Mobilizing Communities for Schools with Emily Woods
August 30, 2022
Mobilizing Communities for Schools with Emily Woods

Community schools are a big asset to communities whose schools struggle to meet the needs of all its youth. But it takes time and effort to start to see change. A lot of time and effort.

This week on the podcast, I’m talking with Emily Woods, the head of education for the Richard K. Lubin Family Foundation and long-time policy advocate. She shares what it really looks like to start and grow an effort to grow a community school and how to get policy makers involved.

As a former private school turned public school teacher, Emily saw the disparity that exists between the resources available. But she was able to take her private school knowledge into the public schools, then eventually into advocacy, to really make an impact.

In this episode, she shares how leaders need to shift their thinking about how they address student needs, why your community effort may not work, where the support needs to come from, and more. She even shares a breakdown of action steps to help communities mobilize. Have a notepad handy!

About Emily Woods:

Emily Woods currently serves as Head of Education for the Richard K. Lubin Family Foundation. Previously, she taught as Adjunct Lecturer in Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston and was a Boston Public School teacher and Senior Co-Trainer in the BPS New Teacher Development Program. She has a PhD in education policy and leadership from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, an MEd in elementary education from Boston University, and a BA from Bowdoin College. Her research focuses on school districts that have addressed the adoption of community school policy, and her professional focus is on helping urban districts move beyond a site-by-site community school strategy to a citywide, community-owned initiative.

Jump in the Conversation:

[2:05] – Where the path began for Emily
[3:00] – Community school label – what it is and its importance
[4:13] – How community schools are like smartphones
[6:59] – Even before pandemic there was big disparity between school types
[7:50] – Schools can’t exist in a vacuum
[8:36] – Elements we need to make school reform sustainable on a big scale
[11:15] – There are different ways to get things moving
[12:05] – We need the right lens and a groundswell
[12:30] – How data comes into the picture
[14:35] – Groundswell can only happen if community members are in support of initiative
[15:01] – How to help communities to mobilize
[17:52] – Action steps to start with
[21:00] – Turbo Time
[23:58] – It takes a long time to start to see change
[24:35] – Emily’s magic wand
[26:17] – Maureen’s Takeaways

Links & Resources



Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at Education Evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education evolution, micro school coalition, and co founder of at active, I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast, please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:08
Hi, Emily, it is so good to have you on education evolution.

Emily Woods 1:13
Thank you for having me.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:15
And listeners. today I’m chatting with Dr. Emily Woods, author of the path to successful community school policy adoption. And this book is the culmination of doctoral studies and a career of serving as a teacher, teacher, trainer and professor. It’s a call to action, which is so exciting. And it has a clear path toward collaborating and creating schools that are really supported by the whole community. I can’t wait for us to dive in Emily.

Emily Woods 1:44
Okay, thank you for that, I need to write that down word for word. I appreciate it.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:51
So Emily, you and I have both devoted doctoral studies to making needed change in our schools. We’ve put an awful lot of research and a lot of effort. Where did this passion for school transformation began with you?

Emily Woods 2:05
I think came I guess from my time teaching in public schools, and before that I was at a private school. And moving from the private school world into the urban public school world and seeing just the unbelievable difference in the two in the two cultures and climates. And how lucky I felt even just as a teacher to have been given all of the support and training and resources from my private school, and being able to take that into my public school experience. So even just as a teacher sort of seeing that, but then also just sort of thinking about it from the from the child and the family perspective. So that I think is where it it started.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 2:54
Absolutely. That makes really good sense. So Emily, community school gets thrown around as a label, what would you say is a community school? And why is it of such vital importance?

Emily Woods 3:11
So first of all, that’s probably the smartest question that you can ask. And it’s at the same time, it is one of the hardest to answer. The way that I like to define Community Schools is as a public school that is often open during times that schools are traditionally empty or unused evenings, weekends and summers. And these schools have collaborative leadership structures that work alongside families, students, teachers and local organizations. And they identify and provide social and out of school time support. These schools often have one designated staff person called the Community School coordinator or manager. And that person’s job is to work with the community and work with partners to make sure that support is truly integrated into the fabric of school life, and that it is leveraging assets from the community in order to make that happen. So that’s that’s a long definition. That’s about as short as I can do. And I’ll keep going if that’s okay.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 4:10

Emily Woods 4:11
I find that a really helpful metaphor is to compare community schools to smartphones. And these schools, community schools have a carefully curated network of apps. You know, in other words, programs, partnerships and other strategies that connect students and their families to the opportunities and supports that they are looking for. It may also make sense to to share the National Education Association’s definition, and they say in really one great sentence. Community schools are public schools that provide services and support that each neighborhoods needs created and run by the people who know our children best all working together. And I think that is also a really important component of community schools.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 4:59
Love it. So what might be some extras? Would I see like dental services, what would I see in addition to the traditional school services.

Emily Woods 5:12
So a lot of what you might see might happen in the in the times where school is not in session. So you may see a real emphasis on after school programming, and a lot of different academic and other opportunities that come outside of the school day, often for students and also, for families and community members. You may see a dental clinic, you may see a community health center, you may see a lot of different types of means of providing social supports.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 5:46
Wow, I love the smartphone metaphor, because it really is not just about calling somebody or texting somebody, it’s about all of these other apps. And what are their needs? Does the neighborhood have, or can the neighborhood offer, it just it sounds like a holistic love and care for our students that can trickle out and serve parents and others in the community,

Emily Woods 6:10
and more. And what I would say too, is that, you know, the bottom line is that no matter what, there has to be a strong academic program, there have to be great teachers who care deeply about their students. But community schools do everything they can to make sure that the pathways to academic success are clear, and that the whole community is on board and helping to make it happen.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 6:32
And those obstacles we know can be derailing the latchkey kid or the kid that has to stay home and get siblings off to school, there’s so many things that are obstacles for learners. So to pay attention to that is really important in so many public schools or private schools, it’s just like, once you get in our doors, we can do a great job, but we can’t address any of those others. So this sounds vital.

Emily Woods 6:57
I would I would say for sure, even before the pandemic, when you know, there are such incredible educational and economic disparities in this country, you know, and all of them are tangled up in this web of structural and systemic racism. And that’s probably a subject for a whole, you know, another series of podcasts. And these disparities have not budged despite a gazillion different reform efforts over the last who knows how many decades. And, you know, as of as of 2021, more than 25 million students, and you know, this, that go to public schools in the United States live in under resourced households, it’s the highest number in decades. And I think that brings us to your question, why are community schools so important? Why this why now. And as we move forward, from or through this pandemic, schools need to think differently about how they meet student needs. And teaching and learning, just like you said, cannot exist in a vacuum. And we can’t go back to the way education was, schools have to be able to do more. And communities need to come together to think about all of the needs of the child, there needs to be a paradigm shift. And that needs to be significant.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 8:17
And salutely. And that’s why in 2013, I started my microscope, but I just went it alone and said, We have to care about our kids. It has to be holistic, it has to meet them where they are. And that’s not I mean, that’s not a sustainable way of doing things. So I wonder from all of the research that you’ve done, what would you say are two or three key elements that we need to make this school reform a reality on a large scale?

Emily Woods 8:47
This is this is a great question. So I would start with something that’s not an element. I think that one of the biggest things is there needs to be a really realistic understanding of how hard change is, I mean, everywhere, but especially in education. So that would be my first suggestion is to make sure that the lens is how do you think about school reform and change management when change is so darn hard? Yeah, it’s close to impossible. And when leadership turnover in urban school districts is just so high. So to continue that a real paradigm shift has to be I like to think of leader proof or future proof.

Emily Woods 9:34
And there’s a woman named Joy Dryfoos, who many consider to be the godmother of community schools, and she has she is no longer alive. But she talked about the importance of getting community schools into the city’s drinking water that if it’s not in the drinking water, if it is not ingrained in the city, it will not be able to withstand the changes in leadership that again, are just so common. I In urban schools, so that needs to be the lens. But obviously you need to start somewhere. And it all has to start with political will. You’ve got to figure out a way to get enough political will to make things happen. And there needs to be a champion, at least one champion, what you really want is the superintendent and the mayor of a city to say, Yes, this is how we want our city to think about urban education. We are going to think about community schools at the city level and take a systems approach and not just go school, by school by school.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 10:37
I love that. And that lens is super important, because we’re like, yeah, we need to make this change. And I work with a lot of people that want to start a micro school, or I interview people that have a great idea. And I think we all need to say this is going to be like you said, super hard, close to impossible. And then who are the people with power that are champions, because it doesn’t matter how passionate a parent or a teacher is, we’ve got to have some power to get anything moving.

Emily Woods 11:12
I could not agree more. There are different ways of getting things moving. And you can start at the so called Top with trying to get the year of key policy makers. You can also really think about the groundswell. And my research certainly uncovered the importance of coalition’s community members, people that are passionate about community schools coming together, consistently showing up at local city meetings, and articulating the need for for school reform and saying we want community schools, we are the squeaky wheel and you cannot cut our funding. So it really can come from all different levels or layers of the policy and community.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 12:03
So not only do we need the right lens, and political will and champions in the city and the superintendent’s office, we also need a groundswell. So big picture top down groundswell that’s persistently showing up at meetings and like that pebble in the shoe is a consistent irritant. And then you’ve mentioned in the past things about data, how does data play into this important formula for school reform.

Emily Woods 12:36
So anyone that is passionate about an initiative, especially community schools, needs to be prepared, almost with an elevator pitch, be really ready that if they get the ear of a policymaker that they are ready, one to explain what the initiative is, but also be prepared to say, we need this in this city in this community for this reason. And this is how we know that it’s going to be successful. And it may be a matter of getting data from other cities that have done the same thing. And making sure that that data is available and presentable. In a really, really easy to see quick soundbite type way. But there needs to be a level of preparedness for these these meetings with any sort of policy member. So yes, the data has to be ready to be presented to anybody who’s in charge of making a decision because data talks, data speaks like that.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 13:46
And I also like, and for people like I am, they’re like, Yeah, ready, I’m one of those ready, fire aim, people. And I have to remember, wait a minute, taking time to get the data is going to help me clarify my thinking is going to educate me on what’s already been been done. So I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. So if I want to be an advocate, it just can’t be my Flash of brilliance. It does need to be super prepared. And when you’re talking about an elevator speech, that reminds me I need to be super clear on my audience. What do they want to hear what’s going to have impact? So that level of preparation sounds vital to making sure that policymakers even give us a little attention.

Emily Woods 14:34
100% The other piece is you need to make sure that communities want this to happen. And just it’s that it’s that groundswell piece, but the groundswell can only happen when community members are themselves in favor of these these types of initiatives. And if they do want to push this forward and make this happen, how can you as an advocate help communities to mobilize So, can you figure out ways for them to present at a school committee night? Could you encourage them to write op eds for the local paper? What are the different ways that you can get the word of the community out?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 15:14
I love that. And I can see somebody that would be a passionate vocal person at a city council meeting. And another. No, thank you. I don’t want to be in the public eye. But boy, that pen is a mighty tool, I will definitely do an op ed and add my voice. So I think you’re right, really being on top of figuring out ways or maybe it’s somebody that’s an amazing networker loves social media that can say, hey, we want 50 of us at the at the city council meeting in and can stir things up and bring people together. So being clear in advance on what our ask is, and having lots of asks so that people with this passion can participate in ways that align with their gifts and their comfort zone. That seems like an often overlooked step.

Emily Woods 16:05
Absolutely. And finding activators if you yourself are not an activator, find somebody who can play that role. Somebody that you can get the ear of and have the ear of the policy decision makers, somebody just like you mentioned, who may have a vast social media network, a big platform where people listen, get that activator on your side?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 16:29
I love that. Because it is that seven degrees of separation, like oh, yeah, my cousin worked with this person in the law firm before this person went on and served in the government. There are people that can get the air. Oh, yeah, my kid is in the same fourth grade classes, this political figure. If we think about that, and build our network accordingly, we can get the ear of these people and elected officials want to hear from us if we can make it easy.

Emily Woods 17:01
Absolutely. But I hope I’m not making it seem too easy. Because no, not no, there. There has to be so much behind the scenes work that is being done. Because the window of opportunity is often very, very finite. And you’ve got to be ready, you’ve got to be constantly thinking about your activators, you’ve got to constantly be thinking about what is my data? What do I have? How can I show it? And you also have to be thinking, are my communities ready to make the case?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 17:36
That’s a biggie is reading the landscape? And is this the right timing for our community.

Emily Woods 17:45
And when the time is right, being prepared,

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 17:49
these are great. So if we were to kind of synthesize into a couple of action steps, I really like to have some baby steps that people can go out and do right away. It might be finding the like minded people that have the passion. Well, what would be some starting places, because people listening to this podcast, want education, to evolutionized? One all learners to be met where they are and to be thriving and to be contributing members of society. And so how would you kind of sum up a couple of things that people listening could go out and start with? Now?

Emily Woods 18:28
I would say find your activators list your activators make sure that you have a shared vision for what it is you’re trying to push forward. Is that vision able to be compacted into a succinct elevator pitch? Can you make a couple of slides? Do you have a couple of powerful pieces of data that will meet whatever needs your community is facing right then in that moment? Is it addressing what is urgent?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:06
Is it addressing what is urgent? These steps are so important. And I think that urgent piece is the kicker because maybe I have a like minded group of people that really think we should have emerged in German schools. And that’s cool. But Is it urgent in today’s landscape? So I think that urgency piece is something we not only have to make sure we have but then we have to frame it. Oh my gosh, the dropout rate has gone from this to this or the anxiety and depression levels and teens have increased to this. I think we have to say, you know this is a five Bell alert.

Emily Woods 19:48
Yes. It must be addressed now. It cannot wait. And it must rise to the surface.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:57
Perfect. Well, Emily You are giving us a lot to think of. It must have been really fun and powerful just doing the deep dive in your doctoral studies on this.

Emily Woods 20:12
It was really fun, not fun and a lot of ways my interviews were fun. Yeah, it was hard. It was hard to hear the frustration. And what I did is I, I looked at two cities over the course of 16 years. So obviously, there were a lot of periods of extreme frustration where you people just felt like they were pushing these giant boulders up the steep, steep hills. But getting a sense of the passion for school change in a really meaningful way. And people who would not back down from this was was was pretty incredible.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:55
I bet. I’m gonna pivot and ask you a few turbo time questions so that our listeners can get to know you, Emily, a little better.

Emily Woods 21:06
Okay, okay, do it.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:08
What’s the last book you read?

Emily Woods 21:10
last book I read was lessons in chemistry. Have you read it? No. Write it down. It is so good. It is probably the best main character that I have, you know, quote, unquote, met in the last couple of decades of reading. I am obsessed with the protagonist of this book. Wow. A, she is a total badass. Am I allowed to say that?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:40

Emily Woods 21:42
And total sword. It’s all about female empowerment. But I made my dad read it and he couldn’t put it down on and he said at night. I just I don’t want to finish it. I can’t I just only letting myself read 10 pages a night? Because I don’t want to finish it.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:57
Wow. Oh my gosh, I love to read. So this is totally noted. How about two inspirational folks fictitious from the past whatever that you’d like to meet.

Emily Woods 22:10
It’s probably some of the stars of the Community School world join Dreyfus who I talked about a little bit ago. I wish I wish I could have I wish I could talk to her now and interview her and just understand every reason for the work that she did and and understand some of the challenges that she faced and why she she never quit, as well as some of the other stars of the Community School world. Like Linda darling Hammond and Jeanne oaks, people I’ve never met before, but I’ve read so much of their of their work and just continue to be inspired by them.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 22:47
Nice. How about a TED Talk that inspires you?

Emily Woods 22:51
I think that anything by Sir Ken Robinson would check that box about changing education paradigms. And I love I love the way he presents himself just so good. Creativity. Hello. So important.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:06
Yeah. Amen. And playing to that little dancers learning style, letting that person be kinesthetic, instead of perhaps academic, the different stories he’s told us like, Yes, please.

Emily Woods 23:20
I’ve listened to some of his TED talks over and over and over again. And it’s just I feel like it’s something that everybody should do every every year or to just start again, listen to them again.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:32
Absolutely. How about a pet peeve of yours?

Emily Woods 23:36
This isn’t deep, but a cold coffee. I like hot coffee. And it gets a little bit warm, not hot. I go right to the microwave. I am I am constantly at the microwave. How funny.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:53
How about a passion you bring to the community school initiative.

Emily Woods 23:58
Maybe it’s my my willingness to play the long game. And I know that change takes a long time and it takes a long time to see real true results. Especially because test scores aren’t going to change overnight. It’s going to take a while. So I know that and I’m ready to wait and put the work in.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 24:21
Yes that is super needed in the sound bite era. I think it’s becoming more scarce as a skill so good for you. So Emily, I like to end the podcast with a magic wand moment. It just makes me hopeful. So if we hand you a magic wand what would you wish for? I think that lens piece you brought to us what would you wish for as our collective lens as we look at schools and and maximum support for our learners.

Emily Woods 24:59
I could wave my magic wand, I would see cities that really work together, the mayor’s office, and the superintendent and all of the different city departments, as well as key community members are together at the same table, and trying to figure out the path forward together. Instead of doing it separately, instead of doing it in their own silos, I want a different way of working together and coordinating resources. And I really want a shared vision at the city level so that everybody can be rowing in the same direction. And everybody can get involved in making a difference for students.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 25:49
Mic drop. Absolutely. Emily, thank you. Thank you for your hard work for your studies for your book. And for being willing to play the long game. It has been lovely interviewing you today.

Emily Woods 26:04
Well, it’s my pleasure having been here as well. Thank you so much for having me.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 26:17
It takes a village, a whole community to be the full school of resources our youth deserve. I really appreciate how Emily can take both a systemic and a long view perspective on this topic. We all know we have to break down silos and bring everybody to the table if we want the kind of support needed to help this vital important educational evolution happen. Three takeaways I have from this interview with Emily.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 26:53
First, we need to create a paradigm shift as Emily says, and get community schools into our cultures drinking water. Our phones have become this great tool for written communication photography, video calls and old fashioned voice calls, we can go one place to get many communication needs met. The idea that our community can go one place and serve our youth and their families is a beautiful parallel. school campuses are rarely fully used after school and on weekends. One Community School I visited had a dental practicum program on site where families could get very discounted dental care. Another has weekend tutoring for the students. Unfortunately, our schools in general have stepped back from having nurses and robust health resources available and mental health support. Yikes.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 27:56
Oftentimes, it’s one school counselor for each 200 students. And that’s not going to support our youth mental health that might get kids scheduled into the right classes. It’s on each of us in the community to make sure that every youth has, as Rita Pearson famously says in her TED Talk, their own champion. The second takeaway is that true policy change needs to be grassroots and wanted by the folks in the field. And it needs the support of those in positions to make policy change. So top up and bottom down are both needed, with a critical mass supporting the effort. And third, we have to be ready and take action. We need a shared vision and group of activators willing to move the concept of community school forward. They need to be at the meetings where policies are discussed and implemented, and they need to be ready which means having that common elevator speech with data pain points and solutions on the tip of our tongues for that 32nd window. selling the idea of community wraparound support for our youth is daunting and needed. What steps will you take today, thank you for caring and for being a part of the education evolution.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 29:38
If you are finding yourself thinking, I need to do this in my school. Let’s talk about it. I consult and also have a book TEDx talk an online course to support starting learner driven schools and programs. My goal is to help schools and individuals find new innovative solutions to reaching every student Let’s create an action plan together, visit to book a call and let’s get started. Education evolution listeners, you are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen, heard, valued and thriving. We need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. I’d be so grateful if you’d head over to your podcast app to give a great rating and review if you found this episode valuable. Don’t wait. Please do it right now before you forget. I really appreciate it. Thank you listeners, signing off. This is Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.

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