The Case for Community Schools

When I began my professional career in education I was only seventeen, counseling bilingual newcomer students from Central America at a Community College in Southern California. That experience catapulted me into a deep understanding of what happens when the necessary conditions for learning are undone by war, trauma, hunger, homelessness, drugs, alcohol, poverty, crime, unemployment, and all manner of structural inequities a society might experience.

Over the decades as a teacher, counselor, administrator, and philanthropist, I’ve seen every major education reform initiative this state and country have devised since the first elementary and secondary education act, and I will be the first to tell any audience that most of the reforms — which ignored things we now consider the necessary conditions for learning like a responsive and motivating instructional core, robust family and community engagement, and a basic level of physical, mental, and emotional health — struggled, lost funding, and were overturned by the next generation of reformers.

In the 1960’s and 70’s we made great headway with the civil rights movement, bilingual education, affirmative action, instructional aides, school nurses, school social workers, eight weeks of extended summer learning, and lots of free afterschool enrichment across the country. By the 1980’s California had suffered the loss of many of these programs under Prop 13, and by the early 1990’s “A Nation at Risk” warned that the country would suffer the loss of over 25% of our gross domestic product if we did not address the emerging crisis in education.

With little or no general public funding left to address the necessary conditions for learning, the initiative process in California gave us Healthy Start, Family Preservation and Support, First Five, mental health in schools, and vast afterschool programming, too many of which were designed as short-term grants that required annual renewals and proof of sustainability rather than the ongoing funding we know the neediest schools must have consistently. These investments, while important, didn’t go far enough, and the warnings of “A Nation at Risk” became a reality.

Since the 1990’s we have been trying to re-create the necessary conditions for learning so that every child has an equitable opportunity to thrive. The national community schools movement has grown dramatically since then in the interest of this charge, and California has champions of this movement in many places and at many levels. Here and now, with local control funding and increasing recognition of the importance of educating the “whole child”, we have enormous opportunities to ensure every child comes to school ready and able to learn, with the whole range of supports and opportunities they need and deserve. It is in this spirit that we welcome you to the California Community Schools Network. Like a community school itself, this Network and new website are not just a set of services, but a new approach and a powerful new way to connect our community. We look forward to connecting with you, and thank you for being a part of the community!

Lisa R. Villarreal,
California Native
Board Member, Partnership for Children and Youth
Steering Committee Chair, Coalition for Community Schools