One wouldn’t know it now, but Baltimore embraced the community schools strategy years ago. (If you want to raise the hackles of an advocate, refer to community schools as a “project” or a “program.” Proponents like to emphasize that community schools are a whole new way of looking at the function of school, not simply a new component tacked on to an existing structure.) In 2000, a group of volunteers formed the Baltimore Coalition for Community Schools and took to lobbying city administrators, nonprofits, and other local power brokers. Interest gradually built, and in 2003, advocates created Baltimore Community School Connections (BCSC), an organization that provided technical assistance to developing community schools. By 2005, Baltimore was sending a delegation of 40 people—including then-City Council President Sheila Dixon—to the national community schools conference in Chicago. That same year, then-Mayor Martin O’Malley created the first official community schools in Baltimore. There were 46 of them, at least on paper.
In most other cities, community schools had emerged slowly, school by school. But Baltimore decided to go for broke and create many community schools at once, primarily by transforming existing schools that already had some outside partnerships. Partly as a result, the city was briefly in the national spotlight. “Everybody came to Baltimore because we were like trailblazers,” says Jessica Strauss, one of the chief catalysts behind the coalition and the community schools movement in Baltimore. “We were considered national leaders in this work,” agrees Lisa Bleich, who worked for BCSC for three years, starting in 2005. “We were asked to give Community Schools 101.”
Now, 10 years after the formation of the coalition, Baltimore’s pioneering community schools initiative is, by many estimates, nearly deflated. The BCSC is defunct and city funding for the initiative has dropped substantially since the early years. Only 20 schools in the city are officially community schools, and early champions of the effort say that few of these truly fit the model. Many community school coordinators—the on-site air-traffic controllers who make sure the services in a community school mesh and address student needs—agree that the initiative has not lived up to the dream. Even as the term is becoming a buzzword in education circles, some supporters fear that the community schools movement in Baltimore may have outlived its glory days.
And you could probably write another article about the deflated advocates of whatever initiative community schools displaced, and a dozen other similar sidebars. Just for Baltimore. And do the same thing in every big city in America.
That's what working in an urban school district feels like.