Leslie Hu remembers the very day, a Thursday in March 2020, when her school, Dr. Martin Luther King Academic Middle School in San Francisco, received word from the district office that Friday would be the last day the school would be physically open until further notice due to the coronavirus epidemic. Without waiting for guidance, she and a few other staff members, “immediately went into overdrive to connect with as many families as possible,” she tells me.
Working late into the evening, the staff members made “wellness calls” to deliver messages of care and reassurance. “Our message was, ‘We are not abandoning you. What do you need? We still care,’ ” recallsHu, a community schools coordinator and social worker at the school.
The next day, they enlarged the circle of callers to other school staff members. By the following Wednesday, their wellness calls had reached nearly all of the 460 families with children at the school.
The outreach effort then expanded to more in-depth interview calls to stay connected to families handling the emergency. Within a month, they had reached out to every family.
Their efforts yielded critical information about how families were affected by the pandemic and what kinds of challenges they faced—such as, whether a breadwinner had lost a job, whether the household had access to the Internet, or whether the family was facing an eviction notice. They also conveyed critical information to help families navigate the crisis, including how to pick up Wi-Fi hotspots and devices from the district, where there were open food pantries, and which local nonprofit organizations and community agencies were providing support for dealing with financial and mental health issues.
“We knew there would be certain things our families probably needed,” Hu recalls. “But we didn’t make assumptions. We knew to ask open-ended questions.”
This outreach effort was so successful that, according to an article by the California Federation of Teachers, the San Francisco Board of Education used it as a model to create a districtwide plan to establish permanent “coordinated care teams” for reaching out to families and checking on their well-being.
Looking back, Hu describes their response as something that came about intuitively. She and her colleagues didn’t wait for directives from higher-ups. Instead, they relied on a well-practiced behavior of “co-creating,” as she put it, with colleagues in a school where leadership responsibilities are shared rather than hierarchical.
The actions Hu and her colleagues took are not unique—stories of educators and school staff members rising to address the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic abound. But rarely do these reports delve into what took place before the response to the crisis occurred. They do not mention, for example, whether there was a particular school culture inculcated among staff members that guided how they responded, or whether there were structures and systems put into place beforehand that were set in motion once the crisis emerged.
“The work that led to our wellness calls was due to an effort that took years,” Hu says, referring to the school’s decision in 2014 to transform its culture and operations to align with an approach known widely as community schools.
As Hu explains, “All the work the model requires you to do to build systems and structure to communicate with families paid off.”
So far in 2022, media outlets have promoted a prevailing narrative that the bonds between families and their public schools have become more strained than ever before, and that parents have taken on a more adversarial relationship with schools. Hu’s school, and others like it that are guided by the community schools model, may show what a successful relationship between parents and schools could look like.
When Hu was studying for a masters degree in social work, she became motivated to work with families in settings where they felt most comfortable, which she felt would be a school. For her first job as a social worker, she tried the San Francisco school district, and, fortunately, it was hiring.
Hu “became riveted” with community schools, because, she says, their approach builds “the infrastructure that embeds values in the fabric of the school.”
What are some of those values? One, Hu maintained, is making sure kids feel they’re cared for. Another is to cultivate a culture of listening to students and families, and then building and attending to a system that promotes ongoing communications among the school, families, and the surrounding community.
That may sound easy, but it’s not. “It’s a shift in thinking about . . . families having a partnership role in the school,” Hu says. “It’s about having the mindset to be attuned to the needs of the whole child and have a community culture that supports this. This mindset has to be cultivated.”
Paula Oxoby Hayett, a community school coordinator at Eno Garcia Elementary School in Taos, New Mexico, echoes a similar belief when she describes the strengths her school had in place that helped it weather the COVID-19 storm.
“There’s a tendency to want to jump in with solutions,” she says, “but it’s important to come to conversations with fresh eyes and open ears. And people with skin in the game must be part of any solution.”
Though her grade K-5 school, located in a small town, has concerns and interests that may differ greatly from a school located in a big city like San Francisco, Oxoby Hayett’s description of the family engagement process that is entailed in the community schools approach closely matches what Hu describes.
When the school chose to take up the community schools model in 2019, it took the customary first step of conducting an assessment that included reaching out to parents, via emails, texts, and phone calls.
“Teachers don’t always have time to have these sorts of conversations with parents, to ask families, ‘What’s your vision [for what the school should be],’” Oxoby Hayett explains. But the community schools approach puts in place an onsite coordinator and the structures for enabling those conversations to take place.
“[In our needs assessment] we made a conscientious effort to ask, ‘How would you like to contribute [to helping improve the school],’ ” Oxoby Hayett recalls. What they heard back was that parents wanted to be more engaged in the daily workings of the school.
Consequently, she adds, “Our approach has been to build from within. We don’t have the [external] infrastructure to lean on, so we have to build it ourselves.”
Ultimately, what that entailed was to match up parent desires for more engagement with opportunities to volunteer for the school. Currently, one parent is teaching Spanish in the afterschool program. A student’s dad is coaching soccer. One student’s uncle is coaching basketball and another’s mom runs the Spanish club.
The school also enlisted parents and community members to serve as “family navigators” who pitch in to help make calls to families to check in with them, to distribute devices for connecting to the Internet, and to make sure families have books and other materials they need.
The family navigators proved to be indispensable sources for outreach and parent contact when the pandemic struck.
“Community schools . . . are about system transformation,” Anne Egan, a consultant working with schools in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, says.
Truth or Consequences, a small rural town with fewer than 11,000 people, is located on the Rio Grande River in the southeastern part of the state.
“The county has been losing jobs and population for two decades,” she tells me. Substance use disorders, as well as incarceration rates, are rife in the community. The surrounding county’s poverty rate is 22 percent, well above the state’s overall rate of 18 percent.
“In the fall of 2020, we were struggling to connect with families [reluctant to return to in-person learning],” Egan recalls. When nearly eighty students did not show up when schools opened, the principal and the community schools coordinator for the school called, texted, and emailed every family and then began going door-to-door.
The message to families, Egan says, was consistent: “We know this is hard. What are your problems? How can we help?” Eventually, the missing students came back before headcount totals had to be sent to the state to secure the school’s per-pupil funding.
Through her work with helping schools implement the community schools approach, Egan has learned there has to be shared leadership where stakeholders in the school and the surrounding community are represented, and the focus is on creating equity-based opportunity.
“This goes against the old, bureaucratic ways of running schools,” she says. “It takes time, and it’s hard, but it’s how the magic happens.”
In the old way of doing school, teachers, by default, served as frontline staff for mental and physical health services. But partnerships that develop in the community schools approach create a synergy that relieves teachers of that work and keeps them focused on what they do best—teaching.
Finally, according to Egan, there has to be trust. Local school councils should be open for a wide spectrum of people to participate. People need to be invited into helping with the school’s operations and programs. Schools should ask people what they want and then listen to them. They should show they care about students by including them in meetings and conversations.
Then, over time, trust comes about when people see a history of the school saying what it is going to do and then doing it.
These schools are part of a growing trend to adopt the community schools approach. The Biden Administration has proposed to dramatically increase the federal government’s funding of its community schools grant program from $40 million to $443 million. And California has launched an ambitious effort to spend $3 billion on converting thousands of schools to the model.
“The pandemic,” Hu says, “shone a light on how school can be reimagined by pushing the boundaries on what schools can be for our families and our communities.” It showed that “schools can make progress through real collaboration.”