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Community Learning Centers Will Help Ohio School Districts

May 21, 2020

Earlier this month, Gov. Mike DeWine announced $355 million in budget cuts for K-12 education for the last two months of this fiscal year. While these cuts are mitigated by federal funds under the CARES Act, the majority of Ohio school districts will lose funding overall. The public education community is bracing ourselves for even deeper cuts next year, with no guarantee of further federal support. School districts may be forced to cut spending on teachers, staff, equipment, and other needs.

At the same time, our students’ academic, emotional, and physical needs are greater than ever due to the challenges of remote learning and remote delivery of services that were previously received at school. Our students are dealing with increased stress, trauma, and grief due to the pandemic. And because our communities have a disparate level of access to technology, some of our students are struggling more and receiving less support than their peers elsewhere in the state.

Our schools will need to leverage all resources that are available to them — from within their district, from local, state, and federal government, and from community partners — to meet the needs of our students and effectively do more with less.

There is already a proven model for doing this: Community Learning Centers. The Community Learning Center model is built on the principle that public schools are natural neighborhood hubs of educational, cultural, and health resources. Each Community Learning Center is both a place, and a set of partnerships and relationships that provide resources and services based on the assets and needs of each school community.

We don’t have to travel far to find a great example of this model. Cincinnati Public Schools have been better prepared to deal with the COVID-19 public health emergency and school closures because of the Community Learning Center model within their school district.

Through school-based health centers and tele-health services, online early childhood instruction, food pantries filled with donations from community and business partnerships, free Wi-Fi hot spots, legal aid, and more, the Community Learning Center model has given CPS students and families the resources they need to get through this crisis together.

Roberts Academy, a pre-K through 8th grade school in Cincinnati, educates more than 800 students, the majority of whom are immigrants or refugees. Their school building may be closed but the Community Learning Center team is working seven days a week. Tracy Power, a Resource Coordinator with the Community Learning Center Institute (CLCI), organizes Roberts’ many public and non-profit partnerships that make up their community learning center. Power leads a team of partners, volunteers, and teachers that has called each of the school’s families to check in, identify needs, and connect kids and families with services and programming.

At Roberts’ school-based health center, which serves the community in addition to the school, Nicole DeGreg from the Cincinnati Health Department is providing medical care on-site and offering tele-medicine services. Early childhood learning continues remotely, led by Maria Rivera from Learning Grove, a non-profit partner, as does enrichment, led by Kerissa Hicks from CLCI. Attorney Julie Leftwich, who heads the Immigrant and Refugee Law Center at Roberts, is still providing services to the school’s families. Welcome Center director Antonio Fernandez from CLCI works closely with Carlos Guzman, community coordinator with CPS, to stay engaged with families, identify needs, and connect people with needed services.

Despite working for different organizations, this group meets weekly and operates as one team, united by the Community Learning Center model.

Though they don’t all provide the same services, Roberts is just one of dozens of community learning centers in Cincinnati, and their health center is just one of 25 school-based health centers throughout the city. Even as school buildings have closed, some school-based health centers have remained open, moving many services to tele-health.

Community Learning Centers are not for crises only. They are how we should structure education even in the best of times. This model deals with the everyday, real life that is in our schools. Because Cincinnati already has the structure and relationships in place, they were able to quickly respond in an emergency situation.

The Ohio Federation of Teachers has been supporting the growth of the Community Learning Center model across Ohio, because we know that a long-term commitment to community learning centers boosts student achievement, closes racial and economic achievement gaps, and leads to better attendance and disciplinary outcomes. In partnership with the Ohio School Boards Association and the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, we are building a statewide learning network of school districts and communities across the state exploring and implementing the CLC model.

School districts need to be able to make the investment in the Community Learning Center model to be able to form these partnerships and provide benefits to students and their families.

A starting point for expanding community learning centers would be to provide funding for a community engagement process in every district, and resource coordinators at every school, who would build and maintain partnerships with local businesses and nonprofits.

Harnessing those resources can help our schools and our communities weather this storm. And maintaining those partnerships, even when not in crisis, will help students overcome barriers to learning.

Now more than ever, we need to break down the walls between organizations and sectors, and work collaboratively to take care of one another and solve problems together. The pandemic has brought people together, and collaboration and cooperation in this moment can build the foundation for the CLC model in the future.

This article by Melissa Cropper, President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT), was first published by the Ohio Capital Journal, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to connecting Ohioans to their state government and its impact on their lives.

Community learning centers will help school districts cope with COVID-19 disruption

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Dawn’s Story

I am a public school teacher in Oberlin, Ohio. As I do year after year, I had my fifth-graders write editorials for the Newspaper in Education contest sponsored by our local Chronicle-Telegram newspaper. And as I always do, I gave the students free choice to choose their topics and to come up with their own polished submissions.

When so many of them started writing about testing, I freaked out a little because prior to this month’s AIR testing, I had rarely even mentioned the topic to them, refusing to stress them out about the upcoming three weeks of testing. I sent some of their work to our principal with a note that said, in so many words, “Holy smokes, look at what these kids are saying. I promise that I haven’t been stressing them out about these tests!” She wrote back saying she thought their submissions sounded just fine.

I’m so thankful to have a principal who values our students’ feelings.

When I talked to the kids about the testing, I told them how surprised I was by their topic choices and asked why they were feeling so worried. After all, I told them, I had barely mentioned the topic and told them I’d be the last person to put pressure on them or try to stress them out. One student told me, “You are working with the wrong kids, Mrs. Randall. You don’t have to stress us out. We stress ourselves out enough for all of us.”

They then started sharing stories about last year’s PARCC test, when they tested on and off from February through May when they were in 4th-grade. They shared about how scared they were that they wouldn’t pass the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee reading test the year before that and then fail the entire year. Ohio legislation is insane.

But worst of all, one student said, “This is the third new kind of test we’ve had in three years. When will Ohio get this right?”

This same student was the one who took it upon himself to go to the Ohio Department of Education website on his Chromebook and research his topic and find out that some schools were able to still do paper/pencil tests, and he was pretty upset that he couldn’t.

I sent a note to the newspaper staff member about all their submissions and she told me to please not censor their writing, but to send it all in. She wanted to see it all.

Today, I opened the newspaper supplement to these two student submissions ruling a whole spread. Apparently, the judges heard them loud and clear and felt their words needed to be heard by our community.

All this high-stakes testing is really starting to take a toll on kids. When will our legislature hear and care about their voices?

Each child in my class is the SAME child who has been forced to sit through high-stakes testing year after year after year. When will enough be enough?

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