a conversation with…
Steve Zimmer
California Department of Education Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Zimmer’s office oversees the counseling coalition that helps support CDE’s organizational development around counseling, social-emotional learning and other whole child programming, including efforts to develop and expand the community schools model.

As a former trustee for the Los Angeles Unified School District school board from 2009–2017, Zimmer understands the challenges that local educational agencies face as they work to address student needs amid severe staffing shortages and other barriers to using one-time state and federal pandemic-recovery funds. Yet, despite these difficulties, it is imperative that district leaders use these resources to develop the kind of sustainable programming that will support the whole child long-term.

Steve Zimmer
The community schools model has been around for decades — why is it so urgent now for LEAs to consider making the transition?
The community schools model has been around, and it’s evolved over time. There was a lot of work that was done in New York, what was called in the 1990s “full-service community schools.” And that was where you first saw a lot of these models of providing services on campuses. A lot of the work that was done in the 1990s around coalition for essential schools also had aspects of community schools that also were present in Ted Sizer’s work around high school academies and making the schools smaller and doing models around shared decision making and types of community-driven teaching and learning.

The urgency right now is directly related to the disparities that were certainly persistent and damaging and oppressive before the pandemic. And with the pandemic, we see in so many parts of our society how these disparities play out in life and death, in sickness and in health, in so many ways. And in all of those ways they affect our kids. They affect kids who are living in conditions of poverty, these disparities affect kids who have dealt with racism. The intersectionality of a lot of these disparities just elevated in a jaw-dropping way during the pandemic. And so, the urgency around community schools is both ensuring that we don’t lose a potential moment for school transformation, but also that we don’t turn away from the most devastating disparities in our educational system. And that we realize that families interact with an interconnected ecosystem, that the school and the classroom, as important as they are, are not the only places where systems touch our families.

And the community schools model, particularly the community schools model that’s codified in the California Community Schools Partnership Program Framework which was passed by State Board of Education in January, really looks to that interconnectedness and that intersectionality and bringing the different systems that touch families together with the school site almost always as the platform, but also brings families into the equation in a different way — it really honors the role that families play throughout a child’s life, [and] elevates the power of families as decision-makers, not only in their child’s education, but in the conditions for teaching and learning, the school climate, the school environment that so greatly affects their child’s education and their future.

So, those are some reasons why it’s so important right now. Why the Legislature, the Governor, the superintendent [of public instruction] and the State Board of Education all feel so strongly about this and have made a nation leading investment.

Can you describe the California Community Schools Partnership Program (CCSPP) and how it will address the needs outlined in the prior question?
Well, I think that what’s so important about the California Community Schools Partnership Program model is, one, this is an equity-driven program, and this is directly from the Legislature, the Governor, the superintendent [of public instruction] and the State Board of Education. To qualify for this partnership program, schools must have at least 50 percent of their students be unduplicated pupils or qualify in a couple of other ways for schools in districts that may not meet that threshold, but who have specifically identified needs. And schools with over 80 percent are prioritized for funding. So, this is an intentionally and unapologetically equity-driven program. It is also a program that outlines a pathway for comprehensive school transformation.
The urgency around community schools is both ensuring that we don’t lose a potential moment for school transformation, but also that we don’t turn away from the most devastating disparities in our educational system
It talks not only about integrated service delivery but also the cornerstone commitment the districts will be making around integrated service delivery and instructional practice in ensuring that instructional practice at community schools is rooted in the experience of students when possible, involves experiential learning and is influenced by wisdoms and lived experiences in the community. It also involves shared decision-making, very intentionally shared decision-making that empowers teachers, but also empowers families and student voice.

And the last piece, which is very important to us in the cornerstone commitments, is a commitment to ensuring an embracing school climate — a place where students who are struggling will have resources and avenues to address that struggle rather than be faced with punitive disciplinary measure that may further ostracize or exclude them from their educational future.

So, it’s those commitments, it’s those key pillar ideas, that really elevate a new way of thinking about the relationships that form the school community. And so that’s why I’m hopeful, and that’s why I think the California model that we’ve laid out holds a great possibility for transformed outcomes. Because it’s not just about providing services, it’s not just about the idea that schools need to play a greater role in “fixing students and families.” Providing services is very, very important, but where we see transformation is when we change relationships and when we change our lensing.

What does the community schools model entail and what makes for a successful community school?
When we talk about success, we ultimately look at the disparities that persisted far before the pandemic but were just exacerbated in ways that were so unthinkably painful during the pandemic. When we think about success, we have to think about transformed outcomes for the students who have been really struggling under systems that have failed them for a long time. And so, when I look six, seven, eight years down the line, I’m looking at these outcomes, I’m looking at change, and that’s what will mark success. What the benchmarks are for that are a little bit different. The benchmarks involve these changed relationships.

I’m going to look really carefully in the first couple of years at attendance data. Is the school a place where students and their families want to be? Is it a place where they feel welcomed and embraced? A successful community school changes the way that they make decisions, it changes the way they approach instructional practice. Instructional practice is not gleaned only from the curricular framework, but it’s really gleaned from listening. Listening to student voice, listening to families’ experiences, understanding how to build relevancy into instructional practice, and also very, very much about multimodal approaches that are able to reach different types of learners.

So, we’re looking at instructional practice, we’re looking at leadership practice and we’re looking at community building as real successful models. And look, not every school is going to meet every single expectation instantaneously. We expect this to be an intentional process, we expect this to be a process that’s deeply engaged with all interest holders in the community. We’re not looking for the flipping of a switch. There are some things, when schools adopt this model, that should feel different right away, but there are other parts of this that will intentionally develop over time.

Can you highlight any California LEAs with successful community schools?
I’m reluctant to single out a specific LEA because there are so many schools that are doing some great things. We establish this so that there could be this framework model. I’ll say this, that there are several across the state, and I’ll just mention one because it was the most recent that I visited and I’m still moved by what I saw there, and that’s Anaheim Union High School District. [They’ve] done some very, very deep and difficult work in this space. And I think that they’re starting to see some strong success based on the transformational change that all of the interest holders, teachers, district and school site level leadership, support staff, community organizations, families and students themselves, I saw some very powerful examples there. But they are not the only ones.
A major concern among school boards is the one-time nature of the CCSPP funding. How are LEAs meant to develop and sustain a strong community school(s)/scale them up with one-time funds?
It is one-time funding but it is over five years. And so, unlike two-year programs, three-year programs, a five-year funding cycle, I believe as someone who had to approve many district budgets in my time, allows for some real rooting of the program. And our technical assistance from year one is going to be about sustainability.

Is this going to mean an ongoing investment, specific investment from the Legislature over a long term? I don’t know yet. This is a very, very bold investment to start us with, with the directive that we need to think about sustainability from the start, but we also have other types of initiatives that are running in concert with this.

We are working with LEAs to really elevate their ability to draw down on Medi‑Cal funding, for example, and certain site types of other federal funding. One of the things we learned during the pandemic is schools don’t speak public health and public health doesn’t necessarily speak schools. And so, what we’re learning is that there’s a lot of places where we may be able to find ongoing funding that doesn’t all come out of Proposition 98. So, this is a major thrust, a major focus as we put out [requests for applications] for the regional technical assistance centers, we are really looking closely at the applicant’s ability to train up LEAs around sustainability.

What role do community partnerships play in the context of program sustainability or success?
In terms of the integrated services, it’s a new way of thinking around the school being responsible for everything. Being the platform for services and always being responsible for every service, it’s not realistic. And what we’re trying to build here is a dynamic partnership where a lot of these supports that families may be accessing in a very siloed way really become infused and integrated into the school community in ways that make sense with how families work and how schools work. And that in and of itself projects us toward sustainability.

Community schools programs are something that will be part of the California public education system 10 years from now, and we’re not going to be scratching our head asking, “How can we fund this?” It’s going to be, “This is part of what public education means in the state of California.” And so, that’s our goal. How that plays out in terms of the specific strategies for sustainability, we’re going to see over the lifespan of these five-year grants.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.