What Are ‘Community Schools’? And Why Is California Betting Big That They’ll Remake Public Education?
It’s easy to walk around UCLA Community School and lose yourself in the question: why don’t all schools look like this?
The school — on a bright, modern campus in Koreatown, part of the L.A. Unified School District — features bilingual programs in Spanish and Korean, mirroring the languages most students speak at home. There’s an on-campus immigration law clinic, which represents students and parents seeking visas, or even asylum.
“I've come to know the school as my second home, because it's like a family, really,” said Eduardo Galindo, a recent UCLA Community School graduate who attended the school from the date it opened in 2009. (The campus serves students in kindergarten through 12th grade.)
California leaders want hundreds more schools across the state to look like this one.
In the last two years, state lawmakers have approved a total of $4.1 billion in grants that will ultimately convert hundreds of high-needs public schools statewide into “community schools.” Community schooling is a decades-old model that envisions public schools as hubs for “wraparound” social services — like medical and mental health care, food assistance, jobs programs or legal aid — and as democratic institutions that seamlessly involve teachers and parents in decision-making.
But back to the original, wistful question: there is a reason why more schools don’t look like UCLA Community. The school’s bilingual programs and immigration clinic are only two of the most visible features of an intricate program that undergirds the school’s success. Though it’s now a model of the community schools movement, perfecting that program took years.
“It was super hard work,” said Io McNaughton, a teacher at UCLA Community since its founding. “First of all, it’s super hard to start a school — and then to also start a school where you have this bigger vision.”
What We’re Risking — And What We Could Get
Implementing a bigger vision is the task now facing recipients of the first wave of grant funds, which includes $611 million to begin rolling out community school plans at 458 campuses over the next five years. With billions in grant funds remaining to spend, California’s community schools program will easily become one of the nation’s biggest over the next decade.
But some of the program’s biggest advocates — including the California Teachers Association, the powerful labor union that championed the model for years — are nervous. They worry that state officials and local school leaders may be glossing over crucial steps to building successful community schools, including outreach to teachers and parents.
“We’re afraid our schools have been so starved for resources for so many years,” explained David Goldberg, a vice president for the union, “that people write grants to get funding for stuff and haven’t yet developed the real deliberative process by which they’re going to use this in a transformative way.”
This is the school of yes. If you have an idea and a dream and you want to build it and it's good for kids or families, the answer is, ‘Yeah, how do we make that happen?’
The model can be transformative, as Goldberg says, “when it’s not just another program where a district checks off another box” — and when political leaders resist the urge to expect quick results.
“It’s kind of like planting something that’s going to take a long time to grow, and then after a few months, you pull it up to see if it’s growing. You’re not able to assess the full impact because it’s too early,” said Jeannie Oakes, a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute.
But with students and schools still reeling from the pandemic, how long should California wait to have something to show for its $4 billion bet on community schools?
“We should have very high expectations for how this money changes lives, and we should have clear measures of tracking whether that’s happening or not,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a research center and think tank. “This [funding] is a great opportunity — but if it becomes just another add-on, just a jobs program, if it becomes services separated from academics … that opportunity will be lost.”
What A ‘Community School’ Looks Like, Up Close
In 2007, leaders of LAUSD and the district’s teachers union agreed to create the first of what they called “pilot schools.” Pilot schools would be semi-autonomous campuses that would have greater freedom over their own budgets and academic programs.
At the time, UCLA had already been working with the union, district and local advocacy organizations to explore launching a community school of its own. In the nascent pilot program — and on the soon-to-be-rebuilt site of the former Ambassador Hotel in Koreatown — the school’s planners saw an opening.
Karen Hunter Quartz, the UCLA Center for Community Schooling director, led the team that submitted the first proposal for what became its Koreatown school in 2007. That proposal was inspired by trips to visit small schools on the East Coast.
“The concept was really, ‘How can we design schools differently to promote these small, nurturing communities?’” said Hunter Quartz. “So based on that experience and the pilot school experience and the building of new buildings in L.A., this was a great opportunity to create that here.”
In 2009, UCLA Community School opened its doors along with five other pilot schools on the RFK Community Schools campus on Wilshire Boulevard.
From its inception, Hunter Quartz envisioned a school that embodied many of the core tenets of the community schools movement — including the elements now known as the “four pillars” of community schooling.
Today, schools that want a share of California’s multi-billion dollar community school grant program will also have to agree to embrace a number of reforms, including these four pillars.
- Schools must “actively [tap] the expertise and knowledge of family and community members,” as the state grant program’s application puts it.
At UCLA Community School, this means embracing the school’s linguistic diversity.
On a recent school day near the end of the 2021-22 academic year, teacher Elia Lara huddled with a small group of third- and fourth-graders around a lima bean-shaped table, tapping a text in front of them on the table.
“¿Qué fue el evento más importante en el libro?” Lara asked one student, hoping he could identify the book’s most important plot point.
The students outside the huddle are reading with partners at their desk — but in English.
Students in this classroom are on a fairly typical progression: this year, they’re using English in class incrementally more — about 30% of the time — than they did in earlier grades. By fifth grade, they’ll spend about half of their time learning in English.
Galindo — the recent graduate who now plans to study computer science at Columbia University — said the school’s multilingual approach convinced Galindo’s parents to enroll him here when the school opened in 2009.
“My mom really liked the idea that it was bilingual,” he remembered, “so I would be learning both English and Spanish and I would be able to have access to both fluently.”
Galindo’s mom wasn’t alone. Surveys show 95% of UCLA Community School students speak a language other than English at home.
“Many of our parents did share, even when we started the school, that they want their own children to be bilingual — it wasn't just to speak Spanish only, but to be able to be fluent in both languages,” said assistant principal Queena Kim, who helped design the school’s multilingual curriculum as a lead teacher in 2009.
Though UCLA Community’s programs were designed as multilingual before parent input was considered, Kim said that “the school having this program is, in my mind, validating the value of the community.”
- Provide wraparound services that address students’ “physical, social-emotional, and mental health needs.”
In counselor Agnes Cesare’s office on UCLA Community’s second floor, 17-year-old Lizbeth is getting her affairs in order for college. Cesare is helping her finish a housing application for Cal State L.A.
LAist is not publishing Lizbeth’s last name because she’s undocumented. She says Cesare often helps her with immigration-related issues “because I’m not born here.” Recently, Cesare helped Lizbeth make an appointment at the on-campus Immigrant Family Law Clinic.
Since the clinic opened in 2019, UCLA Law School students under the supervision of attorneys have offered general legal consultations to any family on the RFK Community of Schools campus — not just at the community school.
But immigration issues are the clinic’s primary focus, said director Nina Rabin, who said her staff and students focus on helping families of newly arrived immigrants who are in removal proceedings.
In 2020, the clinic’s staff won an asylum for four immigrants who fled persecution in Mexico, according to a UCLA news release on the case. The clinic has also helped students obtain visas targeted to juveniles who can’t reunify with their parents due to abuse, abandonment or neglect — a common circumstance for children who arrive in the U.S. as “unaccompanied minors.”
While schools don’t ask about students’ immigration status, as many as two-thirds of Koreatown’s residents were not born in the U.S. — and Rabin suspects that a majority of the school’s students could benefit from the law clinic’s services.
Their immigration status is “in every way connected to their education,” Rabin said, “because their prospects are going to be transformed. If they … can get on a path to legal status, they're going to be able to get financial aid that they otherwise wouldn't. They're going to probably be much more likely to go on to higher education. Their professional options are going to change.”
We need to have schools really change the way they operate to compensate for deficiencies, not in the kids, but in our social safety net. I am thrilled about what California’s doing. … It’s just — this is not like a Salk vaccine.
Many schools in L.A. feature wraparound services. LAUSD operates dozens of school-based “wellness” centers and mental health clinics. It’s common for schools to employ social workers, school psychologists or counselors.
But fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Nancy García said that at UCLA Community, service providers are more integrated into the fabric of the school.
“At other schools, we did have a counselor, but they didn't work as closely with the teacher and the students and the parents. They were kind of off in the corner somewhere.”
García says having these wraparound services for her students is a huge relief.
“If they have other needs, I have people in the school like health care or social services that I can send them to so that then they can deal with those issues,” García said. “Then I can just teach.”
“I've been at two other [schools],” she added. “It was kind of left on me as a teacher to deal with behavior, to deal with all these concerns that affect kids. But this way I feel like we're all working together.”
- Provide “extended learning time and opportunities” beyond the campus and outside normal school hours.
The school is host to a raft of after-school activities, including a program that invites students and parents to make art together. This summer, students can choose from a number of LAUSD-run summer school activities or several university-sponsored options, Hunter Quartz said in an email.
- The school must practice “collaborative leadership.”
At UCLA Community School, many decisions that another school’s principal might make unilaterally instead are made by consensus. The structure gives teachers a greater say over the school’s day-to-day operations.
Some of the most consequential school-wide decisions are made by a handful of executive-level committees; parents and students also sit on the School Governance Council, which sets the school’s direction and budget. But teams of teachers also have some freedom to make decisions within their grade level or department.
Longtime UCLA Community staffers said the “flat” governance structure speaks to why the school is successful. Cesare, the school counselor, framed the administrators ceding some of their authority to the teachers as a vote of confidence in the staff.
It might not be expeditious, it might not happen in an hour — we make a decision and it's done — true. It's efficacious in terms that it's effective; it's actually addressing the problem.
“Everyone gets to play a part,” Cesare said, adding that the school’s administrators “have an ultimate belief in the staff — even when we screw up.”
“There's a very bottom-up approach here,” added Debbie Bailey, the school’s psychiatric social worker. “I don't feel judged by my administrators."
“This is the school of yes,” she added. “If you have an idea and a dream and you want to build it and it's good for kids or families, the answer is, ‘Yeah, how do we make that happen?’ where at other schools it's all about ‘You’ve got to clear it with your district, blah, blah, blah.’”
This is perhaps the trickiest part of UCLA Community School to replicate elsewhere. Most high-needs public schools can at least claim to have some amount of shared governance: at any school receiving federal "Title I" funds for low-income students, a “school site council” must vote on how to spend these funds — but the level of parent and teacher engagement on those councils varies.
And at UCLA Community, it took years for the staff to work out the kinks.
“In the early days,” remembered founding teacher Io McNaughton, “you would have enjoyed some of the discussions that we had around things like, ‘Should we let the kids chew gum?’ And the whole entire staff is involved and everybody is just, like, pouring out their hearts” — but not always arriving at a firm decision.
Over time, the staff has learned which issues require school-wide input, and which issues can be delegated to the governance or operations committees.
Still, principal Leyda Garcia pushed back on a suggestion from a brash reporter that the system sounds cumbersome or inefficient.
“As compared to what?” said Garcia. “I don't know what framework you're looking at to decide that it’s ‘inefficient’ to include community and decisions that affect them … It might not be expeditious, it might not happen in an hour — we make a decision and it's done — true. It's efficacious in terms that it's effective; it's actually addressing the problem.”
And how does the school’s democratic ethos mesh with orders handed down from district headquarters or Sacramento?
Rebekah Kang, an assistant principal, said UCLA Community’s collaborative model forces the staff to decipher the purpose of these top-down edicts. When staff understand the policy’s purpose, they’re more likely to develop a way to meaningfully comply. Kang argued a top-down governance structure leads to more blind compliance — or non-compliance.
“They don't know, ‘Why am I doing what is? What is this trying to solve?’” Kang said, “which can lead to people either shutting the door, not doing it; doing it with just empty words; or just doing it to please the principal. All three of these options do not address the problem.”
‘We Have To Learn How To Do This’
While these “four pillars” have become part of the national community schools gospel, California’s application for community schools funding goes beyond these elements. The grant application also calls on schools to make a series of additional “commitments,” including to adopt “restorative” discipline policies and other “racially just” practices and to provide “culturally proficient and relevant instruction.”
The state’s Request for Applications also encourages schools to hire coordinators who can help cultivate relationships between students, parents, staff and community organizations.
The Oakland Unified School District was the single-biggest recipient, and the only school system to receive more community schools funding than LAUSD, receiving $66.7 million in funds to implement community schools plans at 53 of the district’s schools. Locally:
- LAUSD: $44.4 million, 31 schools.
- Ontario-Montclair School District: $39.6 million, 28 schools
- Anaheim Union High School District: $23.2 million, 13 schools
- L.A. County Office of Education: $17.3 million, 10 schools
The state also set aside money for two-year planning grants — theoretically to give schools and districts the opportunity to begin planting the seeds for a thoughtful community schooling program. (At least 20 independent charter schools in LAUSD received these planning grants, totaling $3.7 million.)
Ideally, districts or schools that are ready to implement a community schools grant should have already won buy-in from their staff and their parents, said David Goldberg of the California Teachers Association.
But Goldberg said that many local union leaders are reporting being surprised that their school had applied — and that CTA has been disappointed by how few school districts are opting for a planning grant.
We just know from our work checking in with folks in these school sites and asking, ‘How engaged are you?’ We often-times get answers like, ‘We’re not engaged at all yet.’
“We wanted to create space to say, ‘Get together,’ bring in the voices of educators, the community, the students, the parents,” said Goldberg, “and go slow to go fast.”
“We just know from our work checking in with folks in these school sites,” he added, “and asking, ‘How engaged are you?’ We often-times get answers like, ‘We’re not engaged at all yet.’”
As nervous as CTA is about the rollout, Goldberg also emphasized his excitement about the state’s investment: “It is our best chance at really developing new models of schooling.”
Oakes, whose research on community schools has been a bedrock of the movement, is conscious of the potholes California must try to avoid — but is nonetheless “cautiously optimistic” about the program, saying she believes Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, the state board and the California Department of Education have “a lot of really good people in the mix helping to shape policy."
“We need to have schools really change the way they operate to compensate for deficiencies, not in the kids, but in our social safety net,” Oakes said. “I am thrilled about what California’s doing. I am very pleased with the hands the work is in …
“It’s just — this is not like a Salk vaccine,” she concluded, referencing the vaccine that effectively stopped the spread of polio. “This is something we have to learn how to do as a state.”