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Schools as Neighbors: A Web of Support in San Diego Neighborhoods

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By Nicole Assisi, the co-founder and CEO of Thrive Public Schools

There's a popular saying about effecting social change that goes something like this: "Remember to do with folks, rather than to folks."

As educators, this is a lesson we sometimes forget. Many of us are so impassioned about making a powerful impact on our communities, we leap into action without nurturing relationships, asking for input, and building trust.

In the five years since I co-founded Thrive Public Schools, a small network of charter schools in San Diego, I've learned countless lessons about why and how to build partnerships with our communities.

Thrive's four campuses are located in Linda Vista and City Heights—two of the six most distressed neighborhoods in the city. Given the large immigrant populations among Asian, Latino, and African diaspora communities, and the multiple languages spoken on every block, connecting with our neighbors can sometimes feel daunting. This cultural and linguistic diversity enriches our community, and it has pushed me and my team to become more sensitive listeners to what our families and neighbors want and need.

Early on, for example, we asked the local YMCA to provide after-school activities at our K-8 campus in Linda Vista. The arts, sports, and tutoring were a great addition to our programming, and we assumed our after-school activities were set. We were doing to rather than with. To put it another way, we were doing, but we weren't necessarily listening.

Slowly we began to hear from some parents that they wanted another option. They wanted a program located a little closer to where some of them live; because of their work schedules, they wanted different hours; and some wanted other activities not offered by the YMCA. So we found the Boys & Girls Club, which met many of these needs. Still other families wanted single classes only on certain days, so we found some of those, too. Now, at the end of the school day, our staff escorts some of our students to the Boys & Girls Club and others to elected classes, while other students participate in the YMCA-led program on our campus.

When we started listening more, we found that some local organizations needed us in ways we couldn't have imagined. In 2016, we learned that Bayside Community Center, an 82-year-old organization that provides food, health, transportation, and legal safety resources and services to roughly 1,000 people a day, was on the verge of closing due to financial trouble. So we did what a caring neighbor does: We jumped in to help. We bought the land that housed Bayside and rebuilt the community center on our new Linda Vista campus.

Now Bayside and Thrive are partners in every sense of the word. We share space and resources. In January we began co-hosting workshops on positive parenting. The workshops are led by Jewish Family Services and conducted in Vietnamese. The next round of workshops will be in Spanish and English. I'm so proud that our school can play a role in educating and empowering parents who might otherwise feel isolated. The experience has taught me that magical things happen once you stop thinking of yourself as a school and start thinking of yourself as a resource.

As we continue to hone our listening skills, we regularly seek out parents' perspectives on how Thrive is doing. Twice a year, we conduct an extensive parent survey, which yields hundreds of responses to our questions about academics, culture, operations, staff, extracurricular offerings, and more. Parents know what their kids need. Parents are their kids' first teachers. They have a lot of wisdom and they can—and do—tell us where we can do better.

Local leaders have offered sage advice and encouragement as well. State Sen. Toni Atkins, whose district includes our schools' communities, has lent her support. Our local town council and neighborhood council have also been instrumental in our work with the community. When we were designing our new campus in Linda Vista, parents, teachers, and other community members all came together to help design the site, offer expertise, and create a community resource, not just a school. Together with our neighbors, we are invested in achieving great outcomes for kids and families.

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Taking advantage of our location within a few miles of San Diego's top universities, we've also formed some promising partnerships with local academic leaders and education experts. Thrive has a spot on the University of San Diego's Anchor Institution Advisory Board, alongside churches, schools, community centers, and support groups. More importantly, we've come to realize that many of our students can pursue their education right in their own communities all the way through college and graduate school. Through our collaboration with the University of San Diego, the University of California–San Diego, and others, we aim to become a pre-K through Ph.D. pipeline.

Schools should not be islands; they should be interconnected with the other organizations that take care of the neighborhood's needs, forming a web of support. By listening and by doing with rather than to, schools can provide so much more than an education; they can contribute to the collective well-being of their entire communities.

Photos courtesy of Thrive Public Schools, from top: 

  • A group of young Thrive students in an outdoor activity
  • Elected officials, community members, parents, board members, and students celebrate the groundbreaking of Thrive's new school

 

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