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Janresseger: Enough Basic Staffing and More Community Schools: Two Important But Different Issues

The NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein published a story last week about the Chicago teachers’ strike. While Goldstein should be commended for supporting the efforts of the teachers in the nation’s third largest school district to bargain around their students’ needs for smaller classes, more counselors, school psychologists, nurses, and librarians, her article is misleading.

Goldstein conflates two important but separate issues when she writes: “These demands have risen as activists promote a broader mission for educators: a vision of schools as community centers that offer an array of health and social services to children, especially those from low income families. In Chicago, it has become clear that teacher pay is not the primary sticking point in the negotiations; after all, the city has already agreed to a raise. The Chicago Teachers Union is asking that the district enshrine in its contract a promise to hire more counselors, health workers and librarians, and to free them from tasks outside of their core duties.”

Yes, the Chicago Teachers Union has demanded that the union contract cover students’ learning conditions.  But the teachers’ primary goal in Chicago has been to rectify years of neglect for their students’ basic needs.  The union’s central focus was not for a newer—and also very important—idea for wraparound Community Schools.

Here are the two issues Goldstein conflates:

  • First, in many underfunded public school districts today—especially in urban school districts with extreme concentrations of student poverty and in isolated rural school districts without significant local taxing capacity—there is an acute shortage of he most basic services needed for schools to operate smoothly. Staffing and services in many public schools have been seriously curtailed since, decades ago, many of us attended schools where we took for granted the presence of the librarian or the school nurse, or enough counselors to serve the hundreds of adolescents in most any high school. Financial shortages were exacerbated during the 2008 recession when state and local tax revenues dropped precipitously in many places. And these problems have intensified in states where tax cuts have been the policy of choice.
  • Second, in an important development, in communities where family poverty is concentrated, pressure has been growing over the past decade to turn schools into community centers where families can access necessary social services and medical services and other supports. The movement to turn public schools into what have been termed “Community Schools” has been building up steam.

Teachers and their students need basic support staff.

Restoring funding for the most basic services—the kind of staffing by nurses, certified school librarians, certified school counselors, and school psychologists is essential, along with the restoration of manageable class size. The restoration of essential school services has been at the heart of the teachers’ strikes in the past couple of years in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago. The teachers in these strikes have been demanding a basic level of the kind of public school support staffing students simply take for granted in more affluent communities.

In Chicago, the site of the most recent teachers’ strike, the problem has been made worse by more than two decades of disruptive reform.  The district operates with widespread public school choice along with the expansion of charter schools.  School choice in Chicago operates in combination with student-based budgeting, whose damaging consequences were recently documented by researchers at Roosevelt University. It is a toxic combination, because students exiting to another public school or a charter school carry away funding.  At a school, for example, where two classes of second graders fall from 25 students to 23, the principal might possibly create one class of 46, or perhaps the principal could keep two second grades at 23 students if the librarian or the nurse or a counselor were let go. As services diminish due to the loss of funding, the school becomes less and less attractive to school choosers, thereby establishing a downward spiral, until, in Chicago, the school would close because it would be identified as “under-utilized.”

What does it mean for a school when essential staff are eliminated?  When a counselor must serve hundreds of students, the counselor’s work may be reduced to making presentations about college applications, or in a district like Chicago, explaining high school choice options to hundreds of students or simply handling students’ requests for schedule changes and other necessary but routine functions. When there are too few school psychologists, the job becomes reduced to testing students who are being referred for special education, sitting on on committees making Individual Education Plans for special education students, and handling a few crisis situations when students act out.

It is common these days for school nurses to rotate across several schools despite that school nurses are needed to administer injections, to help with diabetic and chronically ill students, and to deal with a wide range of medical issues too frequently handled these days by the office secretary.

Chicago teachers also made school libraries and the presence of school librarians an issue in their contract negotiations. In many schools, the library door has been locked or if the library is open, it is staffed by volunteers.  The presence of a certified school librarian can be transformative for a school’s literacy program and can infuse the best children’s literature into the lives of all the children in a school.  Last year, for Education WeekSara Sparks and Alex Harwin reported: “Chicago public schools have gone from more than 450 librarians staffing libraries and media centers at more than 600 schools to fewer than 150 in a four year period, according to South Side high school librarian Sara Sayigh, whose positions at the historic DuSable High School and later the Bronzeville Scholastic Institute and Daniel Hale Williams Prep School of Medicine have been cut four times in the last 14 years.”

Community Schools are an important idea.

What about the growing cry for more wraparound Community Schools—the other issue mentioned in Goldstein’s recent story?  In some of their strikes across states and school districts, teachers have also bargained for the expansion of full-service, Community Schools.  Here is the definition of a Community School according to New York City’s Children’s Aid Society, currently the lead partner in many of New York City’s Community Schools: “The foundations for community schools can be conceptualized as a Developmental Triangle that places children at the center, surrounded by families and communities.  Because students’ educational success, health and well-being are the focus of every community school, the legs of the triangle consist of three interconnected support systems: a strong core instructional program designed to help all students meet high academic standards; expanded learning opportunities designed to enrich the learning environment for students and their families; and a full range of health, mental health and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning… Community schools are the products of explicit partnerships between the school and other community resources… Nearly all models of community schools employ a site-coordinator, whose role involves joint planning with school staff and subsequent recruitment, management and coordination of partners.”

I was once privileged to visit a Community School in New York City. The school was a collaboration of the public school district and the Children’s Aid Society.  I could feel the way this school and its staff, teachers and medical and social service personnel alike, embraced the children, their families and the community.  It was a chilly autumn day, and we had to walk quite a distance from the subway to get to the school, but inside, the atmosphere was warm and sunny.  Parents were around in the hallways, and it all felt very welcoming.

As visitors we were greeted in a room used for parent education programs—English as a Second Language and various job training classes. There were huge commercial sewing machines there, for example. We visited the early Head Start (for toddlers) right in the building. We also visited the Head Start classes for preschoolers located there. Again, right in the school building, we visited the dental clinic, where a child was having a tooth filled. We visited a medical clinic, where students receive vaccinations, where they have eye exams, and, where someone checks sick children for strep throat and ear infections. We stood outside the room used for the mental health clinic, where both children and parents can get help. We visited a huge 21st Century Learning Center afterschool program where some children were engaged in folk dancing, some were working in a school garden that had been funded by a grant from the Bette Midler Foundation, and others were cooking with ingredients they had harvested from their school garden. Many of the children in the school participate every summer in an enrichment day camp. All this was in addition to a well-staffed academic program, where class size is reasonable.

Two important issues: ensuring necessary school staffing and expanding Community Schools. It is important to recognize that neither one can substitute for the other. Community Schools, where family medical and social services and extended learning opportunities for children are located in the school building, are now enriching communities across the United States.  But this month’s strike by teachers in Chicago has been primarily to demand that the most basic services—once provided in most every U.S. public school, but now lost in many places—will be restored in the Chicago Public Schools.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...