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Community Social Action for School Reform

reviewed by Duane M. Covrig & Laura Purnell - 2004

coverTitle: Community Social Action for School Reform
Author(s): Howell S. Baum
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791457605, Pages: 320, Year: 2003
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Baum’s book is a theoretically rich and detailed account of his participation in community action groups that created small but positive school reforms in

Southeast Baltimore . He reviews the challenges, opportunities, and processes of “constituting” and acting through such community action groups.

This book is challenging to read because of its extensive details. Several community action groups, processes, and projects are chronicled “ad infinitum.” The details are probably necessary to give an accurate picture of the struggle of community members as they gained momentum and then experienced ambivalence and resistance from an often unresponsive, besieged, bureaucratically and professionally-controlled public school system. However, the tediousness of these details (e.g. planning, convening and running meetings, finding partners, learning about people, organizing, managing interpersonal conflicts, developing interagency collaborations, learning from failures, raising money, increasing interest, channeling disagreements into comprehensive plans, etc.) made for thick prose. Nevertheless, this density of details could be viewed as a subtle way to reinforced a central theme of the book: community action groups require much work. Even the most idealistic and passionate reformer will be sobered by the tasks needed for reform.

Fortunately, Baum provides the reader periodic breaks from all this detail with sociologically savvy and helpful explanations. These interludes are useful. He also provides concise chapter summaries that keep the reader focused on the main issues. His well-cited use of literature from community development, organizational sociology, social capital and communications should please professors of school-community relations and community development.

Even with these structures, the book needs more diagrams, charts, tables and graphic organizers to make its ideas more accessible. With so many “actors” coming and going in the community groups, and the constant change in projects, it is hard to keep straight about who was doing what, with whom, when and for what reason. A socio-gram or two would have simplified this. An inter-organizational operations and funding chart could have summarized the flow of projects and money. Furthermore, tables could have organized the social theories reviewed and linked them to the groups’ work. A district map would have also helped to give a geographical “portrait” of the schools involved. We fear that absent these the book will not find wide use by educators who will not take the time to mine its ideas.

Those willing to take the time will discover a wealth of ideas. We review five of these: (a) the context of urban schooling; (b) the nature of reform by community action groups; (c) the three-fold challenges of organizing for reform—participation with attachment, knowledge and research, and action; (d) the challenges to school reform; and (e) the moral and social challenges for action.


The context of urban education, especially in the largest 100 cities in the

U.S. , is complex and saddled with major challenges. Baum introduces the reader to these challenges with demographic data as well as vignettes. For example, one vignette is from one community reformer’s experience of urban challenges:

McNally…was awed by the burdens and traps of children’s lives. Few had working parents. Most lived in bad housing, and some were homeless. Most did not eat regularly or well. Few had decent clothing, and many parents could not afford laundry. Parents cared about their children, but many lost their aim as they let drugs take over their lives. Child abuse or neglect displaced nurturance. These conditions humbled McNally. As much caring as she gave the children, there was little she or the center could do in short order that would substantially change their lives. (p. 126).

Baum’s candidness about urban education is evident from the start. “American urban schools are not educating their students, who, by and large, are children of the nation’s poor and racial and ethnic minorities. These conditions help keep many African Americans and Hispanics poor, and they help make poverty hereditary. They make it impossible for American cities to reproduce themselves intellectually” (p. 4). His view of these challenges makes him realistic about the extraordinary efforts and collaboration needed for reform to work. “Urban crisis is not caused by cities, and it too cannot be solved by cities alone” (p. 4). “Improving education is not just a matter of reforming schools…. Improving education depends on changing these other institutions as well” (p. 5). Baum lists high unemployment and transciency rates, demographics about poverty, and other data that detailed his city’s challenges. However, throughout this sad review there is a spirit of hope. The reader is introduced to community reformers who saw “the community as more than a collection of problems; it contained assets that could help schools” (p. 126).

It is through these reformers eyes that the “challenges” of urban education became anchors for hopes, not only for Baum’s

Southeast Baltimore reformers, but for all who seek to reform urban schooling. First, there were people. Many were in need of jobs, training, health care, and better social sensitivity and networking. But these people were city assets--children, parents, community activists, professionals, and others with both actual and untapped human and social capital. Baum could have extended this hope to other areas. For example, cities also have many material resources (buildings, streets, playgrounds, transportation systems, etc.) that are often viewed as liabilities and danger zones when they are run-down or outdated. But many hold promise that with proper funding, remodeling, and ownership they could be new shelters for students, learning and re-development. Cities also have other resources (funding, knowledge, skills, civic soul, etc.) and organizations (libraries, schools, hospitals, businesses, city agencies, community agencies, etc.). These can create a congestion of bureaucracies that manifests itself in “turf wars” and political fights often associated with city politics. However, these same dense environments of bureaucracy hold promise. With well-defined collaboration plans and inter-organizational cooperation this organizational wealth can be turned into human, social and financial capital. This is the urban context, evident in Baum’s Baltimore . This is the urban context elsewhere. The challenges of economic disparity, crime, blight, and poor health care and training are plentiful, but so are the resources for real hope.

Added to the challenges in

Southeast Baltimore was a school system with numerous bureaucratic constraints, strong and occasionally uncooperative teacher unions, overworked principals cautious of outsiders, higher numbers of students in poverty, crowded classes, and economic disinvestment and poor funding. This school system was like many urban school systems in that they “try to close communities out of action…. The educators, still claiming to do it all, inevitably fail, to public blame and their own shame. Then they become wary of outsiders, only increasing their chances of failing at what to accomplish” (p. xi). Baum’s community action groups wanted to help, but their help was shunned by a system that had problems but also shared the same hope of being rallied to make significant change.

The community action groups Baum describes built around a hope that things could be improved. They defined school reform as changes in school practices that first altered schools in a way that significantly improved children’s learning and urban life, and then those alterations endured and became institutionalized into the school and community culture and processes (p. 257). These activists understood the reality that “organizations have become inseparable from their environments… increasingly it is the overall field, rather than discrete organizations within it, that has the capacity to act” (p. 15). They understood lasting reform required extensive collaboration and action. Such inter-organizational demands made it more difficult but equally more possible for their urban areas to improve. They had people, resources, and dense networks of organizations. However, “several [organizations] may try to accomplish similar goals but in diverse, and even divergent, ways. They end up influencing one another but not completely or fully predictably, and actions may have uncertain, ambiguous outcomes” (p. 17). Thus coordinated inter-organizational action was needed.

This proved no easy task. However, with persistence multiple representatives from many organizations could work together. However, “one needed not romanticize community action or exaggerate its accomplishments to appreciate its potential… A small community organization can accomplish some things of significance in improving education. Part of the explanation is that there is a lot of empty space in the educational domain, part is that even a small entity can organize powerful networks, and part is that communities have many useful resources’ (p. x).

So starting small, the community action groups Baum chronicles go through three stages. First, they built themselves into a dedicated albeit constantly changing group of participants. Next, they developed group knowledge about their community and school “problems” and potential “solutions.” Finally, they acted. In documenting this process, Baum does not slip into empty visionary platitudes about reform nor call for a utopian view of society. No large scale revivals are conceived. No sweeping Cinderella or

Hollywood ending for these urban challenges. There were just people, learning to trust each other, doing the nuts and bolts work of understanding their communities’ needs and making small fixes where they could.


Baum focuses on these three aspects: (a) building participation, which engendered real attachment; (b) group research that developed group knowledge about the source and extent of children’s needs and how to meet those needs; and (c) effective and sustained action, although small and disjointed at times, that completed short and long-term projects for children. Baum adds layers and layers of details to the interaction of these three. This makes for tedious reading but a wealth of ideas.

Baum’s view of participation distinguishes among involvement, partnerships, networks and other attachments. For Baum, participation is:

1. coming together, simply at first, by geography, interest, or encounter.

2. thinking together, as a way of developing common shared knowledge

3. doing together, acting to learn as well as to accomplish tasks

4. staying together, not forever but long enough for group cohesion to breed enough knowledge for successful activity

5. expanding and contracting as a group, depending on the coming and going of members and the changing funding, function, or tasks of the group

6. attachment, by which one individual saw a high need of the other, and was felt to be important to the success of the group.

Although Baum provided rich details about participation, we wished he had spent more time on the reciprocal nature of participation. There are personal benefits to participating. Ideally, participation heightens the capacity of the individual (say a parent) to contribute to (school volunteering for example) and be enriched by the process (parent learns leadership skills or problem solving abilities). Participation can be a mechanism for the facilitation of an individual’s self esteem and a means of advancing adult learning and development (Winters, 1993; Purnell, 2000). The Comer model and Head Start data show evidence of this transformative aspect of participation. As parents and community members see schools as safe and natural places to practice participation, they can and do develop skills that can be transferred to other institutions, for personal as well as family and community benefit.

Furthermore, Baum could have said more on the deep roots of alienation and the role of culture in involvement (Lareau, 2000). Alienation is an attribute of the individual within certain relationships (Geyer, 1980). It is often a condition that many in financial poverty and in inner cities experience. It is characterized by disconnectedness and dis-identification in relationships and with the self (Winters, 1993). Some sociologists view alienation as multidimensional and associated with more pervasive concepts of powerlessnenss, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolation, and self-estrangement. Although Baum indirectly explores how meaninglessness and powerlessness work against participation, the cultural aspects of this important barrier to participation and attachment need to be explored.

Baum does a good job of exploring the second stage of community action: the development of group knowledge. Shared learning occurred as each member brought their learning and voice to the meetings, as they used personal and professional expertise, to systematically secure data and interpret it. Participation must orchestrate knowledge development through research and data gathering, and develop shared understandings if attachment is to lead to shared and accurate understandings of the urban issues and clear options for change. In general group knowledge was based on:

1. learning by membership. Expertise flowed in with each new participant.

2. learning through disagreements about issues.

3. learning by utilizing experts, who may or may not have been professionals.

4. learning by action. Both failed and successful action breeds knowledge.

5. learning by systematic data collection and analysis. Sometimes no local organization knew what needed to be known, so the group had to collect their own data and interpret it themselves.

6. learning by talking, within the group and through systematic interviews with school officials, students, parents, and community members.

The final challenge for community groups was action. This action was evident in the two previous stages, as both participation and research required extensive activity. Community groups eventually acted beyond simple attachment and knowledge. They eventually took up projects, at first very simple, and then increasingly more complex, comprehensive, systemic, sustainable, and self-perpetuating. Baum used the well known work of Joyce Epstein (1997, 2000) to categorize these actions as 1) working parallel with schools (on tutoring and learning), 2) working with school staff (to support schools or to collaborate on school projects) and then 3) working with the larger community with or without the school’s involvement (pp. 32-40).


Community action (participation, knowledge, action) aimed at school reform will run up against resistance, first, with parents themselves. “Parents were preoccupied with supporting their families and had little time for meetings. Some had drug problems that took their attention and limited their ability to raise children or take part in school. Many, having had their own difficulties as students, hesitated to speak to teachers or the principal” and did not feel confident to act. (p. 106). Even if groups overcame parent apathy, self-abuse, preoccupation, and suspicion, they had to build their confidence in the parent’s own ability to act.

Even as the parents felt the winds of leadership and change, they would encounter the resistance of schools. “In a taut, demanding school system, subject to public criticism and paranoid about outsiders, administrators regarded community members suspiciously” (p. 109). “Parents felt angry about schools but defensive about their limited knowledge of education, and many principals felt defensive about their limited success in educating students” (p. 109). Everyone was defensive. Everyone fed the feelings of alienation growing in the other. The inertia was powerful and discouraging. Leadership recalcitrance and the self-protective behavior of organizations followed from this fear. Already beleaguered and publicly shamed schools pulled back. Under constant criticism “school systems try to close communities out of action” (p. xi). This was evident throughout the work of the group, even at the point of data collection.

A release of information could seem like a threat to the school board itself. Organizational culture reinforced a professional culture that assumed that credentialed educators know everything about schooling and hence should run the system. Parent or community interests in partnerships tacitly challenged that position. In this context, avoiding or resisting community requests did not take thought. This was the environment in which the Task Force [Baum’s action group] tried to work with

Southeast Baltimore schools” (p. 90).

Furthermore, what principals wanted differed from what parents wanted. “Though [only a few] principals had asked for organizing assistance, most simply wanted help implementing their own programs. They envisioned, for example, more supportive PTA’s. They had little time to meet with organizers or parents. None wanted an autonomous parent group” (p. 101). Even if administrators wanted to share data and welcomed true collaboration many didn’t have the skills for such. “To use community assets well, a principal must be able to plan with teachers and parents, identity potential resources, meet with possible partners and negotiate arrangements, and manage new relationships and resources” (p. 91). Finally, the few principals who made the time and had the ability often were transferred before things could be completed. Of 16 principals involved in the action groups, only two remained after five years. “Including interim and acting principals, these schools had forty-five principals during this time. On average, one-third changed each year. Thus as potential partners, schools presented a moving target” (p. 91).

These are just a few of the places and faces of resistance Baum reviews for readers. They remind readers of the challenges they would face in similar circumstances.


Baum presents a world of work few of us would want to add to our busy schedules. “Civic activity is an investment of time and effort, competing with family and leisure. It rarely brings immediate returns, and benefits usually are collective, even if individuals share them. Success requires not just cognitive ability but skills and resources” (p. 53). The cost of community action is difficult and tedious labor. But this is no different than what is required for all good things. The call to be engaged will especially be strong for those who read this journal. “Higher education and professional status enable middle-class people to act comfortably and effectively in public deliberations. Their jobs have flexible schedules, and some such as those working for non-profit organizations, may include community work in their professional responsibilities” (p. 53). They should be using their freedoms to serve.

In Baum’s action groups we see the hearts, heads, and hands of individuals in the community attending to the needs of our children. We have hope that such a decision will extend to all of us and that we, as educators, community leaders, parents, and mature adults, can get our children the attention and resources they need.


Epstein, J. L. (1997). School, family, and community partnerships: Your handbook for action.

Thousand Oaks , CA : Corwin Press.

Epstein, J. L., & Sanders, M. G. (2000). Connecting home, school, and community: New directions for social research. In M. T. Hallinan, (Ed.), Handbook of the sociology of education (pp. 285-306).

New York : Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Geyer, R. F. (1980). Alienation theories: a general systems approach (1st ed.).

New York : Pergamon Press.

Lareau, A. (2000). Home advantage: social class and parental intervention in elementary education (2nd ed.).

Lanham , Md. : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

McLaughlin, M.W., Irby, M.A., & Langman, J. (1994). Urban sanctuaries: neighborhood organizations in the lives and futures of inner-city youth (1st ed.).

San Francisco : Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Purnell, L. (2000). Parent participation and alienation among African American mothers: Effects of involvement in Project Fast. Unpublished doctoral dissertation.

Cleveland State University . Cleveland , Ohio :

Winters, W. G. (1993). African American mothers and urban schools: the power of participation.

New York : Lexington Books.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 8, 2004, p. 1637-1644
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11285, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 1:15:29 AM

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About the Author
  • Duane Covrig
    The University of Akron, Ohio
    E-mail Author
    DUANE M. COVIG is Assistant Professor of Educational Administration at the College of Education of The University of Akron, Ohio.
  • Laura Purnell
    The University of Akron, Ohio
    E-mail Author
    LAURA PURNELL is Federal Project Director at the College of Education of The University of Akron, Ohio
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