The Not-so-Magic School Bus

150 150 Jim Mayer

(photo credit: Alex Starr)

The stops were ironically prosaic by California standards:  Pasadena, South-Central LA, San Fernando. The next day was Fresno, followed by Redwood City and Oakland, before heading to the capital.

Senator Carol Liu’s “Pathways to Partnership” tour is not likely to turn up in Sunset magazine.  But, when not stuck in traffic, the bus might have been headed to the future.

Each stop was at a “community” school, a broad term for an effort to expand the role of a school to more comprehensively serve children and their families.  By partnering to meet the needs of families, theory and practice are showing, student achievement gets a boost.

The Senator observed that community schools were a strategy, not a formula.  Each was unique to the needs of neighborhood, and the ability of the government agencies and non-profit groups to fill in the gaps.  With public budgets tight, she said, everyone has to share resources and be creative.

In Pasadena, the city and the school districts have signed an agreement to replicate the success at Madison Elementary throughout the city.  A visible sign of that success was the new multi-service building on the same block as the school that links families to everything from mental health counseling to self-guided zumba (reducing obesity and diabetes is a priority).

In Redwood City, the city, San Mateo County and the elementary and high school districts formed an alliance to share resources and work toward common goals.  They annually review progress and recommit themselves and their resources to keeping children safe, healthy, in nurturing environments and on track for a productive adulthood.

Collaboration is not a new idea.  Many government agencies have been working at it for years.  Some of these school-based models are old enough to have a second generation of children enrolled.  Elsewhere, counties have taken the lead to coordinate services focused on at-risk children and families.

In most cases, successful models for at-risk families demonstrate improved outcomes – more children in school and fewer in detention centers.  Similarly, the community schools are showing steady increases in student success, as well as health and well-being.

Still, these examples are distinct enough for the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee to organize a tour to highlight good examples of what should be commonplace.  (Mandates won’t work, she observed.  The State needs to align incentives and reduce bureaucratic barriers to collaboration.)

So if collaborative approaches save money and improve outcomes, why aren’t there more of them and why should anyone expect there will be more in the future?

Importantly, the experience and the evidence is compelling: integrating community level services is the most promising approach for improving outcomes that cannot be advanced by a single public program, or a single government agency, or even government without community involvement. 

And California has to improve outcomes for the increasing percentage of families who are struggling economically and especially for the children who will soon drive California’s economy.

Many of the civic leaders involved in the CA Economic Summit are asserting that California must take strategic steps to restore middle-class jobs and upward mobility – and improving educational results is a priority among priorities.

In addition, one ingredient of the emerging CA renaissance is a dramatic shift toward greater control by community level governments.  Counties are now building community responses to substance abuse, crime and violence because of the failure of the state’s prison systems. And over the next year, 1,000 school districts will be engaging their communities on how to spend money to improve results – decisions once made in the capitol.

Community leaders – in the public and private sectors – are near or at “do or despair” moments.  And with more resources, more authority, and with plenty of models just a bus ride away, they have fewer excuses than ever before.

Still, collaboration is hard work and bureaucracies resist change, so what can we all do to make sure California gets to the tipping point?

CA Fwd’s Partnership for Community Excellence is working directly with counties that want to develop integrated, data-driven strategies to improve results.  CA Fwd also tapped the expertise of community leaders to develop a handbook for Building a Community Strategic Action Plan.  And the Economic Summit is convening leaders in November to secure commitments to restore the CA Dream.  Email me at to join in.


Jim Mayer

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