All Hands on Deck for Community Schools

Last week, Rebecca Mieliwocki spoke at the White House after being honored by President Obama with the National Teacher of the Year award. The seventh grade English teacher from the racially and economically diverse Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank, California made clear that "commitment to education must extend beyond walls of the classroom. Parent support and community involvement are essential to ensure the success of our students."

In a follow up interview with the Washington Post, Mieliwocki went further, capturing the many challenges that teachers face in their classroom: "We face so many barriers to student success that I didn't create and are beyond my control. I can't control whether my students eat breakfast, have a place to sleep at night, whether they have access to technology," said Mielwocki. "I can do everything I can when they step into my classroom to try to level the playing field but one person alone just can't do it all, and that's pretty overwhelming."

Mieliwocki went on to say that even though there are amazing teachers like herself across country, they cannot fix the problems of our failing schools alone.

"In any school system in any state, whether the most affluent district or not, you have families in crisis right now. Everyone is worried about money, jobs, the economic future. I am seeing it in my classroom. I see the needs are so great -- health care, hunger, transportation, clothing, parents losing jobs. It's all hands on deck right now to get through this."

What Mieliwocki may not have known is there are growing numbers of people from all walks of life who are rethinking the way we look at schools in local communities across the country. These individuals represent public education, family groups, health and social agencies, youth development organizations, local government, higher education, business, faith-based, and many other neighborhood and community groups.

Together with school officials, local leaders are working to create community schools. Community schools are the vehicle that enables schools and communities to connect, collaborate and create more powerful learning environments for students. They are places where children gain access to an array of health services and social support as well as enriched educational opportunities that lay the foundation for impactful learning. Community schools are also where families can find the assistance they need to confront the challenges of a difficult economy and to tackle the additional out of school factors Mieliwocki and others face in the classroom.

The power of community schools will be on display in San Francisco next week when more than 1,300 people from 36 states, and more than 100 communities, will come together at the 2012 Community Schools National Forum. There are now more than 50 local community school initiatives across the country and many other communities where they are emerging.

Recently in Connecticut, Lieutenant Governor Nancy Wyman and Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor, convened their colleagues in the state departments of health, social services and economic and community development to plan a community school strategy to support the state's lowest performing schools.

Places like Nashville and Knoxville, Oakland and San Francisco, Cleveland and Toledo, Orlando and Miami all have emerging community schools efforts. And community leaders from Bozeman, Montana, Rapid City and Sturgis, South Dakota, and Duluth and Rochester, Minnesota are planning for community schools. They will all be in San Francisco eager to learn from one another.

The ideas that schools and communities should work together is not a new one. But at a time when some education reformers argue that only high test scores matter, the rise of the community school movement offers a crucial counterpoint. Community schools wisely recognize that we must pay attention to every facet of a child's life, and to their families, if they are to succeed not only in school, but also in life. We are delighted that the Teacher of the Year agrees.