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community schools
Emeryville Mayor Ruth Atkin showing a visitor the construction site of the Emeryville Center of Community Life. Credit: Kyle Spencer

EMERYVILLE, Calif. — The Emeryville Center of Community Life was supposed to be a slick, 150,000-square-foot community schools complex that would assist this city’s neediest students and their families by providing dental, mental health, and tutoring services on the same site where they attended school. It was first proposed more than a decade ago just as the community schools model was becoming increasingly popular.

In 2013, the National League of Cities hailed the Emeryville plan as a “bold vision.” It was also touted in a Fast Company article titled “This Is What It Looks Like When a School Becomes a Community Hub.”

But for folks here in this quirky swath of tech-start-ups, shopping malls and renovated artist studios, the citywide plan has proven to be less of a solution and more of cautionary tale, a lesson in how hard it can be to take a community schools dream and turn it into a workable reality, even when almost everyone likes the idea.

Emeryville’s small size — only two schools and fewer than 800 students — may not be typical of districts experimenting with the community schools idea. Many are in larger, more urban areas. But with the growing interest around the country in community schools, Emeryville’s problems are an important cautionary tale.

When community schools succeed, the results can be impressive. Two years ago, Emeryville’s neighbor Oakland, a larger, more troubled school district, adopted the model, turning 27 neighborhood schools into community hubs by adding afterschool programs, asthma-mobiles, farmer’s markets, adult literacy classes and free Dad’s clubs. In Chicago, there are more than 200 community schools. Baltimore has 45. And New York City, the largest school district in the country, has an estimated 150.

The concept is based on the idea that schools in struggling communities should serve as social service hubs, helping to provide support for families before and after the regular school day. Some community schools offer literacy programs for mothers. Others provide regular check-ups to toddlers. All serve to limit the non-academic barriers that can hold students and their families back.

The plan for a community school in Emeryville first surfaced more than 10 years ago and was seen as a way for this small, economically diverse city to lure more families to the under-enrolled district, increase test scores and create more of a community feel.

But the plan has been plagued by political controversy, financial wrangling and practical roadblocks.

“Philosophically, I agree with a lot of the concepts,” said school board member Christian Patz, echoing the sentiment of many here. “But the execution has not been as promised.”

Twenty minutes outside of San Francisco, Emeryville has long been a unique place, attracting big-box retailers, artists and tech start-ups. But it also has a substantial number of low-income residents among its population of 11,227. According to census data, an estimated 10 percent of its families live below the poverty level. And the percentage of low-income students at Emeryville’s high school is closer to 85 percent, due in part to an influx of economically disadvantaged students from its neighbor Oakland.

“Philosophically, I agree with a lot of the concepts. But the execution has not been as promised.”

Despite this influx, the district is under-enrolled, with only 751 students in grades K-12 attending in the 2013-2014 school year. It is also underperforming. Last year, less than half the students at Emeryville’s high school were proficient in English on state exams.

In 2001, the state took over the district, which had gone bankrupt, in large part because of the dearth of students. And the school board and the city began to think of ways they might run both entities more efficiently and improve outcomes for at-risk students.

The idea for a community center that would serve as both school, community hub, library and recreational facility came out of this crisis, according to Mayor Ruth Atkin, a long-time resident. “It was all part of being a fuller community,” she said.

The plan was to build the city’s two schools — a K-8 and a high school — the city’s library, swimming pool, theater, afterschool offerings, and health center on the same spot, making it easier for all families to use the city’s resources, but also to allow the city to support its neediest students as they and their parents navigated K-12 education.

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By 2004, residents were immersed in a lengthy planning process, which has included choosing paint colors, materials and landscaping styles for the new campus.

community schools
A plan for the Emeryville Center of Community Life. Credit: DSK Architects

At one meeting, participants looked at photos of different types of structures, voting on designs they did and did not like — including modern, Mediterranean and industrial. They used automated clickers to cast their votes. At other meetings, they discussed the values they wanted the community space to convey.

Meanwhile, city officials worked with local agencies to decide what services might be offered on the campus. Dental care for families, podiatry care for the elderly, job-training classes and access to computer labs all made the top of the list. Planners wanted to go beyond the community schools model, offering plenty of green space, patios for relaxing and a multi-purpose auditorium that could be rented out for weddings and used for senior citizen meetings.

John Affeldt, an attorney and a member of the school board, said he and others were excited about building the city’s first library, a building, he said, that is greatly needed.

Others liked the idea that the city-sponsored after-school tutoring program would now be offered on the same campus as the schools its students attended, allowing teachers to communicate regularly and easily with their students’ tutors about the specific help they needed.

“It just made sense for us to do this,” said Cindy Montero, the city’s interim assistant manager.

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Megan Gallagher, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute who assists developers working on community projects around the country, says tension between planners and community members is not uncommon, particularly when projects drag on. She has seen friction arise over the size, cost, and breadth of projects in Washington D.C., Chicago and San Francisco.

“Often a community changes as the project is being developed,” she said. “That presents new challenges.”

“Schools are crucial institutions within communities. And they are also resources for families.”

That’s partly what happened in Emeryville. As new families moved in, the city’s elementary school grew in popularity. The new families liked its size and cozy atmosphere and began to push back on the idea that their children would be moved to a new location.

The city also struggled to find a location for the $120 million center, at one point considering a bus depot, but rising real estate prices and the city’s small size got in the way of the deal.

Eventually, planners reluctantly settled on a 150,000-square-foot plot once occupied by the city’s old high school, now demolished. And that decision has been the source of enormous controversy ever since. Many believe the plot is too small for the promised activities. Others worry that the K-8 school now being proposed for the site will be too close to the high school, allowing unwanted interactions between the district’s younger children and its teenagers.

There has been criticism about traffic patterns, bike flow and the fate of Anna Yates Elementary School, the city’s current K-8 school, now housed on an airy, well-manicured site down the street with a welcoming front entrance, a large, verdant back yard for playing and a lush garden. Many families simply don’t want to leave it.

The funding for the project originally came from a series of city and school district bonds. But the plan was set back in 2011 when the state moved to close local redevelopment agencies, forcing the city to scramble for alternative funding.

Over the past few years, the city has had to deal with a series of painful departures. Last year alone, it lost its schools superintendent, Debbra Lindo; the school board president, Josh Simon, who spearheaded the center’s birth but then relocated with his family; and the district’s architect, Roy Miller, who retired. Some residents say the loss of some the center’s most outspoken advocates has dampened enthusiasm for the project.

“The people whose vision it was have moved on,” said Patz, the school board member, who has taken issue with several aspects of the plan, including the closing of Anna Yates Elementary.

For Martin Blank, director of the Coalition for Community Schools in Washington, D.C., the ideas behind the center are laudable; they have long been cherished in urban planning circles as good for high-poverty communities.

“Schools are crucial institutions within communities,” he said. “And they are also resources for families.”

Today’s most famous community schools include the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, which offer parents fitness classes, child-rearing classes and mental and physical health services in or near the schools. And in recent years, educators have flocked to Cincinnati to visit the nine-year-old Oyler Community Learning Center, a pre-K-12 neighborhood school that offers its mostly poor students and their families vision care, dental care, daycare, evening classes for adults and tutoring.

While some community schools have been criticized for spotty academic results, even after community models have been initiated, research indicates that many programs can indeed have positive long-term results. In Cincinnati, high school graduation rates have increased by close to 30 percentage points since the 2000 launch of its community schools initiative.

Related: Newark school turnaround strategy changes course

But in Emeryville, a city-wide affinity for the model has been stymied by reality. Jac Asher, the mother of two students at the city’s K-8 and a council member, is one critic. In meetings and on her local blog, she has echoed the sentiment of other critics, saying that to be successful, the center should have been developed on a much larger parcel of land. The idea that classrooms and computer labs will be used by day by students and by night by community members sounds good on paper, she said in an interview, but promises to be, in reality, a logistical nightmare for teachers and staff.

An estimated 10 percent of families in Emeryville live below the poverty level. But the percentage of low income students at Emeryville’s high school is closer to 85 percent, due in part to the influx of economically disadvantaged students from Oakland, which abuts the city.

She has wondered if planners were overly optimistic when they used the term “shared” space for what is, in effect, “oversubscribed or scarce” space.

“I understand that they saw a need, and tried to address it,” she said. “But I don’t think this is going to do it.”

Another mother, Susan Donaldson, says she also thinks the plan has to be revised to preserve Anna Yates. Other parents have requested moving middle schoolers to the main campus, but leaving elementary schoolers at the city’s K-8.

“This is the school that people love,” she said. “This is the school that is working. Why would we want to get rid of it?”

School board member Affeldt, whose son attends Anna Yates, says these critics are a member of a “vocal minority” and added that “there is broad support in the community for the direction this is going in.”

But last year’s city council election suggests that dissent may be more potent than Affeldt wants to believe. Two candidates for the five-member board campaigned against the plan and won, tipping the balance on the council, with more members questioning the plan in its entirety than supporting it.

Atkin, the mayor, acknowledges that “whittling down the size of the pie” has caused concern. But she also says that it has allowed for a clear understanding of what the community cares about most.

As for concern about the too-close proximity between the high school and the elementary-and-middle school, administrators say that planners have addressed that issue with gates that will separate the two schools during the school day.

Construction continues on the complex, with the new high school slated to open next year. High school students are currently using a leased building in Oakland. But parents at Anna Yates are continuing to resist closing their school.

“We are looking to see what our options are,” said Patz.

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