There is a growing push in recent years to make public schools more than just the usual places of learning, but comprehensive resources centers where students and families can get help beyond the classroom and homework that can have a profound influence on whether a student performs well academically and socially.
But that wasn’t always been the case, according to Boyle Heights resident Raul Ruiz. He says 12 years ago when his son was diagnosed with autism he quickly realized schools in Los Angeles’ Eastside were doing a poor job of assisting special needs children and their families.
Our communities don’t have the resources that other affluent communities have, Ruiz told a group of about 100 people at Mendez High School in Boyle Heights last Thursday.
It’s been years since his son was diagnosed but Ruiz remains a dedicated advocate for more school-based services for students and the communities where they live. Last week he joined a group of educators, community organizations and other parents in search of innovative ways to improve educational outcomes at low-income, underperforming Eastside schools for the “Community Schools in the Eastside” discussion organized by nonprofit InnerCity Struggle. The discussion was intended to provide more information about the community school concept and to get input on how to improve the system.
There is a growing body of evidence that a student’s academic success is often intimately tied to their home life, whether their family has enough nutritious food to eat, access to health care, a suitable place to live and sufficient wage earnings to pay for those things.
Community schools are public schools that partner with community organizations to try to serve the needs of a neighborhood. They focus on health and social services, youth and community development as well as academics, panelists said.
“Parents are the ones addressing the needs. For example, if their kids have asthma, we need to find the most information available to help them find services,” Laura Zavala, director of policy with InnerCity Struggle told EGP. “It starts with a conversation of where our schools are and what do students and parents need.”
Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest district in the country and enrolls 650,000 students — 74% are Latino. A 2014 study found that many LAUSD schools are failing to meet student needs, including keeping students from dropping out and graduating.
According to the Student Need Index, a report that ranks LAUSD schools with the highest-need to determine which schools should receive funds from the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF)—a state policy that directs more money to schools with high drop out rates, large numbers of English Learners (EL), homeless or students in foster care —242 of the district’s schools are in need of greater resources.
Most of the schools identified are either on the Eastside or in South LA. They are likely to have three times as many English Learners, 3.5 times more students in foster care and more than three times as many students who are expelled or suspended, according to the report.
Groups like the Roosevelt High School-Partnership for LA Schools, Promesa Boyle Heights, SEIU Local 99 and the St John’s Well Child and Family Center, hope the data will spur more help for schools in Eastside neighborhoods.
Attendees at last week’s discussion cited low-cost health services, wellness centers, after school programs and green spaces among the various needs on the Eastside.
Several parents said it’s important for the community as a whole to learn how to access health, education and social services and they think it’s vital to engage younger generations in their community.
“We also need to include more young adults and students to advocate with us,” parent Irma Cervantes said.
There are currently three community high schools on the eastside: Esteban Torres, Mendez and Roosevelt.
Esteban Torres High School works with the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP) and has a full time community school coordinator helping to identify the students’ highest needs for students, according to Lara Kain senior director with Transform Schools at LAEP.
“We also offer college and career services such as mock interviews, resume writing and job opportunities. We try to meet the needs of the students in a very holistic way,” Kain told EGP.
Ruiz said all schools today should operate this way. He said, years ago when his son was growing up, he would’ve loved specialized services like an afterschool autism club, therapy sessions to help him and his wife cope.
Wellness centers focus on the wellbeing of the community they serve. Depending on the location, some wellness centers offer exercise and nutrition classes, resources to fight obesity and diabetes, childcare, computers for job searching and resume review among other services.
The concerns of parents and the data fueled the opening of wellness centers at LAUSD schools like Garfield High School, Zavala said. On the Eastside, “there’s a high rate of asthma, there’s a high rate of contamination and research shows that students do better when they can concentrate more, when they are healthier,” she explained.
Ruiz said all public schools should be equipped with the resources needed to foster quality education for children from the moment they start kindergarten.
“[Our children] will lead healthy and productive lives and flourish as adults who can actively participate in their communities,” if we give them access to the right resources, said the proud parent of a now 11th grade Roosevelt student.
For more information about community schools, visit www.InnerCityStruggle.org.