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With community schools strategy, WCCUSD becomes model for other districts

on May 16, 2023

Wellness centers. Mental health counseling. Youth leadership development. 

These are examples of community schools initiatives in practice. With passage of a new contract that specifically endorses community schools, the West Contra Costa Unified School District is poised to become a model for the strategy.

United Teachers of Richmond considered community schools a must in the contract, alongside salary increases. According to UTR, community schools lead to lower absenteeism, better student work habits, grades, test scores and behaviors, higher enrollment in college prep courses and higher graduation rates. 

A section of the contract agreement, which was ratified in February, states a full inclusion of community schools shared decision-making — when all members of a school community participate in decisions — through 2027 or later, as well as additional supports for the strategy.

WCCUSD has employed the community schools strategy since 2007, but it has never been included in contract language. Its inclusion isn’t just symbolic — it comes after the district received almost $30 million from the state to support the strategy in May 2022. 

“Adding contract language for Community Schools gives our strategy teeth to hold people accountable, and will help to ensure that we as a school system, and our community as vital partners, create a school-based ecosystem where the needs of our community are heard, welcomed, served and validated,” said Liz Sanders, WCCUSD spokesperson. 

Community schools
Richmond High School, where the Community Schools strategy has been implemented for about two decades. (Cara Nixon)

The agreement between the district and the union made the California Teachers Association and the state of California identify WCCUSD as  “a district to watch,” UTR said in an April 10 news release. 

It also makes the possibility of community schools feel more accessible to other school districts, said UTR President John Zabala.

 “It’s just kind of like the political winds have all aligned for this work to happen,” Zabala said. 

What are community schools?

The idea of community schools goes back more than a century. American education reformer John Dewey described it in 1902 as the belief in “school as social center.”

Zabala put it this way: Previously, churches acted as social centers — almost everyone went to church and used resources provided by those churches. Today, most people don’t belong to a religious institution, but the majority of Americans, at some point, go to school. Because of this, schools now have the unique opportunity to not only educate, but also to provide communities with other resources for learning.

“We suck at learning if we don’t feel safe,” Hayin Kimner, founder and managing director of the Community Schools Learning Exchange, said. “We suck at learning if we feel threatened in some way, physically as well as emotionally or psychologically. And a community school is trying to be intentional about all of those relationships and actions.”

Anna Maier, an expert on community schools from the Learning Policy Institute, described the strategy as “organizing resources around student success,” which can look different depending on the school.

For WCCUSD, community schools started with school-based health centers at six high schools in the early 2000s. Now, 28 of the district’s schools participate, with a wide range of services to their communities.  

Inside community schools

Richmond High School is one of the longest-standing community schools in the district and is home to a school-based community health center.

The Wellness Center is set up in portable modules near the main school, and serves as a hub for individual, family and community needs. It offers clinical, dental, vision and mental health services, as well as other programs such as Community Violence Solutions for sexual assault support and Brighter Beginnings for young father case management. Services are provided through Contra Costa Public Health, the East Bay YMCA and other organizations. 

Community schools
Terry Mitchell, Community Schools director who comes to Richmond High School through Bay Area Community Resources. (Cara Nixon)

Terry Mitchell, as the community schools director for Richmond High, oversees the Wellness Center. Community members can access medical services there through MediCal, which many of Richmond High’s 1,500 students use. Mental health counseling is funded through MediCal and grants. 

Mitchell, like all community schools directors, is not a district employee. Under the settlement between the district and the teachers union, each community schools site needs a director. To fill those positions, the district contracts with local organizations like Bay Area Community Resources. 

At Helms Middle School, the community schools program is a hub for clubs, mental health services and even sports equipment.

One club, the Envisioneers, helps students build new career-based skills and fosters social-emotional learning. Another is focused on student leadership, volunteering and community outreach. A club called Peacemakers promotes student mentorship and parent engagement.

Helms’ hub includes two counselors, two therapists and a psychologist to assist students with mental health. Shataura Dudley, the community schools director at Helms, has also set up a clothing donation closet for students. 

“It just gives a community-oriented feeling just to know that we have the on-site programs that support the students,” Dudley said. “They’re accessible without it being a hassle. If students need clothes, if they need shoes, if they need school supplies, if they need to wash their clothes, if they need food, if they need a snack — anything you can think of, we already have in the school. And I think that it gives students and families a sense of peace to know that that’s accessible.”

State supports plan

California has made a huge investment of $4.1 billion through the Community Schools Partnership Program, which will support meals, health screenings, summer programs, tutoring and a host of wrap-around services. 

“As education remains under assault in states across the U.S. — from book bans and speech suppression, to the othering of our students, parents, and teachers — we are improving student learning, health, and wellbeing by providing full-service schools for our students and their families,” Gov. Gavin Newson said in a February news release announcing the investment. 

Other states such as New York, Maryland and New Mexico have also made strides toward the strategy. According to the Center for American Progress, there are roughly 5,000 community schools across the United States. 

The new investments are exciting, but Kimner, from Community Schools Learning Exchange, expressed some nervousness because of how important this moment is for education in California. For one, she said schools aren’t used to receiving money and not being told what to do with it. Since the community schools strategy prides itself on not being a one-size-fits-all approach, it may be difficult for schools to decide how to effectively use the funds they receive. 

Said Kimner, “We’re still figuring out some of these structural pieces.”

Teacher shortage threatens to crumble popular dual-language schools that WCCUSD built over years

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