This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, supporters of the community schools concept in Pennsylvania have an enthusiastic advocate in state government. Rivera was a keynote speaker at last week’s conference of the Coalition for Community Schools in Albuquerque, N.M., attended by 1,700 participants, including about 70 from Pennsylvania.
“Our vision for the commonwealth moving forward is really going to support the community schools movement in amazing ways,” Rivera said. He applauded Mayor Kenney’s push for community schools in Philadelphia and pointed to activity in Pittsburgh, Erie, Lancaster, the Lehigh Valley, and other smaller communities around the state.
In his speech, during a meeting with conference participants from Pennsylvania, and in an interview, Rivera detailed a number of ways that he and Gov. Wolf’s administration are trying to advance a community schools strategy.
- He is creating a new position in the Department of Education called “special assistant of internal and external partnerships,” so there will be dedicated leadership at the state level supporting school-community partnerships and community schools work.
- The state’s school report card, the School Performance Profile, which is now “heavily weighted toward standardized test performance,” will be revamped by Rivera and his staff, who are working with the General Assembly to do so. He says that once the state gives more weight to other factors, such as attendance and access to high-quality programs, schools will be encouraged to take a more holistic approach to student needs. “Schools are so focused on this test-taking culture because it’s what we measure,” he said. “As we start to change what we assess, partnerships will become a better answer.”
- Rivera said that community perspectives will inform the effort to develop a state plan for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal successor to the No Child Left Behind law. More than 400 stakeholders from across the state have nominated themselves to participate over the next year in the development of Pennsylvania’s plan, which will address four areas: teacher certification, educator effectiveness, assessment, and school accountability.
- Across state government, Wolf administration departments are looking to address education issues. Each state department was asked to identify three goals, and “31 of those goals are education goals. … All of those goals probably align with the work that you’re doing,” Rivera told the Pennsylvania conference participants. One recent example of cross-agency collaboration is the Health Department’s work with the Department of Education on ensuring that children are fully immunized, using mobile immunization clinics.
- Rivera said the department hopes to provide policy supports for efforts like the Kenney administration’s initiative to implement 25 community schools in Philadelphia, and he is in frequent contact with the mayor and his staff. “We will make ourselves available and be good partners.” He said that the state is providing more information about best practices on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website about state standards. And he pledged to work closely with the statewide network of community schools advocates that convened at the conference.
Rivera said state support for community schools should be extended to charter schools as well as traditional district schools: “We should support good charter schools.”
Rivera described the evolution of his thinking about community schools as rooted in his experiences as a teacher and principal in Philadelphia who realized that he needed to enlist help to mitigate the effects of poverty on his students. For many children, things as basic as the cost of doing laundry or finding transportation to school were obstacles to learning.
Later, as a superintendent in Lancaster, he said, he forged partnerships with outside organizations and businesses – and canceled ineffective ones – emphasizing that he wanted groups to help with “what they did well.” Partners provided food assistance, health care, vision care, and family mental health services in many schools, aligning their services with one another and with community needs. Through that work, Rivera said, “I became a student of the community schools movement.”
“There is no one, cookie-cutter approach to community schools,” Rivera said, stressing that schools must differentiate based on the needs of the particular community. But one essential principle is the power of partnerships, taking an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to building community support and engagement.
“Our schools should be focused on teaching and learning,” Rivera told conference participants. “We know that schools can’t teach and deliver effective instruction if students are hungry … if children are not healthy … if they’re having social and emotional needs … if children are worrying where are they going to sleep that night.
“We have to involve and invite every stakeholder to the table and ask that they focus on what they do best to improve what happens in the classroom and in the school.”