Bridge Builders: Leaders Linking Schools and Community

Students at Oakland International High School.
Students at Oakland International High School.

It takes a unique individual to work at the nexus of organisms as complex as schools and communities. These people – whom we call community school coordinators – must be driven to ensure equity for students in their school, get people with diverse perspective on the same page, and build bridges that will last and lead to better results for students and families.

This week the Coalition for Community Schools is celebrating Community Schools Coordinators Appreciation Week. These folks are not only multi-talented, but, like most educators and community practitioners, they work very long hours because that’s what it takes to get the job done.

There are as many as 7,500 people in these roles across the country, and we need more. But right now, I want to celebrate the work of one particular coordinator, Lauren Markham in Oakland Unified School District who is also the author of an important new book.

Lauren is the Community Schools Manager at Oakland International High School (OIHS) where 100% of their students are recently-arrived immigrants from 33 countries, who speak over 30 languages. Students at OIHS receive a range of academic, legal, health, and social emotional services designed specifically to support immigrant youth and families. In addition, OIHS values the lived experience of students. All staff members participate in a day of professional development called "Community Walks" in which students plan a series learning activities, including visiting important institutions in their community (mosques, cultural centers, legal aid centers, refugee support organizations, etc.) in order to provide staff better insight into how to support immigrants from their country.

Lauren makes all this happen with the strong support of the school’s Principal Carmelita Reyes. When student faced deportation hearings, Lauren helped find legal help; when they needed health and wellness, Markham brought together community partners to respond. She has created a team of educators and community partners to give students a sense of belonging and a constructive way to interact, even when students don’t speak the same language.

The Coalition for Community Schools honored Lauren’s school last spring at the Community Schools Awards for Excellence.

Now Lauren is displaying other talents in an important new and well-reviewed book, The Faraway Brothers. Drawing on her work as a community school coordinator, she tells the story of identical twin brothers who escape El Salvador’s violence to build new lives in California — fighting to survive, to stay, and to belong. This is a quintessential American story, and a story that is especially moving to me. My father also came to this country illegally in 1928 to build a better life.

Lauren Markham’s <em>The Far Away Brothers</em>.
Lauren Markham’s The Far Away Brothers.

Lauren exemplifies the best of what community school coordinators do – bringing people and organizations together across divides to get results, believing that all young people in America deserve the opportunity to learn and thrive, and providing the support to do it.

I’m grateful to Lauren and all the other community school coordinators across the country this week, and I look forward to greeting the many more to come in the future.

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