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LeBron’s radically different vision for public education is what we need

The Trump administration is proposing to cut funding for programs that can provide all children, not just the rich and a lucky few, the education they deserve

By Nikhil Goyal | The Guardian | August 10, 2018


It’s become fashionable for celebrities and the ultra-rich to start charter schools or make philanthropic gifts with the aim of remaking our “failing” public schools.

Mark Zuckerberg, for example, gave away $100m to schools in Newark, New Jersey, which was largely squandered on consultants.

The rapper Pitbull founded a charter school in Miami. It is run by a for-profit charter management company which was under federal investigation in 2014.

The Gates Foundation invested hundreds of millions in revamping teacher evaluation systems, which failed to boost student achievement.

But this July, basketball player and philanthropist LeBron James broke with this tradition and brought nationwide attention to community schooling in Ohio. The purpose of community schools is to turn the school into the anchor of the community and educate the whole child: children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development. The evidence-based approach has recently been under assault by the Trump administration, whose proposed budgets would eliminate all federal funding for these types of programs.

The purpose of community schools is to turn the school into the anchor of the community and educate the whole child

Last week saw the opening of I Promise School, a district-run public school in Akron, Ohio. It is the brainchild of James’s foundation and the city’s public school district. The first student body is made up of 240 third- and fourth-graders who are reading a year or two below their grade level.

Rooted in a “trauma-informed” approach, I Promise students are privy to social-emotional learning and a hands-on Stem-based curriculum as well as an assemble of wraparound services: free breakfast and lunch, a Chromebook, bicycle, and an extended school day and year. Upon graduation from high school, their college tuition to the University of Akron is waived. Their parents also have access to a food pantry, GED program and job placement services.

Community schools often include engaging, culturally relevant curriculum, restorative justice, wraparound services, expanded learning time, and family and community engagement. The supports can range from health clinics, including vision, dental, and mental healthcare to washers and dryers to childcare to trauma-informed care.

Many of these schools secure funding from federal programs, such as 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, and Full Service Community Schools. Fortunately, as a result of the $1.3tn budget deal reached in March, the more than 1.6 million children who enjoy after-school and summer programming were spared from Trump’s austerity plans until the Trump’s next 2019 budget. Research has shown that participation in after school and summer programs produces higher test scores and attendance and fewer disciplinary issues. One survey found that more than 80% of parents said that such programs helped them maintain employment and “peace of mind about their children” while working.

Rather than cutting such programs, we should demand a “New Deal” for public education: a massive federal investment in community schools to guarantee that all children have an equitable public education.

In the late 1980s, educator Jonathan Kozol barnstormed the country for two years, visiting and documenting his observations in schools in 30 neighborhoods from East St Louis to Camden to San Antonio to New York City.

Reporting from East St Louis, he noted in his book Savage Inequalities that schools were overcrowded, children did not have enough books, paper, computers, and other resources, improper heating made some classrooms freeze and others boil, sometimes reaching 100F. In the Bronx, he discovered schools with few windows, no playgrounds, holes in the floors and falling plaster.

Rather than cutting such programs, we should demand a ‘New Deal’ for public education

Today, the same educational apartheid remains, or even deteriorated. More than 40% of American children straddle the poverty line. The conditions in many of our public schools, especially for the ones that African American, Latino, and indigenous children attend, remain deplorable.

As the social welfare state contracts, public schools are often the only safety net left in some communities. Community schools can help curtail these inequities, provided the political will. According to a Center for Popular Democracy report, 5,000 schools in more than 150 communities employ some version of the community school model. In nearby Cincinnati, more than 40 of the district’s 55 schools have been converted into community learning centers, catapulting attendance and graduation rates, and just as importantly, mitigating disciplinary issues, asthma, poor vision, food insecurity, and toxic stress, especially for some of the poorest children.

Several studies have also found that the return-on-investments for community schools are enormous. Every $1 invested in Communities in Schools, a national drop-out prevention organization, yields $11.60 in economic benefits, including more than $150m of savings “due to reductions in smoking, alcoholism, crime, welfare, and unemployment costs”.

We now need to gear up for another fight. Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budgetonce again puts the same programs on the chopping block and requests $8bn in cuts to the Department of Education budget. A radically different vision for our public schools is needed. A major federal investment in community schools would mean that all children, not just the rich and a lucky few, get the education they deserve.

  1. Nikhil Goyal is a journalist and author of Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice.

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