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Community Schools

Brass Tacks

By David Blumenthal

THE LAST YEAR and a half has not been a happy time for advocates of community control of ghetto schools. They have fought the school establishment in skirmishes and battles across the country, and their enemy has proved wiley and stubborn.

There have been gains of course. Even Boston's petrified school administration has cracked at the extremities and yielded up a few experiments in community involvement (not control): most notable is the King-Timilty decentralized district, in which a Parent Council advises the school system on the operation of two Roxbury junior highs. Repeated confrontations have radicalized increasing numbers of the ghetto's sleeping residents, with black students themselves among the most militant and least controllable.

But for all the sound and fury, the ground gained seems scarcely worth the cost. Where they've been won, experimental projects have never granted ghetto communities the hire and fire power they want, and few if any of the pilot "community schools" have hit public systems where they are most sensitive: in the purse. Boston's experimental district, like the three demonstration districts in New York City, has been funded by outside money, in this case a federal grant. The Office of Education offered Boston 1.5 million dollars over three years if it would give up some of its control to the parent advisory council which wrote the proposal for the money. No School Committee could refuse that kind of money and stay in office.

When reformers have tried to go beyond these small initiatives, they have suffered outright defeats. The efforts of Ocean Hill-Brownsville are one example, but even in Philadelphia, where a dynamic school superintendent committed his prestige to expanding community involvement, the school bureaucracy stifled community efforts. In May, 1968, Mark Shedd, the Philadelphia superintendent, was forced to evade community groups' demand for control of a local school by setting up a commission to study their request--after he had promised a year and a half earlier that greater control was on the way.

Against these uncertain advances must be stacked their price for black community and urban social stability. Confrontations may have radicalized blacks, but they have also deprived black children of weeks an months of schooling. The King school in Roxbury was closed down for most of November and December after rioting students repeatedly provoked police occupation of their school. New York City has never been closer to anarchy than it was during last fall's teacher strike, and white reaction to the strike seems likely to doom meaningful action in the New York legislature on the community control question. The combined votes of Nixon and Wallace in the last election speak for themselves.

Involved blacks are well aware of the meagre results of community control campaign, and a new note of pessimism has slipped in to the rhetoric of some community activists. "In Ocean Hill," says Fred Holliday, an intense, soft-spoken black who was special assistant to Shedd for two years, "blacks proved the white man isn't giving up any power." And Toye Lewis, Education coordinator for the New Urban League in Boston calmly echoes his words: "I don't think we're going to be able to achieve in major cities any semblance of community control."

BUT IF BLACK LEADERS are sadder, they are also wiser. The major lesson they've drawn form the last year's experience seems to be that blacks are going to have to be more resourceful in their efforts to save their children from early graves. Direct seizure of the white man's system was too simple. The emphasis now is on imagination and "alternatives" is the key word. "We can't take control of any damn system," says Holliday with quite bitterness. "It has got to be an alternative system."

The idea of creating alternatives to the public school system is not new. Kenneth Clark among others had long argued that the only way to educate the present generation of black children and to pressure the school system into long range reforms was to create as many different kinds of school systems as possible: schools run by the military, by industry, by the state governments, by the federal government, by anyone who was willing to give it a try. Naturally, everyone hasn't jumped at once.

But black hopes for ways out of public schools systems are not as quixotic as they seem. Recent years have seen the start of hundreds of community tutoring programs--most financed and run by community members in local storefronts. Even more intriguing has been the quiet rise of independent ghetto schools--not ad hoc, extra-school programs, but functioning substitutes for ghetto public schools. With their attacks on the school system stalemated, blacks seem to be turning back on their own resources with a new determination. Their infant efforts may not prove educational miracles--it is still too early to tell how well they are educating children, and the financial problems they face are immense. But these new community schools at least offer ample evidence of the political potential of community-run institutions--possibilities which whites would do well to keep in mind when they ponder their own alienation from the organizations which run their lives.

No one knows precisely how many community schools exist at the moment, though almost every major city seems to have at least one. Boston's New School for Children, now nestled in a tidy green and brown house near the Dudley St. station, seems to have been among the nation's first. After it got started in September of 1966, the Roxbury Community School and the Highland Park Free School followed, giving Boston a total of three. New York has at least two community schools, San Francisco one, Philadelphia one, and so on.

The schools themselves have yet to make any significant impact on school systems or on the mass of ghetto populations. None goes beyond elementary school (though most have ambitions to expand further) and Philadelphia's Mantua-Powelton Mini School probably tops the enrollment figures with 150 students. Since they draw no funds and only small numbers of children from the public schools, school administrators can afford to ignore them. The difficulty of raising funds (most schools depend on private contributions and community fund drives for money, though some get occasional boosts from federal or foundation grants) has effectively limited the number of schools which any community can support. And even community politicians are often suspicious of the schools, fearing they will turn into imitations of white private schools or draw off angry parents from campaigns against the larger system. The fact that virually all the new efforts are integrated (through predominately black or Puerto Rican) has not eased relations with militant ghetto leaders either.

ALL THESE PROBLEMS have not deflated the surging optimism of the people associated with the schools. Though a number hope for state or federal help in expanding present experiments into real community systems, even those who despair of such aid feel they are making invaluable contributions to education and to their communities.

They feel to begin with that they are educating some children--however small the number--who would otherwise have been destroyed by an oppressive system. More important for the long run, they feel they are making valuable experiments with new methods of education--a service which public schools have long since ceased to perform. Finally, they claim to be perfecting models of ghetto community schools which can be adapted to public systems, if and when the musty corridors are opened to fresh air.

From a strictly educational point of view, it is hard to tell how well the schools are doing--but only because they are living up to their claims of being genuinely innovative. The great majority of community projects have adopted a highly experimental program developed in British primary schools and used there with great success. The British program is the antithesis of highly structured, authoritarian public school techniques. Community schools permit even kindergarten children large amounts of freedom in choosing what they want to study. Children flow freely between age-grouping according to ability and inclination. Grading is anathema and testing itself is frowned upon. Most of the schools are just now getting around to evaluating the achievement of their students, using tests specially developed for the British Primary School model.

Bu even if community schools have not been tagged and packaged acording to conventional educational standards, the most casual classroom visitor cannot resist an overpowering feeling that the schools are immensely successful. The feeling is probably caused by features which are as much political as curricular. Community school children are alert and resourceful. They like to come to school (white public schools must fight staggering absentee problems). Above all, they seem happy. Why? Because the schools are filled with people who know them intimately and like them. In community schools, the community is part of the school and the school is part of the community.

COMMUNITY SCHOOLS in Roxbury, New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia are demonstrating daily that parents with minimal education can govern schools and govern them well. They are also proving that even the poorest ghetto community can offer valuable and inexpensive education resources to anyone who makes the effort to recruit them.

Virtually all the community schools place ultimate authority in a parent council, usually including all the school's parents, and a parent executive board. Some schools are more purist than others about how much power should be delegated to hired school directors, and how much the council should involved itself in day-to-day matters. Usually, the more intimate and limited the community served, the more jealous are parents of their power. Both the Roxbury Community School and the East Harlem Block Schools a community school in New York's East Harlem, serve circumscribed areas and have nosy parent groups. The New School for children, which drawn students from all over Roxbury, leaves considerably more discretion in the hands of headmistress Joyce Grant.

Parent boards have amazed professional with the speed with which they learn the skills of managing schools and raising funds. "They stop things," says Tony Ward, the articulate, mustachioed director of the East Harlem Block Schools, "for reasons that make sense." Parents, for their part, have learned a healthy cynicism about the advice of professionals and a confidence in their own judgement. Most community groups had the help of professional educators in starting their schools, but learned to guard their own authority. "Professionals sat down in our living room and we insisted on retaining control," says Ellen Fields, one of the founders of the Roxbury Community Schools. "Many felt this was unfair, but some stuck with us."

IT HAS BEEN A SHORT STEP from building confidence to agitating for more general reforms. The Roxbury Community school has organized rent strikes in its Roxbury-Dorchester community. The Children's Community School in New York City regularly sends delegates to New York School Board hearings, and the Harlem Black Schools have been fighting various regulations of New York City's Division of Day Care, which helps fund the school.

Community schools have bolstered community power and education in more tangible ways as well. All of them hire and pay community and parent aides, some as classroom assistants, other as full time teachers. The practice not only brings federal and suburban (gift) money into ghettos, but often encourages uneducated ghetto residents to return to school. The Roxbury Community School offers night courses in which Northeastern and B.U. teachers help parents toward high school diplomas to teacher certification.

The spirit of constructive cooperation and egalitarianism which surrounds community schools has suggestive parallels in an institution characteristic of a very different culture and environment: the Israeli Kibbutz. Bruno Bettleheim, the psychiatrist, has suggested that nothing short of lifting ghetto children out of the ghetto environment, and placing them in a "comprehensive" environment conducive to learning, can quickly boost ghetto children to an educational parity with whites. Bettleheim pointed to the kibbutz as the kind of communal surrounding capable of accomplishing such an effort. The community school ethos may be able to capture the best of the kibbutz and the best of the ghetto as well.

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