Hope Amid Heartache

Building sustainable community schools will help the critical issues that are shaking U.S. society to its core right now
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl
Alex Caputo-Pearl

Every summer has its wonderful and rejuvenating aspects — I hope that has been your experience over June and July. You deserve it. Yet, this has also been a summer of violence, a summer of shaking U.S. society to its core. We have arrived at an explosive intersection as a country.

Hatred of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, mental illness, structural and institutionally racist police violence, lack of controls on guns, violence against police, divisive and inflaming political rhetoric given a vehicle by the Trump campaign, and a technological context that has allowed some to be influenced greatly by hate groups and those who promote terrorism — these have come together to shape this summer of violence.

It has been a summer that shows, more than ever, the contexts from which many of our students arrive in our classrooms and offices. Many are fearful of being profiled or attacked, by people on the street or people with institutional power. Many see weapons in their neighborhoods.

Many listen to snippets of the news and hear hateful rhetoric about themselves and their families, or see tragedies that have roots in fear and intolerance. Many surf the web, and see and hear things that are confusing, or that reaffirm stereotypes, or that promote violence. Many are struggling with trauma, or clinical anxiety, or mental illness identified or unidentified, severe or mild — that creates a context for all of the above to be internalized in unhealthy or debilitating ways.

And, with 85% of our students low-income, many of our students know of the positive people, institutions, and traditions in their communities, but also recognize and are deeply affected by the economic marginalization of their neighborhoods and a sense of hopelessness than can surround that. There is a context, of course, that has exacerbated these problems. Calls for government austerity and government running “leanly” and “more like a business” have led to a failure to create well-paying jobs in low-income communities.

Federal, state, and city mental health programs have been slashed to the bone. There has been a lack of political will to control the access to and flow of guns, and a lack of political will to build real police accountability programs. The testing craze in schools has narrowed the curriculum and made it less likely that students are engaged with classes that are explicitly about building tolerance and cooperation. The list goes on.

There is a very basic symbiotic relationship that has never been more clear: to build a better society, we need great schools, and to have great schools, we need to work for justice in our broader society.

With UTLA’s advocacy and organizing in support of sustainable community schools, we are trying to get at exactly this symbiotic relationship. Sustainable community schools are institutions that:

  • Have a well-rounded curriculum, including visual and performing arts; ethnic studies; vocational classes; classes on taking leadership around community issues; classes on building tolerance, understanding, and cooperation; and more.
  • Provide access to all students.
  • Provide equity for all students.
  • Have personalized environments for students, with low class sizes.
  • Have rich out-of-classroom supports, with health and human services professionals, and mental, social, and emotional services.
  • Have effective and well-resourced school discipline programs, based on positive behavior support and including restorative justice programs.
  • Have vibrant parent and community engagement programs.
  • Respect educator professionalism in the classroom and in joint decision-making on campus with administration, parents, and other stakeholders.
  • Provide ongoing supports to educators.

Intentionally make contributions to broader community improvement, supporting community movements for economic justice, racial justice, and so on.

Building sustainable community schools will directly contribute to addressing the issues that are shaking U.S. society to its core right now, from racism to underinvestment in our communities to gun violence. And, building sustainable community schools will, quite simply, improve education. This is such a central piece to UTLA’s work that the theme of the 2016 UTLA Leadership Conference is “Growing Our Movement for Community Schools.”

Over the last year, we have taken some initial steps in building this movement:

  • We had tremendous participation in the Walk-Ins on February 17 and May 4, with a focus on highlighting successful programs at schools, many of which are reflective of the sustainable community school model. Hundreds of schools organized actions, with thousands of members, parents, and students participating.
  • We have developed systematic and ongoing relationships with community organizations, which will work with educators at targeted schools to create or expand programs that reflect the community school model.
  • Within our 2014-2015 contract and 2015-2016 reopeners, we won investment in programs that support the community school model: initial steps on reducing class size, additional counselors and HHS staffing, a focus on addressing the needs at high-poverty schools, real educator support, and more.
  • We have initiated advocacy with LAUSD School Board members to use existing programs that reflect the community school approach to argue for investment in expanding these programs and replicating them in other schools.

We are meeting quarterly with the leaderships of the San Diego, Oakland, San Francisco, San Bernardino, and other teacher unions, planning for a legislative strategy that would bring investment into building community schools.

Moreover, in the last month, UTLA has played a key role in expanding the capacity of the national movement for sustainable community schools. UTLA worked with the union leaderships in Milwaukee, San Diego, Chicago, Boston, and others to pass resolutions at both agenda to rapidly expand unregulated charter schools.

One of the most difficult tasks in parenting and teaching is productively and critically engaging young people about events happening around us that are terrifying, that seem to defy understanding.

As events unfolded this summer in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas, other U.S. cities, and around the world, and as Donald Trump and his emissaries have made hateful comments, I have, at times, struggled to find the right ways to engage my own 11- and 8-year-old son and daughter. It can be very difficult to do so.

I have taken comfort, however, in being able to discuss with them a hopeful side, stories of what we want schools to look like, what we want communities to look like, and how those visions flow toward making the world a better place. I consider myself fortunate to be able to speak about this with my kids in very concrete ways, not just in abstractions — because UTLA is a part of leading the every-day, on-the-ground movement for sustainable community schools.

While there is much to reflect upon in these times, please remember to always take time for yourself, your family, and your loved ones. Have a great rest of the summer, and I am very much looking forward to continuing the work with you in 2016-2017.