summer internship tackling robotics, Web design and mobile app development, with female professionals acting as mentors. This year they already have 16 firms signed up, "and we also have another two dozen who promote it," said Saujani. "Oftentimes, girls will go through our programs and say, 'That's amazing, I want to code.'" Yet she sees the best outcome as not just when those interns start considering tech as a career: "It's when they go back to their school and start their own computing clubs."

The program does have limitations. The nonprofit is small and limited to only a handful of cities, and the immersion program only accepts high school freshmen and juniors. The issue then is opening up the classroom-to-career pipeline for younger girls, and Saujani has a bigger vision than just opening more clubs. She wants popular culture to lead the way, and she knows that works because of personal experience. "I decided I wanted to be a lawyer because I saw Jodie Foster in The Accused," she said. Shows like L.A. Law and Grey's Anatomy may have been cheesy, but she sees their impact. "In the Seventies, 10 percent of lawyers and doctors were women. Now it's 40 percent." Compare that to coding: There were proportionately more female coders in the Seventies, and their role in the sector has since decreased. Saujani sees a simple correlation: "You cannot be what you cannot see." Bluntly, except for Trinity in The Matrix, Hollywood has been pretty weak on depictions of female coders, so while The Social Network has inspired lots of boys to become tech entrepreneurs, "if you're looking for role models for young women who want to be hackers or tech entrepreneurs, there aren't any."

Saujani is cautious to steer clear of any suggestion of tokenism. "I don't think it's about gender equity for the sake of it," she said. "There are a lot of problems that aren't being solved because there aren't female coders, period." While there are plenty of social issues that could be alleviated through technology, "we don't have solutions because there aren't girls working on them." Again, she points to that supply-side issue – that girls don't believe that coding can change the world. If that perspective can be changed, Saujani is optimistic about the outcome, but pragmatic about the process. "It's going to take 40 or 50 years," she said, "and it's going to take lots of intervention across the board, whether they come from policy, from nonprofits or from pop culture."

Related Events

Reclaiming the Promise Through Community Schools:

Monday, March 3, 3pm

Hilton Austin Downtown Salon J

Makers, Geeks and Mentors: Community Learning Hubs:

Tuesday, March 4, 12pm

Austin Convention Center Ballroom G

Unifying Your Community Around Education:

Wednesday, March 5, 9am

Austin Convention Center Room 15


Wednesday, March 5, 11:30am

Alamo Ritz, 320 E. Sixth

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