Sometimes you just read or hear something that feels like a mic drop.
Here’s Daman Harris, principal of Wheaton Woods Elementary in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., speaking recently to journalist Jeff Bryant:
“We weren’t listening to our families. We started off thinking our families needed things like food assistance and English classes—providing what we assumed families in poverty need. When we started listening to our families, we found out that what we didn’t have was enough out-of-school time and activities for their kids, not enough athletics. We found out that rather than English classes for adults, parents wanted their children to learn Spanish to retain their culture. They wanted employment training for adults and more help with childcare.”
That’s it. That’s what makes the community school approach—an innovative method of public schooling that’s growing in popularity nationwide—so promising.
Community schools are public schools that offer a range of support and opportunities to students, families, and nearby residents. They’re designed to support the entirety of a student’s well-being to ensure they are healthy, well-fed, safe, and in a better position to learn.
Most significantly, community schools empower those closest to problems at school to guide the solutions to those problems. Students, parents, and teachers often know exactly what they need to thrive—it’s just that school administration and elected leaders are often unwilling to ask.
At Wheaton Woods, the community school coordinator—according to a parent interviewed by Bryant—is constantly reaching out to parents with surveys, volunteer opportunities, and invitations to participate in committees. This has resulted in an active Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and parent engagement committee. Meetings and communications are carried out in multiple languages to accommodate the high proportion of Latino families.
There are also after-school programs with additional learning opportunities for students, including classes in art, Spanish language, and soccer. Parents are offered driving classes, English language classes, and food safety classes.
This is precisely why the community school approach is so promising. It’s strikingly different than other education reforms that have been tried for decades—like privately operated charter schools and private school vouchers.
Charter schools and vouchers try to turn public education into a private marketplace with winners and losers (some kids get into good schools, while many are left behind). They treat parents like consumers, offering them a “choice” while taking away their ability to have a real say at the public school in their neighborhood.
Billionaire and former Trump administration education secretary Betsy DeVos argued that choosing a public school should be like picking Uber, Lyft, or a taxi—she also once said charter schools are like food trucks.
Community schools, on the other hand, honor the public in public education. They acknowledge that a school is connected to the broader community around it. They recognize that much of a student’s life is lived outside the classroom.
And, most importantly, they understand that students, parents, and teachers know what they need to thrive.