A better model for neighborhood schools 

Guest Commentary

Once again in Rochester, there are calls for a return to neighborhood schools. While it is important to create neighborhood elementary schools within urban villages where possible, and to align accountability, consolidate services, and make it all transparent, my experience brings me to conclude that for a future system of education to be successful and sustainable, the direct community of each urban neighborhood school must be authentically involved in governing that school.

I call this model for authentic community ownership and responsibility the Community Accredited Schools Model. This concept is naturally symbiotic with democratically elected school board governance.

Although the New York State Education Department is responsible for public education curriculum and standards, the delivery of that curriculum varies, depending on different individual needs. Each community has many similarities, but also many differences. The culture of one neighborhood can be quite different from the community just a few streets away. Successful schools and successful communities must be an integral part of one another and made culturally relevant.

The residents and parents of each community have a vision for the schools that embrace their children, and they can easily formalize this vision into specific expectations for behavioral and performance outcomes. Combining their vision with those expectations would create formal assessments of the neighborhood school, establishing an on-going, authentic community school accreditation system. A joint body, co-chaired by a community member (tied to the neighborhood association) and the school principal would serve as the governance framework to monitor and sustain this collaboration.

A simple reaccreditation process would take place every three or four years, and a community grade would be made public each year. Communities would have a much stronger say in the selection and retention of their school principals. Because each community would have much more responsibility in creating the vision for their community school, the neighborhood school would finally be the real center of a healthy urban village and would become the beacon of the community, not the fortress on the hill.

When the parents and residents of a community are allowed to have authentic shared ownership of their children's school, they feel they have a personal investment in their children's school. When they have investment, they automatically have engagement leading to commitment. When the flame of community engagement is lit, the positive power of individual parental influence is unleashed and focused upon their child's success within the educational system.

Tragically, this power has been greatly underestimated. Not only is it underestimated, it is very often not allowed to happen.

Community accredited school status would be celebrated as the gold standard for school-community effectiveness. The Community Accredited Schools Model would not diminish but would validate and enhance the effectiveness of the superintendent, school principals, and classroom teachers. This model would create the structure for the essential working partnerships of parents, teachers, administrators, and residents. It would facilitate surround-care neighborhood schools that would finally report, respond, and be accountable to the needs of the communities in which they serve.

Years ago, under former Superintendent Peter McWalters and union president Adam Urbanski, the district attempted to create a similar model. But when superintendents change, the district's focus can change, and the McWalters-Urbanski model wasn't sufficiently anchored in the community to be sustained. When it comes to urban schools, for many years the community has been used to having things done to it instead of with it, so the Community Accredited Schools Model will need to be guided and nurtured at every juncture.

Superintendents, school board commissioners, and mayors come and go, but each community is there forever. The Community Accredited Schools Model places the shared ownership, control, and responsibility where it belongs and provides a structure for sustainability and replication of best practice.

Spezio is a retired principal of School 17 in the Rochester school district and is a founding member of the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning.

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