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Learning at its Best

Places for Healing: Schools as Community Centers

“ Nothing in this universe exists alone. Every drop of water, every human being, all creatures in the web of life and all ideas in the web of knowledge are part of an immense, evolving, dynamic whole as old, and as young , as the universe itself.”

-Symbiosis 1982

Schools are institutions of so much possibility, a place for developing young minds for better or for worse. During my interview with Marquett , he spoke a great deal about the way many charter schools in low-income communities of color have taken the stance of isolation. Many of them attempt to create an island of their own, acting as a fortress in the community. Taking such a stance speaks a hidden language to students and community members that articulates the following:

1.    Your community isn’t good enough. Yes we are preparing you to be scholars and we want you to be college bound however, you must leave your community behind. If you do not separate yourself from your community, you will be failures just like the rest of them.

2.    Your community is a deficit. Why would our school be a part of it? It has no assets to give. Our institution has the knowledge and the power. Nothing of value can be discovered outside of it.

3.    Your community does not understand: Most of its members are uneducated and impoverished anyway. They will resent academic advancement along with the institution that provides it.

In my upcoming interview with Kirsten Olson (stay tuned!), she discussed how this is a colonialist mentality and I could not agree more. Sending these non-verbal messages to our children does nothing to boost their self-esteem and sets them light years behind in terms of achieving self-actualization. You cannot ignore or be ashamed of where you come from. If a school promotes this mentality, it speaks the language of domination. If the neighboring community is not incorporated into a child’s learning environment, the education is inauthentic and an all-around farce. For one second, let’s re-imagine when a community school can be. Mary Driscoll states it best:

“We want to imagine the possibilities of schools that do not see themselves succeeding in spite of the community, but rather that envision themselves as key institutional players of the development of the community.” (2001) 

School should be viewed as an asset to the entire community rather than a service provided strictly to the children who attend. When we think in terms of property value, it is easy to see how valuable schools can be. Home buying decisions can be dictated by the quality of the neighborhood school. However, once we think in terms of low-income communities, this notion seems to go out the window. Many times, we view school as a “safe zone,” a place of solace to escape the chaos and danger of the surrounding community. This mentality is backward and self-defeating. The children are reflections of the community they live in, as are the parents. Children bring their home realities into the classroom on a daily basis and it is not something that should be ignored. You cannot erase their histories and home lives by simply placing them in a classroom and uniform. The school should be treated as a community center, a key collaborator and helpful resource to the entire community.

Once a school is known for offering services to the entire community, it will be respected and revered. Let’s quit trying to ignore day-to-day realities. Instead, why don’t we collaborate and create places for healing? This might sound super lovey dovey and pie in the sky, but practices show that this method truly does work. Its formal name is asset mapping and it encompasses a very powerful yet simple element: focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. According to Paul Green and Anna Haines, “The asset-based approach builds on the experiences and interests of individuals and communities and matches with the needs and opportunities of the region.”

Many organizations and forward thinking schools are turning to asset-mapping to create the most impact. Asset mapping enables an institution to truly examine all elements of the community and to draw on strengths to fulfill its mission. It also helps communities respond to needs by discovering their natural assets in people, places, and things. In a nutshell, no person, or space is worthless. Everything has something to contribute. Asset mapping enables institutions to examine possibilities never seen before. Some community assets that are useful to map out include: education  institutions, service organizations, businesses, citizens groups and associations,  citizens with special talents or capacities, stakeholders in the community, etc.

Hmmm, I wonder how many schools use the asset mapping approach? I’m sure some do, but I also know that many do not. This makes all the difference in the level of engagement you will see not only in the students, but the parents as well. Asset mapping provides an opportunity for local citizens to have a place “at the table” and experience what it is like to play a meaningful role in community development. If you want the community to value your institution, you first need to demonstrate that you value them.

Motto for the day?: “Collaboration instead of Colonization.”


About daretheschool

I like to keep an eye on our shifting world and the way it is shaping our education system.


4 thoughts on “Places for Healing: Schools as Community Centers

  1. I think your analysis of school-as-fortress is well articulated.

    How would you implement asset-mapping in, say, a small urban division with charter schools in place? How could we use asset-mapping to create a third-way school in communities that consider one type of school as asset, but not the other? What happens in communities that value test scores? Should a democratic process like asset-mapping be “allowed” to end in a capitalist way?

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 13, 2011, 1:09 pm
    • Thank you for your questions Chad. They certainly do give me a lot to think about. Well….I say that you do what you can.I don’t want to say that a KIPP school or an Uncommon school fails all students because I know many students and parents that are happy with this model. However, a problem arises when it becomes the only alternative…the “best way” to educate kids. At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding. If a school is training students to become critical thinkers and active agents in their community, this will attract interest and attention. If the school becomes a valuable name in the community due to it’s high level of engagement, questions will arise like “what are the doing?” “why is this school so utilized in the community?” Just seeing another school model working, may inspire administrators to re think their systems. I

      Posted by daretheschool | September 16, 2011, 7:23 am
  2. Peter Senge’s book, Schools That Learn, has a great section on asset mapping communities that fits nicely into your discussion.

    This recent article supports your ideas as well, but from a rural perspective.

    Posted by timmcclung | September 13, 2011, 2:39 pm

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