This article is adapted from David L. Kirp’s Healthy, Wealthy and Wise: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives.
One fine spring day a few years back, a society matron and prospective donor toured the Salomé Ureña community schools at the northernmost tip of Manhattan, in Washington Heights, with her twentysomething son in tow. Although the young man had gone to a top prep school, he marveled at what he saw—classes taught by City University of New York professors that offer students nearly two years’ worth of college credits; one-on-one tutoring; a clinic delivering everything from eye exams to orthodontia; an after-school program whose riches include dance lessons led by members of the New York City ballet corps and Chinese cooking lessons; summertime academics and explorations; even some evening classes for adults that his mother might want to take.
"I wish I’d had a school like this," the young man said.
Almost unnoticed amid the bitter, protracted debate about standardized testing, teacher accountability and charter schools, a nationwide movement embracing the "community school" philosophy of Salomé Ureña is well under way.
These schools break the traditional six-and-a-half-hour-day, 180-days-a-year mold, with programs before and after school, as well as on weekends and during the summer. They supplement academics with medical care and social services. They involve parents as learners and teachers. And they partner with high-asset city agencies, community groups and businesses, attracting new funds to the schools while connecting students to the universe beyond the schoolhouse door. Community schools are up and running in at least forty-four states and the District of Columbia. A host of city school systems, including Baltimore, Portland, Cincinnati and Tulsa, have bought into the concept; and in England, Scotland and the Netherlands, such schools are part of the national education strategy.
In the summer of 2007 Barack Obama announced that he was so impressed by what Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic leader of Harlem Children’s Zone, had accomplished with the cradle-to-college "conveyor belt" approach that he pledged "several billion dollars" to replicate it in twenty sites across the country. A modest down payment, $10 million in planning grants for "Promise Neighborhoods," is now on the table. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also counts himself a believer. When he was CEO of Chicago’s public school system, Duncan converted 150 schools into community schools. "What we tried to do was…to put some of our money together—some private sector money, some philanthropic money together," he said in a speech last fall at a Children’s Aid banquet. "It was easily the best leveraged money we spent. For every dollar we spent, we were getting back five, six, seven dollars from the business community, from nonprofits, from the social service agencies, from the state, the federal government." Alongside charter schools, Duncan saw community schools as integral to the multibillion-dollar Race to the Top initiative.