This school year was tough on everyone: parents, students, teachers and school leaders. But it was disproportionately hard on communities of color. High rates of COVID-19, poor access to healthcare, food insecurity, lost wages, threats of eviction, racial violence… the list goes on.
The traumatic events families have endured over the last year are among the key factors that cause children to experience “toxic stress.” Research shows that toxic stress can derail student learning and delay child development. So as educators prepare to fully reopen next school year, we must design supportive school communities and classrooms that truly care for the whole child.
To fully engage in their learning, children must feel safe, valued and understood. We cannot accelerate learning when kids return to campus if we don’t put relationships at the center of our school models. And one model provides a blueprint for how public schools can build back stronger: Community schools.
Community schools are like a neighborhood nerve center for families. They coordinate with local support programs to address the full-range of possible learning barriers including health care, food assistance, counseling services, housing assistance and more. They emphasize authentic family engagement and understand that a strong relationship between family and school is the backbone of child development. And community schools provide students with extended learning time and experiential learning activities designed to help students take more ownership of their education and foster more joy in learning.
Community schools are not a new concept. There are community schools scattered across the Golden State. Recently, over 100 education agencies applied for funding from the California Department of Education to expand or sustain existing community schools. Just 20 programs were awarded funding in this highly competitive program. Two of those leaders are here in San Jose: the Santa Clara County Office of Education and Rocketship Public Schools.
Cultivating a strong connection with families has been a top priority at Rocketship Public Schools since we opened our first school 14 years ago. I was a founding teacher at that first campus. I still remember doing home visits with every family in my class at the start of the school year. And to this day, every fall, all Rocketship teachers visit the homes of every student they serve. Annual home visits are an essential part of our community school model.
The last 14 months have underscored the importance of our relationship-centered school model and highlighted critical ways we can grow stronger. This year, in addition to our mental health professional at every campus, we are hiring a dedicated team member at every school to provide case management support and care coordination across our community partners to deepen our wraparound support for students and families.
After a year of school closures, parents, educators and policymakers are understandably concerned about “learning loss.” But catching up on reading and math is not what’s keeping our educators up at night. With the majority of our students at Rocketship Public Schools now back on campus, our educators are seeing firsthand the trauma inflicted by both the pandemic and ongoing racial violence. The long-term risk to our kids’ future is the social, emotional and psychological toll of the last year and a half. To accelerate student learning, we must prioritize the needs of the whole child.
In every crisis there is an opportunity. We can use this crisis to transform our public schools into more supportive and joyful learning communities that ensure all students are prepared to thrive no matter what the future holds. We can build stronger and more resilient kids and communities by investing in community schools.
Maricela Guerrero is the executive director of Rocketship Public Schools Bay Area and leads a network of 13 public elementary schools. Guerrero launched her career in elementary education over 20 years ago and was a founding teacher at the very first Rocketship school, Rocketship Mateo Sheedy, where she later became principal.