"Community schools" advocates say schools can stay open ... by opening their doors | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

"Community schools" advocates say schools can stay open ... by opening their doors

"We have to shift our way of thinking, so that we collectively embrace our public schools as community assets."

Photo by Heather Mull
Community-schools advocate Jessie Ramey of Great Public Schools Pittsburgh

At a time when most of the news coming out of the Pittsburgh Public Schools involves cutting services and closing schools, one coalition is pushing to expand district services, and keep schools open.

Local activists are pushing a "community schools" model, which opens school buildings up to house social services used by children and their families — all under one roof.

"It's really about changing our collective mindset around what public schools are and should be," says Jessie Ramey of Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, a coalition comprised of community groups and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. "We have to shift our way of thinking, so that we collectively embrace our public schools as community assets. ... Schools should only close if there are no children to go to them." 

Still, the district says the proposal comes with hidden costs — and officials caution against viewing the proposal as a way to prevent school closings in the short term.

Community schools became popular in the 1990s as a way of addressing problems associated with poverty. Today, according to the Coalition for Community Schools, a national organization, there are approximately 5,000 community schools in cities across the country, providing "wraparound services" such as after-school programs for students whose parents work late, and on-site health care for students whose parents can't take them to the doctor. Schools can also partner with community organizations that provide art and music programming.

Programs are paid for through public and private funding, including foundation support and federal grants. Some organizations offer their services free of charge. For districts, Ramey says, the principal cost is hiring a community-schools coordinator to solicit funding and build partnerships with service providers. Ramey also recommends having $50,000 in funding to help with other start-up costs.

"The community vision is to reduce class sizes and restore lost programs, such as music [and] art," Ramey says.

But before that can happen, district officials will have to do the math.

Although city-schools Superintendent Linda Lane supports the community-school concept, she says implementing it would have additional costs. For security reasons, school buildings would have to be retrofitted, so students would be insulated from outsiders using the services.

"There are some things that need to be figured out," says Lane, who is waiting for the community to present a plan the district can discuss with them.

Lane says she couldn't estimate the potential impact on the $459 million city-schools budget. But such costs have been an issue in districts where community schools have been implemented. Schools in Hartford, Conn., for example, were obliged to cover some maintenance and security costs. "In some schools," the district noted in a progress report, "this has been an issue for principals who are required to staff the facility in the after-school hours."

Almost any cost might be difficult for the district to swallow. City schools are facing a $37.5 million deficit in 2015, and the district projects that each school it closes will save between $500,000 and $1 million yearly. Officials are pondering the closure of between five and 10 district schools, and Lane says that because community schools take time to implement, the approach is unlikely to spare those programs.

"Nobody has really laid out what the next steps are," says Lane. "But if we have a plan that we have community support for ... and they have a plan for how to finance it, I'd absolutely support it."

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis says preventing school closings is only one of many reasons to support the model.

"I've followed the community-schools model for years, and I've tried to talk to the district about it for years," Esposito-Visgitis says. "It helps teachers; it takes away a lot of problems and makes education and learning a priority. I can't tell you how many teachers have offered to have their schools be a pilot."

Some parents don't have the knowledge or time needed to take advantage of the social services that are available, Esposito-Visgitis says. Putting these services in schools, instead of having them scattered throughout the community, makes them easier for parents to access.