America’s children will return to school later this month, eager to learn. We all have both a moral and very practical interest in helping them succeed. As a nation, we believe that providing the opportunity for every child to receive an empowering public education is essential to our future prosperity. As a group, however, economically disadvantaged students are not achieving educational success at the same levels as their more affluent peers. This gap in achievement has been widening for more than five decades – a growing disparity that threatens the moral and economic pillars upon which our society stands.
A good public school education transformed my life. It is understandable, therefore, that our schools will always be one of my foremost priorities. Great teachers and principals continue to be crucial in assuring that our children receive an empowering education, but the hard fact remains that our educators cannot do it all. They need the support of their communities – and their country.
That is why I am deeply grateful to Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer and Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock for sponsoring the bipartisan Full-Service Community Schools Act of 2014 – legislation that I am cosponsoring that would create an innovative federal grant program.
Decades of research have confirmed the connections between children’s health and well-being and their performance in core subjects like reading and math. As Representatives Hoyer and Schock observed in their recent Education Week commentary, “Full-service community schools put education programs and health services – including nutrition, medical, dental and counseling – together in one location, providing low-income families with a one-stop shop where they can access the services they need.”
The additional federal funding we are proposing for states and local partnerships would allow more participating schools and their community-based partners in economically disadvantaged areas to stay open after normal school hours. Weekend programs would increase family participation in their children’s education and empowering activities like job training.
Here in Maryland, Rep. Hoyer and I have witnessed the results that “Community Schools” can achieve. We are convinced that community-based partnerships can have a significant impact upon all students’ achievement – while also making better use of scarce public funding.
For decades, Judith P. Hoyer Early Child Care and Family Education Centers have been providing early childhood education and support services for children and for their families in low-income neighborhoods throughout our state (currently including six neighborhoods in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County). Objective assessments of the Judy Schools have concluded that their students are significantly better prepared to enter kindergarten than are their low-income counterparts in other settings.
Locally, our Baltimore City Public School System and the Family League of Baltimore City have transformed 43 of the District’s schools into “Community Schools” by working with a wide variety of non-profit organizations and public agencies. These records of academic achievement over the decades are a major factor why progressive Democrats and a conservative Republican are now working together to support and expand the community school movement. Our goal is to encourage expansion of the community school model to more urban and rural neighborhoods throughout the country.
Full-service community schools can have a positive impact in reducing the unacceptable level of income-based educational disparities. We hardly can expect low-income children, as a group, to be as successful as their more affluent peers unless we also address their health, vision, dental care and nutrition needs.
Combining first-class education with health-related services is a time-tested, workable idea whose full implementation is long overdue. Consider this . . . At the beginning of the last century, Jane Addams established Hull House for Chicago’s immigrant families, combining educational and health services to foster the immigrants’ transition to American society and our middle class. The movement that Ms. Addams inspired was a major factor in creating the more equitable, democratic and prosperous society that we enjoy today. As the famous educator, Dr. John Dewey, once observed, “The conception of the schools as a social center is born of our entire democratic movement.”
Schools in Baltimore City and throughout Maryland have adopted elements of the community school philosophy, more often than not with measurable success. Our federal government should be a full partner in expanding that promise, nation-wide, to all children, whatever their economic backgrounds may be.
Low-income children will receive the education that is their moral and legal right, however, only if we, as a nation, step up to the plate. As I have often observed, the greatest threat to our long-term national security is our failure to adequately educate every child. It’s time for the Congress – and our communities – to come together and help our teachers get the job done.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.