Rebuilding Trust Through Community Schools
by SaJade Miller, Rocketship Texas Superintendent
An abridged version of this piece ran in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Frustration and fear. Those are the dominant forces shaping our experience with public education since COVID-19 took hold two years ago. Of course, parents, teachers, students, and administrators are both frustrated by and fearful of different things. Mask wearing, vaccination mandates, and remote learning all elicit different, and often emotional, responses.
Finding common ground to forge a path forward feels all but impossible lately. But the challenges we are confronting today are symptoms of a much deeper problem. If left untreated, it won’t just fade away when this pandemic ends.
Great schools are relationship-centered. But in too many schools those relationships have been allowed to atrophy.
Fundamentally, relationships are about trust. And judging by the steep decline in enrollment in public schools across the nation, including here in Fort Worth, parents are losing trust in their local schools.
If we want to restore trust in our public schools, then we need to re-balance the power structure between parents, teachers, and students. We need to rebuild relationships by centering our work on our shared purpose – to give every child every opportunity they deserve to make the most of their life. And we can do so by embracing a proven strategy in public education – the “community school” model.
Community schools are public schools that serve as “the hub of its neighborhood, uniting families, educators and community partners…to promote equity and educational excellence for each and every child, and an approach that strengthens families and community,” (Coalition for Community Schools). Community schools understand that students can not show up fully in the classroom if their needs outside the classroom are not being met. That is why they coordinate with local support programs to address the full-range of possible learning barriers including healthcare, food assistance, counseling services, housing assistance, and more. And they emphasize authentic family engagement and understand that a strong relationship between family and school is the backbone of child development.
Building strong relationships between family and school requires more than community meetings, teacher conferences, and the typical ways schools tend to engage families on school-based terms. It requires educators to get out into the community to deeply understand the whole context of your student so you can truly serve the whole child.
When I was principal of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School I required every staff member at my school to take an immersive tour of the Stop Six neighborhood. I have deep, proud multigenerational roots in Stop Six and I knew it was essential that my staff built an authentic connection to the community we served. It was important for them to understand the rich cultural capital of our community to create a culturally responsive learning environment at our school. Staff visited the Center for Stop Six Heritage and took a bus tour to identify historical landmarks and key housing within the community. Staff were also required to meet with prominent pastors and civic leaders, partner with the alumni association, and engage in community service. In addition to developing an appreciation of the rich history of our community, staff took note of various challenges our families faced including the food desert in the neighborhood.
I felt strongly, and still do today, that educators can not (and frankly, should not) serve their students if they do not first understand the community that their students call home.
During the school year, my team and I would do home visits with students we identified as high-risk. We learned that by showing up for our kids, at their doorstep, those kids would start showing up more at school – in both their attendance and engagement in class.
At the time, I didn’t know what we were doing at Dunbar High were features of the “community school” model and that an increasing body of evidence showed this model is a proven strategy for equitable school improvement. Simply put, community schools put relationships at the center of their school model. And this is the school model we are bringing to Stop Six when we open the first Rocketship Public Schools Texas elementary school on Berry Street next August.
We haven’t even opened our doors yet (actually, we don’t even have doors on our brand new school building currently under construction) and the power of the relationships we are building with families is already taking shape. It’s not something you can measure, but not everything that matters can be measured. Yet I knew our approach was truly taking root when one of our founding parents, Yolanda Seban, told me “I know the difference between well-intentioned organizations with prescriptive approaches and those that truly serve the needs of our community by listening to our needs, treating us as equals, and showing us the dignity and respect we deserve. Every neighborhood deserves a Rocketship, a place where parents are given a voice and real input in shaping what their child’s educational journey will look like.”
I agree with Yolanda, every neighborhood deserves a community school. I hope the Rocketship Public School we are launching in Stop Six can be an exemplar for other schools. As a public school, our doors will always be open to anyone who wants to learn from our model to help improve the entire ecosystem of public education in Tarrant County. By working together, we can use this crisis to transform our public schools into more supportive and joyful learning communities that become those “neighborhood hubs.” We can rebuild trust and create stronger and more resilient kids and communities by harnessing the power of community schools.
SaJade Miller is the Superintendent of Rocketship Public Schools Texas. Mr. Miller previously served as Chief of Schools for DeSoto Independent School District where he oversaw the learning of nearly 9,000 students. As Assistant Superintendent of Innovation for Fort Worth ISD, he led the district’s “Transformation Zone” portfolio of 11 schools and several key initiatives to create new schools and improve existing options as a part of the Texas Education Agency’s “System of Great Schools Network.” Mr. Miller is a proven education leader with deep ties to the Stop 6 neighborhood, the same community where Rocketship Texas will open its first campus in August 2022.
Published on February 20, 2022