Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School has all the physical markers of a traditional campus. Lockers line the hallways, colorful signs with words of encouragement dot the walls and squirrelly preteens hang about.

But once class starts, and after it ends, there are some notable differences. In settings like Jennifer Founds 8th grade English and history classes, worksheets and rote memorization is replaced with project-based assignments that require students to go out into the real world and apply lessons to problems in their own community.

The secret sauce at MLK isn’t only in the projects, but in relationships the school brokers between students and community groups, government entities and social services that tie back to teaching and learning.

Schools across San Francisco embody elements of community schools, which aim to assess students’ needs and bring in outside services ranging from dental care to Medi-Cal assistance to arts and music programming while building deeper connections to students and families. The strategy has been around for many years and builds off of ideas behind the federally funded 21st Century Learning Centers. In San Francisco, other programs such as the anti-poverty education initiative Mission Promise and the extended learning-focused Beacon Initiative share similar goals.

“As a teacher, it’s really easy for me to identify needs. Maybe I know a family that doesn’t have enough food right now or is struggling with homelessness. Or a kid needs glasses. But it is not always my area of expertise to connect them with services,” Founds said. “In becoming a community school, all of a sudden we have resources coming into the school and more connections.”

A reason for hope within S.F.’s lowest-income schools

Jennifer Founds, an 8th-grade teacher in English language arts and social studies, says she has found success with the community school approach. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

While project-based pedagogy has been growing popular around the state and country, the idea is often hindered if students lack the resources necessary for learning and basic needs at home. To change that at MLK, where more than 70% of students are low-income and nearly a third are English learners, the school began employing what’s called a community school strategy in the 2015-16 school year.

Through a pandemic that continues to disrupt life and learning, advocates in the school say it’s been critical alongside other efforts to keep students and their parents engaged with learning by bringing community services into the school itself.

It’s led to lessons like ones led by Health Initiatives for Youth, a San Francisco organization that provides health-focused workshops and enrichment programs spanning topics such as sexual health and harm reduction. The program offered virtual lessons during the pandemic when overdose deaths were skyrocketing in particular among low-income neighborhoods around The City.

This year, the group comes to the school once a week to teach a health curriculum to students and discuss touchy health topics.

“There are lots of families that don’t have enough resources, there’s trauma in the community, and that’s all coming into the school building,” said Founds. “Our social safety net is frayed and that shows.”

One of Founds’ assignments asked students to research social movements and controversial monuments, and propose a new monument that would inspire positive change.

Working with local artists and the school’s community partner MindCatcher, an organization that helps educators design student-led learning environments, a group of about 20 students proposed and painted a mural illustrating parts of their heritage, dreams and futures.

“The students came up with their concept and they picked out things that matter to them for the mural. I did a spray paint tutorial, but my job was mainly just to help them with their ideas,” said artist Christopher Williams.

When Founds began teaching at MLK eight years ago, she said fights regularly broke out in class. Getting students to write a single paragraph was often a battle. “The overall level of learning was pretty low,” she said.

School leaders say more frequently assessing and addressing basic needs with the help of outside experts has been a key fixture of the school and has helped improve school climate and student outcomes. The school has also been using de-escalation and “push-in” strategies rather than pulling students out of class if they are disruptive.

Between the 2014-15 and 2019-20 school years, the most recent year data is available, suspensions at MLK dropped by nearly 85%, going from nearly 120 to 18. Teacher turnover also has dropped dramatically at the school.

“Those community-based organizations help students engage in academics but also provide social-emotional resources. It starts to become a more manageable situation when you have more people coming together,” Founds said.

Grant opportunity

Now, California is pumping $3 billion to thousands of schools in low-income neighborhoods to expand the community school model that MLK and a handful of other SFUSD schools employ.

The effort was funded in the current state budget. Grants of up to $500,000 to be spent over five years will be distributed to districts for new and existing community schools.

The funding opportunity has city and school district leaders’ ears perked as SFUSD faces a massive $125 budget deficit and declining enrollment.

“Something we have been thinking is how to get more resources in schools and build on the success of community school models. This grant would be a phenomenal opportunity when we are facing massive budget deficits and teacher layoffs,” said Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who recently convened a hearing about expanding the model in San Francisco. “One indicator of a successful school is an organized parent base and their level of engagement and integrating priorities from a surrounding community. That’s what a community school does.”

Specific offerings vary by school site. Buena Vista Horace Mann, another community school in San Francisco, works with Dolores Street Community Services to offer an overnight program for students and families experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.

Key to the approach is having a robust method of assessing students’ and families’ needs, whether that is in the form of surveys, home visits or frequent phone check-ins. At MLK, that work is done by a community school coordinator.

“A lot of schools have elements of community schools,” said Leslie Hu, community school coordinator at MLK. “The missing piece is the alignment across the school community and having someone to do that work.”

A reason for hope within S.F.’s lowest-income schools

Leslie Hu, a community school coordinator and social worker at Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School, works to identify and fill student needs. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Hu’s role involves surveying students and parents throughout the school year and bringing in community groups to the school that can help fill those needs. Such surveys have led to dentists being brought on campus for check-ups and talks with students about oral hygiene. Prior to the pandemic, surveys showed students were struggling to access healthy food at home. So the school brought in a nutritional expert to lead a cooking class tied to the findings.

Currently, three campuses in SFUSD have community school coordinators: Buena Vista Horace Mann, Mission Education Center Elementary School and MLK. One goal with the statewide funding opportunity would be to grow that number across the district.

Meanwhile, 27 schools have Beacon programs, which similarly work with community-based organizations to provide after-school, weekend and summer learning for kids in San Francisco public schools.

MLK has a Beacon program, which is funded through The City, and often the work of connecting with community partners overlaps. But funding from the state would go directly toward SFUSD, not the Beacon program.

“People think community schools is something you can hang on the hat of one person and you really can’t. It’s a group effort and trust has to be built,” said Carol Hill, executive director of the San Francisco Beacon Initiative.

“The money coming down preferences one model,” she said. “We have been here doing this work for a long time, you don’t need a Beacon director. It might be a school with a parent who is doing this work or a vice principal. It’s not a title; it’s actually building the relationships that are inclusive of all of the voices.”

Many of those who have been part of the community school movement from the get-go in San Francisco agreed.

“Community schools should not be a cottage industry or boutique way of thinking about schools, but the way we believe schools should operate. All schools should be community schools,” said Hayin Kimner, project director for the statewide Community Schools Learning Exchange, with works with schools and districts to implement the model.

Kimner, who served as the director of community schools in SFUSD from 2012-15, emphasizes that running a community school is not the same thing as simply offering a resource hub. Successful implementation requires connecting services and outcomes from needs assessments to the classroom as well.

“It’s not just a handoff or providing services in under-resourced communities,” she said. “It needs an explicit tie to teaching and learning, and tie to mental health well-being for students and teachers.”

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