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Community schools: ‘We want to build this together’

The city officials coordinating the effort in Philadelphia talk about last week’s national community schools conference in New Mexico and their plans.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Susan Gobreski and Holly Gonzales were among more than a dozen Philadelphians who traveled to Albuquerque last week for the three-day national conference of the Coalition for Community Schools.

They joined more than 1,700 participants from around the country involved in the strategy of building schools as community hubs. These schools forge partnerships to address not only academics, but also health and family services, as well as youth and community development and engagement.

Gobreski and Gonzales are director and deputy director for community schools in the Mayor’s Office of Education. Under Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney, they are charged with launching and managing Mayor Kenney’s initiative to implement the community schools approach at 25 public schools in the city over the next four years. Last month, the office began to lay out its implementation plan.

Appointed in February, Gobreski previously led the advocacy group Education Voters of Pennsylvania. Gonzales recently moved to Philadelphia from Baltimore, where she worked for the Family League of Baltimore, a nonprofit that coordinates 55 community schools there.

They spoke with former Notebook editor and publisher Paul Socolar at the close of the conference. Here is an edited version of the conversation.

Why did you come to this conference?

Susan Gobreski: To learn about what’s happening in other places as we get ready to launch our new initiative. It’s really important to hear what’s worked and what hasn’t worked, what lessons there are, and to borrow good ideas.

Talk about the Philadelphia contingent.

Gobreski: We had teachers, community organizations, organizations that are doing work to build community schools strategies in different parts of the city, like the Netter Center at Penn. One thing stressed here is the importance of collaboration – of lots of different people at the table, and different perspectives, but working together.

What were the big takeaways?

Gobreski: That you don’t skip over bringing people together and doing a significant needs assessment from the ground up. And the idea of partners – all hands on deck.

The other thing that really seems to be important is that at the school level – everybody is working toward the goals of the school. If the principal and the teachers have said reducing absenteeism is what we’re focusing on, the community partners need to be actively engaged with the educators and their goals.

This is where the national mind is – about what we need to do to meet the needs of children in school settings. There’s a huge opportunity here.

The conference reflected that. Turnout was great. There was representation from urban districts and rural districts, from different states with different structures. This approach is working in a lot of different places. Clearly that’s because it’s adaptive.

There is a substantial body of work on community schools nationally. How do you take advantage of that?

Gobreski: With Holly, we have someone who has done this work in another place, Baltimore. That’s a great asset.

Holly Gonzales: There’s a lot that’s been written, and the Coalition for Community Schools is committed to sharing best practices, helping people learn from each other. What I love about this conference is that everybody is so excited to share with you, every session you go to. You can ask people for copies of their engagement materials – or their data-sharing plan.

We can tap into the body of work around community schools, and we can tap into the people who are doing the work. Events like this make both those things possible.

Holly, you’re new to the team in Philadelphia.

Gonzales: I had worked in Philadelphia before, with the Out-of-School-Time Network. I left to go to Baltimore, when they were launching their community school initiative. Having worked with community partners, I was excited about this model, which aligns partners more strategically and takes afterschool from an afterthought to being an integrated part of how schools and communities are operating.

When I heard that Mayor Kenney wanted to launch a community schools network, after my three years of doing that in Baltimore, I was excited. I believe the city is the right level of intervention – citywide systems of supports are what can help all of those programs – and help families and community members get the opportunities that they want. Cities are what you want to affect and change. Community schools do that, but at a localized and neighborhood level.

At the conference, was it noteworthy that Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera was one of the keynote speakers and the Pennsylvania participants were able to meet together and with him?

Gobreski: The fact that he was here says a lot about where we’re headed as a state. The conversation that state leaders were able to have with him was very helpful in thinking about what structures we need – how we build the capacity and knowledge base and network at the state level.

It’s exciting to hear that the Department of Education is engaging other state departments about what their role in supporting education is. That’s exactly what we’re doing in the city.

Gonzales: It’s also great that we are able to tap into other local community school networks in Pennsylvania that are dealing within the same set of guidelines from the state Department of Ed. That context is really important when you’re trying to figure out how to do the work.

Are there things you’ll be doing as a result of the conference?

Gonzales: There are good resources we now have for setting up needs assessments, and there are resources we can share with community schools on how to do some of the work – to inform them, not to tell them how to do it.

I want to follow up with people from New York City about their rollout of community schools – about the lessons they learned and some of the things they wished they did.

Gobreski: The big actionable step is that we are building a toolkit so that we have pieces in place – so we can move to implementation. There are huge professional development opportunities and resources for coordinators, for partners, for teachers and principals. There are resources we can start to put in people’s hands, as opposed to having to start from scratch.

You’re aiming to launch five to seven community schools this year. What should people be expecting to hear from your office in the next couple of months?

Gobreski: We need parents at the table – and community members, and civic associations. We need the educators. It should not be a narrow set of people weighing in. We are committed to do as broad engagement as we can.

We’re looking for feedback on criteria for community schools. We’re looking for feedback on implementation. We’re making sure people are helping to think about both the problems and the solutions.

We’re getting invited to a lot of community meetings, which is great. We’re planning some brown bag lunches – they actually might be at different parts of the day; they might be after school. We want to make sure we’re available to people.

You can find the Mayor’s Office of Education on the city website. We’re also on Twitter: @PHL_MOE. We’ll be doing social media communication. People can sign up for an email list from the Mayor’s Office of Education to hear about the work on community schools.

Any final thoughts?

Gobreski: This administration is committed to getting kids what they need. The first part of that is making sure we’re doing a good job of identifying what people need. This is not some big city program. This is a strategy.

Gonzales: It’s really targeted to the needs – it’s very specific.

Gobreski: I just can’t stress enough: We want to build this together. The community perspective is the perspective that matters most.

Gonzales: When it comes to implementation, it’s the community that does the implementing. It’s us putting a structure in place to support and help implementation.

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