By Dena Donaldson
Texas AFT Community Schools Coordinator
Since 1990, the school transformation framework known as “community schools” has become a nationally recognized way of strengthening neighborhood schools. Today, over 5,000 schools nationwide identify themselves as community schools. Texas AFT currently has four locals actively pursuing community school initiatives in their districts, with many other locals and districts interested in starting the conversation to bring the model to their campuses. Below is a snapshot of efforts across the state.
Born from grassroots activism and civic engagement, Austin has the longest-running public community schools in Texas. Both Webb Middle School and Reagan High School were set to close their doors in 2007 and 2008 before adopting the community school model. A decade later they have become two of AISD’s highest performing campuses, with Reagan High School going from a 48 percent graduation rate to 90 percent over that time span, while doubling enrollment. Education Austin, the school district, and a large number of community partners have come together to form the Greater Austin Area Community Schools Coalition and are working to implement community school strategies in 11 schools in AISD. (Funding to help that effort was provided by an AFT Innovation Grant.) The district also expanded its commitment to support the community schools model and hired a district-level community school coordinator in Fall 2016. This initiative has taken a great deal of collaboration, between Ed Austin, the district and community partners. We are proud of Education Austin for ensuring that educators and support staff are part of the process and supported as their campuses go through the stages of building a vision and putting in systems to facilitate the community schools model.
Since the last convention, El Paso AFT has been on the front lines of advocating for community schools over charters as an answer to school improvement in El Paso ISD, and the district is listening. El Paso AFT secured a commitment from El Paso ISD last year to develop four community schools along the U.S.-Mexico border. Planning began at Bowie High School, Guillen Middle School, Hart Elementary, and Zavala Elementary, earlier this year. Besides being in an area known for extreme poverty, these schools face the challenge of educating students whose daily reality involves crossing a border fence to attend class.
El Paso ISD hired a district community schools coordinator in November 2016 along with contracting Austin Voices to provide technical assistance. Even though they are still early in the planning process the schools are already benefiting from increased afterschool program options. El Paso AFT is also going deep with professional development for the teachers at these four community schools, ensuring a strong instructional component for their schools. Thanks to the union’s relationship with the district and El Paso AFT’s President Ross Moore’s insistence that the union should be a driver of these efforts, El Paso AFT has been able to act as a full partner in the planning and implementation of community schools in the district, ensuring that members’ voices are heard.
Alliance-AFT, along with the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), Austin Voices, and Dallas ISD kicked off a community school pilot this year at John Neely Bryan Elementary . So far the school is seeing improvement with increased afterschool program and parent engagement. The Our Community, Our Schools Coalition (OCOS), which Dallas Alliance President Rena Honea chairs, has become a strong advocate for the community schools model. OCOS, along with Alliance-AFT and Austin Voices has been instrumental in getting the district to give the community school model an opportunity to be implemented in Dallas schools. As John Neely Bryan prepares for its first health fair—bringing community and partners together—in June 2017, there are plans under way to identify more schools to begin the community schools process next year.
Houston Federation of Teachers identified five potential schools to develop around the community schools model earlier this year. HFT is leading conversations around community schools with its members and the community, and educating faculty and staff on the model’s principles in preparation for future actions. In addition to moving things on campuses, HFT has collaborated with the district and community partners to write a school board policy on community schools that will anchor the model as a school improvement strategy in HISD. This policy will go to the board sometime before fall of this year, and if passed, will be the first of its kind in Texas.
Corpus Christi AFT began meeting with West Oso ISD during the spring to discuss bringing the community school model to the district. Corpus Christi AFT President Nancy Vera has been instrumental in getting the district to explore community schools as a school improvement model that can help bridge the gap in resources for students and families.
Thanks to our local’s work, Superintendent Conrado Garcia has also opened up his district to having the union as a partner in these efforts. Corpus Christi AFT, Texas AFT, and AFT national have all been working together to provide information and guidance to the district, including an orientation on community schools for the staff at West Oso High School in April.
In addition to all the wonderful work our locals are doing on the ground to advocate for community schools, Texas AFT’s community schools organizer, Dena Donaldson, has collaborated with AFT to develop workshops and tools that can be tailored to local needs depending on where our partners and affiliates are in the community schools development process. Winter Leadership 2017 was the prototype for these workshops that have been revamped and improved with the help and feedback of AFT staff and member leaders. Community Schools are gaining visibility and support throughout the state, and Texas AFT is ready with the staff in place to assist locals who would like to pursue community schools in their districts.