Laura Ofobike

The first time I heard the phrase “community learning center,” my brain played one of those word-association tricks. Somewhere between the sound of the sequence of words and comprehension, it locked in on “community learning,” not the more usual and rational “learning center.” This led to a moment of puzzlement: What will the community be learning?

Idiosyncratic? Probably. But with time that initial word link has been like some sort of trace element, casting its own shade of meaning on the phrase. Hear about a school-related meeting where only a handful of people showed up, and the thought pops up: Where is the community in community learning?

Clearly, there is something appealing about sticking a “community” label on schools. In Ohio, the legislature chose to tag charter schools as “community” schools. Presumably, that was to convey the notion that the existing type of public school had come unglued from true community and become “government schools.” The idea of parents and local groups operating, with public money, schools that reflect their values certainly was a softer sell politically than making a pitch for, say, commercial takeover.

The beautiful new school buildings dotting Akron officially are called community learning centers — CLCs for short. In this instance, the label is primarily a legal cover. It reflects the ingenious agreement Mayor Don Plusquellic, the city and the school district devised to vault a financial hurdle in 2003. Akron raised the municipal income tax 0.25 percent, channelling the revenue stream into a matching fund to draw state funding for an $800 million program to rebuild the city schools. In the CLCs, “community” is a straightforward statement of rights: Shared funds equals leveraged city/neighborhood access to the facilities.

But however we stitch the community label to schools, the term raises a challenge. And that is to figure out how to connect neighborhoods to the schools in ways that make “community learning” a goal that can be achieved.

Let me flip the thought: The challenge is to transform schools into hubs for moving entire communities forward, communities learning to adapt to societal changes. Look past the legalistic label, and that potential was the biggest appeal of Akron’s CLCs.

Can we do it in Akron? Can we take up to scale a relationship between community organizations, individuals and schools that goes deeper than renting space or attending an event every now and then?

If it’s a bet, then the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation put a sizable chip on it in July. The foundation awarded a three-year grant, worth $674,000, for a pilot program to help West Akron neighborhoods in the Buchtel cluster develop a vision and priorities for the CLCs.

The award to the Akron Neighborhood Trust, a local nonprofit partnership led by Crystal Jones and Susan Z. Vogelsang, is financing the mechanics for collective decision-making in the neighborhoods. The organization is training facilitators to work with leaders and residents and the Akron Public Schools to formulate how they want the CLCs to function, plan and take collaborative action, build trust and be collectively accountable for the CLCs’ performance. They call the process “the deliberative democracy model of community engagement.” It aims at opening up the dialogue on public policy where ordinary people have little faith and patience with experts and political authority.

As the pilot program ramps up the deliberative process of fleshing out “community” in community learning (centers), it helps to sneak a peek at how other places are defining the meaning of “community” school.

An article in the March 24 edition of Education Week describes the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) approach in Multnomah County, Ore. In addition to features that would be familiar in many buildings in Akron (school meals, after-school enrichment programs, homework assistance), the SUN community schools serve as sites for a host of social services, including health screenings and dental care for low-income residents, a weekly food pantry, and rental and utility assistance for needy families.

According to the article, the program is conceived as an anti-poverty effort, with the strategy to get “people to see there is greater power in synergy among the parts,” a common element to “promote a shared sense of responsibility among many different organizations.”

That, to me, is community learning — bringing neighborhoods together in an environment where people learn to adapt in their own interest and the interest of the whole.

Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at lofobike@thebeaconjournal.com.