Community Roots: An Approach to School Integration That Lives in A Name

Written By David Kirkland

Community Roots is a charter school in the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. The school is uniquely diverse; 39 percent of its students is White, 33 percent is Black, 20 percent is a combined Latino and Asian, and 8 percent is other. What Community Roots seemed to have accomplished is fascinating in a City that too often looms under a disturbing paradox: NYC is one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. yet is schools are among the nation’s most segregated.

Why is Community Roots so different? They are doing a lot of things right, such as enlisting parents as partners in the education of students. They operate based on an “our kids” approach. They also shape community building around collective and constructive “play.”

Indeed, all schools, not just traditional public schools can learn from these approaches. What Community Roots has done is interrupt a deficit perspectives that low income urban parents are disengaged in their children’s education. This can be debated, and is most likely untrue. Instead of embracing a deficit perspective, Community Roots use a strengths-based—or what I’ve called a “profit perspective”—believing in the assets that parents can bring to learning. This has allowed them to reframe the conversation: instead of disengaged parents, they see schools who have failed to engage parents. Thus, the central question driving their approach to parent engagement is, how might schools engage parents, as opposed to how might parents engage schools.

The logic shift at Community Roots is important because it creates a new set of conditions to frame the interactions between school and home and etc. The other part, creating a play space for kids who lack opportunities, gets at non-cognitive dimensions of schooling. The play space creates trust, helps youth release stress and stored-up energy, build lasting bonds, gain greater familiarity with the school environment—each of these is essential for productive learning.

There are cognitive promises related to play as well—problem-solving in groups and individually, enhancements of creative drives and exploration, development of curiosities, interpersonal skills, communication, etc. 

It should be noted that Community Roots works with a select population. It is hard to generalize their results to other educational situations. The parents who send their children to Community Roots are highly motivated and share relative economic advantages. This does not mean that other educational situations can’t learn from what Community Roots appears to be doing well.

We can learn a lot from their programs but also from their cultural models not clearly nested in the lives of low-income urban youth. The idea of play dates strikes me as very middle class. But the presence of play is fundamental to all childhoods.

I don’t want to romanticize the Community Roots because I do wonder about the cultural aspects of this work: How does Community Roots attend to social and cultural differences? How reflective are the play spaces, for instance, of the cultural lives, practices and activities, of the youth being served? What I am curious about is to what extent is the agenda of the programs—after school activities, etc.—sensitive to the nuances of culture, or is its purpose to to change parents and their children, and make them what they are not, etc.?

These are serious questions and concerns, but something is happening at Community Roots. If done right, other schools can build upon their model. And this is a good thing.