Community schools as cornerstones in the time of COVID-19

Karen Hunter Quartz & Marisa Saunders

It’s an old solution to a very old problem. Attack poverty and societal inequality by creating community schools that level the playing field. Locate food distribution, health care, and other social services in the context of “the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Horace Mann also called public education “the cornerstone of our community and our democracy.” Community schools across the nation are rising up to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic because they were designed to be these cornerstones. 

Community schools have systems in place to feed families in need and provide legal advice and support when they are evicted or lose their jobs. But more than a social safety net, community schools are also preparing the next generation to rise up against the structural inequality and racism that is causing Black and Latino Californians to die of the coronavirus at disproportionate rates.

To accomplish this, community school teachers work to create opportunities for engaged and rigorous learning rooted in the assets and needs of the community. In addition to building deep relationships with students—key to learning and development—community school teachers construct curricula to further develop students’ identified strengths and equip them with the knowledge and skills to address problems facing their communities. Before the pandemic, for example, teachers at the UCLA Community School were preparing their students to launch Multilingual Interdisciplinary Social Action (MISA) projects on issues affecting their community. Now in their third year of development, these projects have tackled homelessness, gentrification, and climate change, among other topics. Students conduct research in their home languages and present what they learn about social change to the community.

Now online and facing concerns from stable internet to parenting and providing instruction to their own children, coordinating cross-curricular MISA projects seemed unfeasible. Teachers, however, are pivoting to create and implement community-based learning projects that address issues currently affecting students’ lives. In Ayuri Terada’s 11th grade History class at the UCLA Community School, for example, students are engaged in a ten-week inquiry process that asks students to investigate the disparate impact of COVID-19 in communities of color and the response of local students, teachers, and parents who have organized to work for justice in and beyond schools. Reading articles, reviewing current data, videos, and the latest research on the virus, students are asked to reflect deeply on and share how these issues are affecting them, their families and their communities. Students are guided by the words of the late educator and philosopher Paulo Freire: “In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation…”

 While teachers continue to tackle the many challenges school closures have introduced, our work with the UCLA Consortium of Community Schools is highlighting the efforts of community school teachers like Ms. Terada who are continuing to engage students in learning about themselves and the world around them, valuing who they are, and becoming positive and contributing members of society. At Mann UCLA Community School, Shriya Venkatesh has adjusted her community-based science unit on waste and plastic pollution in South Los Angeles to focus on environmental justice in the community more broadly. Using street maps to examine issues of community waste in context using real-time interactive tools and a “landfill” created within a box in Ms. Venkatesh’s home, students are engaged in studying, analyzing and discussing how these issues impact their lives. Parents have been invited to the class as “expert” speakers (via Zoom) to share their household plastic use and recycling practices, how they see waste pollution affecting their community, provide suggestions for families and community members to work together to combat pollution issues, and how policies can help the community.

 While COVID-19 is amplifying longstanding and persistent social inequities tied to race, class, immigration status and reinforcing the many privileges of students who are better-off—access to devices and greater levels of connectivity, higher levels of parent education, greater availability of parental time for engagement, in-home availability of learning materials, access to on-line tutoring and enrichment, etc.—community schools can assist in disrupting these realities. As Darlene Tieu, a teacher at Mann UCLA Community School, commented:  

 We continue to work to meet students where they are, retain high expectations, and provide them with the quality education they deserve… that means providing the knowledge and skills they need for the next grade, college, and beyond, and teaching how to advocate for community change. 

 As Ms. Tieu reminds us, we must acknowledge and embrace the role of students in disrupting the inequality fueling the COVID-19 crisis. Together, with the next generation, community schools can help us realize the goals of public education as the cornerstone of our democracy.

NEXT MONTH: Stay tuned for more stories of teacher scholarship and inquiry from the UCLA Consortium of Community Schools.