Excitement for the future is palpable in the Anaheim Union High School District, where 13 schools, serving approximately 20,000 students, are growing into community schools. After a swift application process closing in May, AUHSD received a $23.275 million California Department of Education grant distributed over five years, part of a $4.1 billion statewide commitment to community schools, the largest in the nation.

The teachers union – the Anaheim Secondary Teachers Association  – parents, administrators, community partners, and the school board are working together to transform 13 schools through collective leadership and shared responsibility. The vision of thriving students, families, and communities is at the heart of community schools work, and it is among some of the most transformational work happening in public education today.  

Educational research shows that community schools improve student attendance, graduation rates, behavior issues and academic outcomes, particularly in communities impacted by economic and racial inequities. The community school approach is grounded in an understanding that students bring their entire humanity and experience to school and learning – they cannot leave their lives, aspirations, and struggles at the door, nor should they. Community schools seek to understand and grow with the hopes and needs of students and families.

Around the state and country, community schools are as diverse as the neighborhoods they serve. Some provide medical services, tutoring, academic support, job placement services, courses for parents, food pantries, childcare, and more. Community schools recognize that a student’s academic success is deeply entangled with their physical, social, and emotional health.

Each community school has an on-site team that leverages the collective wisdom of students, parents, educators, and community organizational partners to craft their unique vision of thriving students and families. This includes identifying and delivering on needs of a neighborhood through wrap-around services, academic support and enrichment, family and community engagement, and democratic decision-making. Beyond boosting student outcomes, the goal is to engage and uplift families and neighborhoods.

Perhaps most powerfully, community schools require the participation of voices often left out of school-wide decision-making – the voices of Black, Latino, Native, and Asian students and families. Most of us were distanced from shaping the educational opportunities that would frame our futures. In community schools, the unique gifts, contributions, and aspirations of students and families are honored to collectively imagine futures for our schools where all students, families, and communities thrive. Work ahead includes interviewing, surveying and deeply listening to parents, students, educators, and partners.

As our vision broadens to include voices of all partners, school cultures change for the better. Hiring a new principal at Sycamore Junior High School last year included two public community forums where students and families voiced their expectations and hopes. Portable classrooms provide space for free farmer’s markets and classes for adults. There’s a community refrigerator, a center for families to connect with resources, and a full-time community schools coordinator at each site facilitating the relationships, programs, and supports for students and families. This is only the beginning of a growing vision for the community school at Sycamore Junior High.

Success will require an ongoing shift that won’t happen overnight. It’s going to take the work of all of us to achieve safe, democratic, just, and responsive neighborhood schools for all. With two historically challenging school years behind us, these community schools in the Anaheim Union High School District are starting this school year with potential, hope, and promise.

Grant Schuster is the President of the Anaheim Secondary Teachers Association and lives in Long Beach.

Anat Herzog, a former educator, is a member of Los Amigos of Orange County, an Anaheim-based community organization focused on racial and economic justice. She lives in Orange.

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