LA Unified schools: hubs for education — and social services?

FILE - Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a union representing L.A. Unified teachers, speaks during a rally in February.
FILE - Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a union representing L.A. Unified teachers, speaks during a rally in February.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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Los Angeles schools shouldn't only be places where students go to learn; they should also be community centers, after-school gathering spots and hubs for social services.

That principle is better known nationally as the "community schools" model — and it's about to get the endorsement of a newly-formed, powerhouse coalition of labor unions, faith-based groups and social justice organizations who see it as a new organizing principle for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The coalition, known as "Reclaim Our Schools L.A.," envisions replicating the "wraparound services" already in place at some L.A. Unified schools — like at Garfield High's "Wellness Center," where a non-profit provider offers physical exams, family planning and mental health services — on campuses across the sprawling district.

"We want to build the schools to be the hub of those communities," said Patricia Castellanos, deputy director of the labor-aligned Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), which is part of the coalition. "They're, in most cases, right down the street from us. Unless you have kids, the schools' neighbors don’t really engage otherwise. That [school] should be an anchor for those communities and for those parents."

The idea is far from new; as early as 1889, Chicago's Hull House brought educational and social services for immigrant families under one roof. But in the last decade, the New York City, Philadelphia, Oakland and Cincinnati school districts have rolled out reform initiatives under the banner of "community schools."

Reclaim Our Schools wants to add Los Angeles to that list. How exactly coalition members plan to do it is not yet clear; their vision document is more an outline of principles than a concrete action plan. Coalition members do plan to meet with L.A. Unified leaders and hold a community forum in the coming months.

"This group actually has a vision for, over a period of some time, moving the entire district to being a community school district," said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) teachers union, which is part of the coalition.

It's not only wraparound services that Reclaim Our Schools coalition hopes to bring to L.A. schools. To them, according to the vision document, a true "community school" also teaches using a "culturally-relevant" curriculum, sets progressive student discipline policies, cares more about experienced teachers than test scores and attempts to create "authentic" relationships with parents.

Castellanos and Caputo-Pearl said the coalition's primary focus is on district-run schools in L.A. Unified. But what about charter schools operating in the district?

Reclaim Our Schools L.A.'s visioning document criticizes the "simplistic narrative forc[ing] all stakeholders in the public education system to take sides in an increasingly acrimonious debate."

But the document also makes it clear the coalition's primary aim is to address L.A. Unified's shortcomings and bolster the district's attempts to boost its enrollment amid increasing competition from charters.

"Could a charter school fit under this model? I think so," Castellanos said. "I don’t see a reason why a charter school could not carry out a similar model so long as they are also being held to the same standard as public schools."

"If charter schools want to be a part of the conversation, we’re not opposed to that," Caputo-Pearl said. "But the community groups and labor organizations that are part of the Reclaim Our Schools L.A. coalition, are very aware of the challenges that unregulated charter growth poses to LAUSD."

The Reclaim Our Schools coalition is comprised of labor unions or labor-friendly organizations, such as UTLA, LAANE, the California School Employees Association and SEIU Local 99.

But it's also comprised of faith-based groups — like Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California — and activist organizations like the NAACP, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), Grassroots Coalition for the Schools LA Students Deserve and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

The coalition is planning a launch event at Dorsey High School in the Crenshaw neighborhood on Thursday afternoon.