Education

COMMENTARY: Let’s advance racial justice through community schools 

Credit: Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Students in a combined second- and third-grade at UCLA community school talk in pairs.

Ushering in a new trajectory for public education, California’s State Board of Education recently announced the grantees of a historic program aimed at creating racially equitable schools through sharing decision-making power with students, families, educators and community partners.

We’ve seen lots of initiatives come and go in our decades of advocacy to improve schools for California’s students of color. Too often, initiatives fail because of top-down implementation that’s disconnected from what students and families need and want.

In response to successful organizing in 2021 by students and families of color and more than 50 organizations, state leaders approved a historic $3 billion for the California Community Schools Partnership Program, the largest investment of its kind in the nation. This summer, thousands of California schools will receive grants aimed at ensuring that the people most impacted by educational injustice will join in co-designing local schools.

Community schools are sometimes described as campuses that offer additional student services, such as healthcare. While healthcare and other supports are critical, a service-oriented approach misses the larger opportunity to transform the whole school community and create a positive school culture through developing racially-just relationships among educators, staff, students, and families. That was a top priority for the more than 600 people who joined in six regional forums to tell state leaders about their vision for community schools.

When relationships are centered and supported by new decision-making processes that include students and families as equal partners, schools become welcoming and thriving learning environments that are built from the dreams and strengths of students, families, community, and educators.

That’s what we see happening at Sacramento’s Luther Burbank High School, where students and families have been included in decision-making and the school consistently communicates with them about their children and school activities. Through voluntary home visits, teachers and families build trust, share hopes and dreams for the student and family, and teachers ask about improvements that can support student and family success.

Luther Burbank is leveraging community relationships to create a safe campus without the use of school police. The school has hired people from the community to work as school monitors and engage with students if tensions arise. When there are conflicts, the school brings in the entire family to better understand what’s happening in the student’s life. If services are needed, the school reaches out to its network to provide tailored support.

While state policymakers took a step in the right direction by listening to students and families of color in creating the California Community Schools Partnership Program and writing the grant rules for distributing the funding, the real test is yet to come.

Grassroots organizations throughout the state will be engaging with school districts to make sure community school grant funds are invested in the priorities developed by young people, their families, community members, and educators and supported by more than 57 racial justice and education equity organizations from across the state.

By focusing on the following priorities, California can achieve its vision of creating racially just schools:

  • Share decision-making power with directly impacted students and families;
  • Build deeper relationships in school communities;
  • Commit to police-free schools and promote restorative school cultures;
  • Provide culturally-rooted teaching and learning;
  • Partner with trusted community organizations; and
  • Expand support for mental health and wellness for everyone in the school community.

This is an exciting moment for our public schools, and the eyes of the nation will be on California once again as we break new ground and build momentum to transform every school in California into a community school.  Through shared power and decision-making, students, families, community, and educators can co-create relationship-centered schools and lay the foundation for an education system built by and for us all.

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Tere Flores is organizing director for Sacramento ACT, a community organization that empowers ordinary people to identify and change the conditions that create economic and racial injustice.

Carl Pinkston is founding member and operation director for the Black Parallel School Board, an organization formed to advocate for Black students in Sacramento City Unified School District. 

The opinions in this commentary are those of the authors. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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