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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Common Ground for Learning: The Community Learning Center

The author describes the benefits of this type of community effort.
By Michele Cahill
Credit: Kristen Funkhouser

It's a Thursday evening in July, and Joanne Diaz is pulling her car into the parking lot of the Daly Community Learning Center, a few miles from her home. She's exhausted from a long day as an administrative assistant at a local hospital and grateful that she doesn't have to face the second shift of family life alone.

Though Daly's components include the school where Joanne's fourteen-year-old son, Jason, will enter the ninth grade in the fall, it is much more than a school. It's the center of community life for thousands of children and adults, open all year from early in the morning until late at night. It's nothing less than a new kind of societal institution -- one designed to meet the full range of children's developmental needs, strengthen and support families, advance the knowledge and skills of adults, serve as a connection to health and social services, and be a focal point of civic life.

Daly (named to honor Patrick Daly, a New York City school principal shot to death by stray bullets from gang members while he was trying to contact a troubled student after school) is a fictitious composite of the many school-community centers springing up around the country. I call them community learning centers, or CLCs.

CLCs are being created in response to the weakening of other institutions -- such as families, churches, and communities -- that have traditionally served as stabilizing forces in young people's lives. Instead of following the trend of expecting educators to serve not only as teachers but also as parents, social workers, counselors, doctors, protectors, mentors, role models, and friends to increasing numbers of children, these centers bring in other professionals to take on the responsibilities for which they have been trained.

The centers also mobilize the talents of parents, young people, and other residents to contribute to youth and community development. The mix of services offered in today's centers varies widely based on local needs and priorities, but my imaginary Daly Community Learning Center represents many of the programs and philosophies these evolving institutions have in common.

Support for Children and Families

Like so many parents, Joanne worries about Jason getting involved with drugs or other negative temptations of adolescence. She's grateful that he's spending the summer participating in Daly's many programs: teen sports, cultural arts, community service, youth entrepreneurship, career exploration, and education programs.

Jason, a member of the center's drama group, also loves to explore the Internet at the computer center, but his favorite activity is one that exposes him to career options by matching him with community mentors. Through these encounters, Jason has set his sights on becoming either an engineer or an architect.

Through a variety of broad-based programs, CLCs such as Daly help ensure that vulnerable children grow up in a positive, supportive atmosphere. The aim of these institutions is to mobilize community members to form close and nurturing relationships with kids in an era when family members and friends are often absent or are negative influences. In simple terms, they give kids a safe place to go, challenging things to do, friends with whom they can bond, caring adults to guide them, and opportunities to make informed decisions about their lives.

Joanne's first stop at Daly is to pick up her nine-year-old daughter, Rebecca, from the summer camp for elementary school children. Under the guidance of several educators, Rebecca and the other students in the program use Daly's art rooms, science labs, auditorium, library, swimming pool, computer center, gardens, playing fields, and gymnasium for recreational and educational activities.

Rebecca is particularly excited about working on an oral history of her hometown, for which she's taking photographs and recording interviews with local senior citizens. She'll assemble the material into a multimedia presentation to show at the end-of-summer Daly Family Festival.

When she sees her mother at her classroom door, Rebecca excitedly tells her about everything she's done that day. Then the two head to the dining room to meet Jason for the weekly Family Dinner and Game Night. They share a spaghetti supper with other families they've met at the center, swapping community news and gossip. Afterward, while Rebecca plays Mousetrap and Jason shoots baskets with friends, Joanne browses the center's parenting library for advice on how to answer her daughter's recent questions about babies and sex.

Daly's support programs for youth and families, as well as its other services, are made possible by partnerships between schools and public and private service organizations. The community has changed the typical definition of school from "an age-segregated and limited-use building that's the exclusive turf of school district employees" to "a social institution that's a setting for activities run cooperatively by many individuals and groups."

In some ways this arrangement is similar to the plaza in many Latin American communities, where residents can find diverse services offered by interdependent entities, which collectively form the social infrastructure of the community.

Obviously, the practical issues of operating a CLC can be formidable. They range from big questions such as where to get the money to fund such an ambitious institution to small but important ones such as how to assure educators that classrooms won't be trashed if community organizations use them while school is out. There's ample experience from existing school and community partnerships, however, to show that these hurdles can be overcome if both educators and others are truly committed to meeting young people's needs.

Centers of Lifelong Learning

Joanne loves working at the hospital but feels ready for something more challenging and rewarding than a clerical job. She's decided to expand her skills to become a physician's assistant, so, two nights each week, she takes an anatomy course at Daly, where several adult classes are offered in conjunction with a local community college. The center provides evening child care for Rebecca and teen programs for Jason, so Joanne can try to improve her life without worrying about who will watch her kids.

The center's extensive technology infrastructure is one of the most important resources available for Joanne and the other adults who come to Daly for additional job training or to pursue their interests. In making her decision about what new career to pursue, Joanne used Daly's computer network to find information about occupations and employment trends. Using email, she contacted professional associations and asked questions of experts in the field about what their jobs are really like. Because she can't afford to have a computer at home, she's glad such technology is available in a public place.

Just as health clubs offer communities specialized equipment, programs, and support to keep the body fit, CLCs offer resources to keep the mind active. They represent a civic commitment to an educated populace, which benefits local schools, the community's employers, and society in general. They serve as models, showing young people that learning will continue to be important throughout their lives. And experience shows they increase family involvement in efforts to restructure and improve schools.

Connection to Services and Civic Life

Joanne feels lucky to have a steady job with good benefits, but she knows that many of her neighbors aren't so fortunate. They depend on Daly as a link to health and social services. These range from the center's on-site pediatric clinic to its affiliated network of government and community agencies that help children and adults cope with crises such as unemployment, alcohol or drug dependency, child or spousal abuse, and homelessness. Such services are coordinated through the school under the simple assumption that children can't learn if their basic health and welfare needs aren't met.

Daly is also a center of civic life for the community. During the recent mayoral election, Joanne attended a forum at which she was able to question candidates about their positions on proposed programs. Several organizations meet regularly at the center, drawing people together for events such as antiviolence discussions and neighborhood-cleanup days. The community views Daly as a place where people can come together to discuss issues and solve problems, meet with public officials, and volunteer their time and talents.

Educators at Daly have students whose needs are fulfilled and, therefore, can focus more on learning. They have also been freed of the burden of being all things to all students; the enormous workload of ensuring that kids are cared for -- and cared about -- is spread among many partners. And educators are more satisfied with their jobs because they are now truly in tune with their fundamental missions of developing healthy, happy young people and being beacons of lifelong learning for community members.

Thanks to the center's activities, Daly's community is a safer, more secure place to live for both young and old. Residents have numerous ways to expand their knowledge and skills, creating an environment of constant improvement that boosts the local quality of life. The community boasts an active, energetic civic culture that brings neighbors together to help one another. Most of all, the community cares for its young people, and they know it.

Michele Cahill is the senior program officer in the education division of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. She was vice president and director of the Youth Development Institute of the Fund for the City of New York when she wrote “A Common Ground for Learning” for Edutopia.

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