The Value of a Visit: Community Schools Learn from Each Other

Oakland Unified School District is one of the few full-service community school districts in the country.  What does that mean?  Let’s start with a community school. A community school is:

a public school that integrates the best educational practices with a wide range of vital in-house health and social services to ensure that children are physically, emotionally, and socially prepared to learn. Community schools also strengthen families and communities so they are better able to support student success.   A Community School is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school, a lead agency, and other community resources.

Research shows that successful community schools increase test scores, improve attendance, promote parent involvement, and decrease school violence. A community school district takes the idea of community schools to scale in creating a school system, rather than a system of schools.
In Oakland this means a third of all schools now have community school managers that serve as connectors and conveners of partnerships and relationships within the school site.  A number of school-based health centers have been unveiled for the benefit of students, families, and community members.
Because this concept is new, there’s a lot of need to learn from others who are trying it. This can ultimately help scale the work in a more efficient and productive way and help improve outcomes for both partner Districts.
In a good example of how that can work, in early spring, a group of community school managers and Family, School, and Community Partnership staff from Oakland Unified Schools visited Hillcrest Elementary School in San Francisco, one of the most robust community schools in the Bay Area. The Hillcrest story is a familiar one in urban education circles.  Hillcrest Elementary is in located between the Portola and Excelsior neighborhoods in southeast San Francisco.  Hillcrest is isolated from many services, and has limited access via public transportation. Of Hillcrest’s 455 students, 89.9 percent qualify for free/reduced-price lunch, 48 percent are English learners, and 16 percent have designated special needs.  The majority of students come from the Bayview/Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods, which are dense poverty zones with high crime rates.  Many of their families struggle with housing and economic insecurity, and many are recent immigrants from China, Mexico, and Central America. Hillcrest’s community school model has enabled them to provide an interwoven set of supports for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Hillcrest began its evolution as a community school in 2004. Hillcrest’s community school model combines a strong literacy-focused academic program with 35 community partnerships to help serve the needs of both our students and their families.  At Hillcrest, they had a number of rooms and places for parent volunteers to be engaged in the school.  Further, they had a community garden that was being cultivated through shared staff and student work.
OUSD staff saw and experienced how a full-service community school looks from the inside-out, and brought back several important lessons.
One is the amazing bandwidth Hillcrest has for partnerships.  This is the reality for a progressive community school—partnerships are essential to achieving results for students and families.  In building and leveraging partnerships, a community school manager, principal and other school staff must think holistically about how these partnerships overlap, intersect, and contribute to one another.  Hillcrest is advanced in this type of thinking.
Place matters and the fact remains that different school districts have different resources, even two neighboring districts.  Despite these differences, the best thing we can do as staff who care about making our schools better places for students and families to learn and succeed is to keep learning ourselves.  When we learn, we grow, and through visiting a great community school such as Hillcrest, we are able to do our jobs better!

Photo: Hillcrest Elementary worked with the Education Outside to make their playground a green and beautiful place for kids to play! Photo by Education Outside, used with permission.

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