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In Fits and Starts: Learning to Create a Neighborhood Educational Opportunity Zone

by Martin Scanlan & Peter Miller - 2013

Background/Context: Disparities in educational opportunity and academic achievement are closely connected to social class characteristics that lie beyond the schoolhouse doors. Comprehensive approaches to urban school reform are ecological, seeing schools nested in broader communities. The research presented here examines one such approach in a neighborhood educational opportunity zone: a geographically defined area where a traditionally marginalized children and families are clustered and resources are intensely focused to respond to their concomitant needs.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study contributes to a richer understanding of these zones by examining the genesis of one. Guided by sociocultural learning theory, our central question is: How do communities of practice influence the learning among the adults in a neighborhood educational opportunity zone?

Research Design: This qualitative case study examined a neighborhood educational opportunity zone in an urban area of the Midwestern United States. Our theoretical framework focused on communities of practice: groups who share a common purpose and learn from one another about how to pursue this purpose. We examined the three constituent dimensions of communities of practice: a domain, a shared practice relating to this domain, and a community engaged in this practice.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data were generated from archival documents (brochures, organizational publications), interviews, and field notes from site visits. Data were analyzed by applying the three components of communities of practice: domain, community, and practice. From the interviews, we mapped relational networks to establish parameters of the community. We coded the array of data for indications of a commonly defined domain and shared practices within this domain. Our analysis was an iterative process unpacking whether and how the central participants of the neighborhood educational opportunity zone learned to collectively pursue this common domain.

Findings/Results: As this neighborhood educational opportunity zone formed, a cohesive community emerged whose members largely agree on a common set of concerns, but have a less cohesive understanding of shared practices with which to address these concerns.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The learning among adults within a neighborhood educational opportunity zone is a messy, convoluted, inconsistent process. These zones, by definition, are crafting not only new communities of practice, but new constellations among these. Scholars and practitioners alike will develop richer appreciation of these zones by attending to the complex learning processes occurring within and across these constellations.

One voice is a solitary teacher speaking for herself: I call it the forgotten neighborhood. We are sitting in a basement classroom, crunched into desks sized for first-grade bodies, some flotsam and jetsam from the days activities still drifting about. Ms. Kay wears this space like a well-worn shoe, talking about her school community intimately, as if it is a beloved family member, and one who is battling a long-term cancer. Her eyes glisten as she describes the place that shes devoted over two decades of her work; her passion for Clare Street School is palpable.

Another voice is a lone parent calling out in a crowded auditorium: Do you think they forgot about us or just hope we go away? Capturing the collective sentiment, her voice rises with a mix of incredulity, anxiety, and frustration. It is 8:15 in the evening, and the school board meeting, scheduled to begin at 7:00, has yet to commence. The board has been missing in action, cloistered in a private closed session, presumably getting their ducks in a row before facing the increasingly hostile masses. Everyone is restless, arms crossed, glowering. With food and drink forbidden, people are tired and hungry. Maybe they are trying to wait us out! someone else mutters. At 8:40 clapping in unison begins, as the crowds anxiety rises. Over 100 parents and community members the vast majority from Clare Horizon send a clear message: we are not going anywhere. Ten minutes later, the board shuffles in, ready at long last to begin. Community members line up at the microphone, waiting to speak their minds to the board about the future of their school community.

These images conjure Clare Horizon, a nascent neighborhood educational opportunity zone. These voices and hundreds of others, individually and collectively comprising the school and broader community, could tell the story of Clare Horizon. In this article we examine a slice of this narrative, explicating the learning among the adults that is unfolding as Clare Horizon, in fits and starts, takes shape.


Inequalities in educational opportunity are persistent, ubiquitous, and expanding in the United States (Duncan & Murnane, 2011). While these inequalities are manifest in rural and tribal settings, they are often most visible when clustered in truly disadvantaged (Williams, 1987) urban neighborhoods which serve disproportionately large numbers of traditionally marginalized students and are consequently the focus of multifarious school reform initiatives (Payne, 2008; Ravitch, 2010). These initiatives strive to raise academic achievement, reduce discipline problems and dropout rates, and promote graduation and access to higher levels of education. They are often enacted in response to pressures from the federal government (i.e., the No Child Left Behind Act) that hold schools accountable for demonstrating progress in student learning outcomes. Despite longstanding calls for authentic community engagement (Anderson, 1998), urban schools typically remain isolated and disconnected from their communities (Schutz, 2006). While many reform initiatives focus on the school as a whole (e.g., whole school reform), or a particular dimension of the school (e.g., the curriculum and instruction in math), others are more comprehensive in nature. Comprehensive approaches to urban school reform are ecological, seeing the school as nested in the broader communities. Such approaches recognize that disparities educational opportunity and academic achievement are closely connected to social class characteristics that lie beyond the schoolhouse doors (Rothstein, 2004).

The research presented here examines one such comprehensive approach in the form of a neighborhood educational opportunity zone. A neighborhood educational opportunity zone is a geographically defined area where a disproportionately large population of traditionally marginalized children and families are clustered and resources are intensely focused to respond to the concomitant needs (Ascher, 1988). The goal is to scaffold school-community collaboration that reduces inequities in this area, including, but not limited to, educational inequities. We use the label neighborhood educational opportunity zones as a wide umbrella capturing an array of such initiatives, perhaps the most visible example being the Promise Neighborhood initiative (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). Modeled after the Harlem Childrens Zone (Dobbie & Fryer, 2009; Tough, 2008), promise neighborhoods are geographically delimited areas where schools and organizations formally create alliances to provide extensive support to children and their families. This place-based approach is comprehensive, weaving support for education, economic development, and health care. Neighborhood educational opportunity zones are currently promoted (through various labels) by an array of organizations beyond the Department of Education, ranging from nonprofit organizations (e.g., United Neighborhood Centers of America, 2010) to private foundations (e.g., Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, 2010). Concurrently, a range of public, private, and academic bodies are emerging to provide marketing, technical, research, and evaluation support for communities seeking to initiate these reforms (e.g., Promise Neighborhoods Institute at Policylink, 2010; Social Solutions, 2010). In short, many resources are being invested into creating neighborhood educational opportunity zones, which are widely perceived as an attractive educational reform.

Despite this enthusiasm, empirical research examining neighborhood educational opportunity zones is scant, and such studies seldom center notions of learning in their design and analysis. This study contributes to a richer understanding of these zones by examining the genesis of one. Guided by sociocultural learning theory, our central question is: How do communities of practice influence the learning among the adults in a neighborhood educational opportunity zone? In the first section we explain the theoretical framework behind this focus and situate the study in the context of extant literature. We then present the case study analysis itself. In the final section we suggest implications of this research for the field.


A neighborhood educational opportunity zone is a locus of collaboration. Collaboration implies learning and, accordingly, analysis should be informed by a clear theory of learning. In this study we employ sociocultural learning theory, which recognizes the content, process, and application of learning as connected (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). Sociocultural theories describe learning as generated through social interactions in valued enterprises and experiences (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Vygotsky, 1978), emphasizing the world as socially constituted. The emphasis is that learning involves participation, not simply acquisition of knowledge and skills (Fuller, 2007). Through the participation of individuals and groups, the world is subjectively experienced and understood. Thus, we come to know, learn, change, and grow through our interactions with others.

The strand in sociocultural theories of learning that guides our analysis is communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998; Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002; Wenger, White, & Smith, 2009). Communities of practice are groups who share a common purpose and learn from one another how to pursue this purpose. The three constituent dimensions are a domain, a shared practice relating to this domain, and a community engaged in this practice (Wenger, 1998; Wenger, White, & Smith, 2009). Domain references the common interest that the group shares. Shared practices are the activities or techniques that allow the individuals to pursue this domain. A repertoire of artifacts, both tangible (tools, symbols) and intangible (stories, concepts), facilitates this practice. Community signifies the people who share a commitment to domain and practice (Wenger et al., 2009, p. 7). Whether these communities are harmonious or contentious, members share a commitment to learning with one another. As Wenger (1998) describes, these members must resolve what matters and what does not, what is important and why it is important, what to do and not to do & what to talk about and what to leave unsaid, what to justify and what to take for granted. & (p. 81). This learning theory holds that much of what we learn occurs within communities of practice. Whether it is to teach math or to brew beer, we learn to develop our knowledge, skills, and dispositions with and from others who share a common commitment. As Fuller (2007) puts it, the concept of community of practice invites a focus on learning as a collective, relational and, in short, a social process (p. 19).

Typically organizations are comprised of constellations of communities of practice that are loosely configured and interrelated (Wenger, 1998). In other words, we participate in multiple communities of practice that exist in overlapping networks, not as isolated islands. Some individuals tend to be isolated and interact within this constellation in limited circles, while others span boundaries, spending time and affiliating with a broader array of individuals (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011). Such boundary spanners facilitate communication and enable coordination across communities of practice (Coldren & Spillane, 2007; Printy, 2008).

Wenger (1998) emphasizes that communities of practice are neither inherently good nor bad, but rather are a locus of engagement in action, interpersonal relations, shared knowledge, and negotiation of enterprises (p. 85) and thus potentially powerful forces of transformative learning (Hinchey, 2010; Horn, 2010). Communities of practice can support transformative learning to the degree that they balance the tension between acquiring and generating knowledge (Printy, 2004). Before turning to the study itself, we briefly review the extant literature on neighborhood educational opportunity zones in light of this framework.


As noted, neighborhood educational opportunity zones reflect intensive efforts of urban school/community collaboration aimed at collaboratively solving mutual problems. While other scholarship has examined such collaboration (e.g., Shirley, 2009), a specific theory of learning is not typically employed in this research. In this section we illustrate how the learning framework of communities of practice can serve as a valuable tool for examining learning among adults that occurs in the formation of these zones. As we show, each of the three constituent characteristics of communities of practice described above domain, practice, and community is reflected in the literature. Explicating these latent aspects of the literature focuses attention on the underexamined issue: as school/community collaborations commence and develop, how are individuals and organizations learning?  

First, a fundamental component of successful urban school/community collaboration is coming to agree upon shared goals that individuals pursue together. This is congruent with the emphasis on learning within common domains or joint enterprises (Wenger, 1998, p. 78). Competing or incongruent organizational priorities is a common barrier to effective school/community collaboration (Foley, et al., 2009). Often collaborations use the initial objective of improving low-performing schools as a lever to rally support for the longer-term goal of community reform (A. C. Lewis, 1999; Mitra et al., 2008). In urban school/community collaboration, this joint enterprise can be broadly construed (e.g., the Bronx Corridor of Success Initiative promotes general educational reform [Gillespie, 1998]) or narrowly focused (e.g., promoting high school graduation [Grannis, Meier, & Springer, 1993] or service learning opportunities [McPherson & Nebgen, 1991]). Community schools are one specific model of pursuing school/community collaboration reflecting a coherent, shared domain (Keith, 1996).

Establishing the common goal is directly related to a second element of communities of practice: engaging participants in a community. Literature shows that effective school/community collaboration requires individuals who share a commitment to the goal and clarity about their roles and responsibilities (Ascher, 1988). Partnerships are at times open, involving a wide array of individuals, and at other times limited to small groups of dedicated individuals (Ascher, 1988; Mitra, Movit, & Frick, 2008). Ascher cautions, [C]ollaborations dominated by school systems, which are regulation driven, tend to generate activities that are more symbolic than useful (p. 4). By contrast, collaborations that are collectively driven by a wider range of participants tend to be more effective at promoting substantive change. According to Schutz (2006), integrating the teaching and learning in the school with the broader community context is seldom approached with a sense of mutuality (i.e., to serve the community as well as the school) and an appreciation of the role of central actors (e.g., students):

In general & the field of education has developed few if any effective, broadly applicable strategies or models for helping urban schools to further engage with their communities. In fact, the evidence indicates that urban schools will continue to be highly resistant to any change that might threaten their strict boundaries (p. 716).

A common problem in school/community collaboration is school personnel viewing the community as simply a resource to exploit and/or a barrier to overcome. Schutz (2006) argues that in both cases collaboration often implicitly emphasizes that the purpose of community participation is to assist the school in helping students escape the community, if possible (p. 706). In a similar vein, Mediratta (2007) contrasts parent and community involvement, which is driven and controlled by the schools or school districts, with community organizing for school reform, which is about the intentional building of power among parents, young people, and community residents in low-income communities of color, to transform the accountability relationships between schools and the constituencies they serve (p. 197). This literature underscores the significance of interpersonal relationships among participants in fostering productive school/community collaboration.

Finally, literature reflects several shared practices critical to successful school/community collaborations. Schutz (2006) notes that community-based organizations particularly those that are church-based often provide a coherent set of strategies and a common language for developing political identities in impoverished and oppressed areas (p. 720). Warren (2005) describes two dimensions of a shared repertoire for urban school/community collaboration: social capital and relational power. Warren defines social capital as the set of resources that inhere in relationships of trust and cooperation between and among people (p. 136). Relational power refers to the ability of accomplishing goals through collaborative efforts.

Both social capital and relational power are potentially powerful aspects of the shared repertoire of practices involved in school/community collaboration. For instance, school/community partnerships depend on trusting relationships and social networks. Mitra and colleagues (2008) describe such partnerships as building civic capacity:  provid[ing] opportunities for youth who choose to remain in their home communities to lead successful and productive lives (p. 734). Gold and colleagues (2002) describe a theory of change in which the process of school improvement works hand in hand with a strengthening of the community capacity, with social capital playing a central role in each: Work in & leadership development, community power, and social capital increases civic participation and leverages power through partnerships and relationships within and across communities, as well as with school district, civic, and elected officials (p. 16). In terms of relational power, community organizers can catalyze parents, youth, and residents to challenge underperforming schools to improve (Mediratta, 2007; Schutz, 2006). Groups employing unilateral power organize the social capital within the community to try to force institutions to reform (e.g., organized marches protesting the lack of affordable housing). By contrast, groups employing relational power pursue institutional reform collaboratively (e.g., working with the local zoning commission and developers and nonprofit agencies to promote affordable housing).

Some literature emphasizes barriers that emerge when shared practices are lacking or underdeveloped. Grannis and colleagues (1993), for example, describe the difficulty of information sharing among agencies due to data on students (i.e., attendance, grades) being gathered and communicated in multiple formats. Challenges also include planning, procuring resources (e.g., funding, space), and communication across agencies (Foley et al., 2009). Other scholarship emphasizes the importance of sharing expertise across collaborating entities in order to more effectively address concerns with developing, evaluating, and sustaining programs (A. C. Lewis, 1999).

In addition to these dimensions of domain, community, and practice, literature describing neighborhood educational opportunity zones reflects other aspects of the theory of communities of practice. The most important of these is boundary spanning. Boundary spanners, who simultaneously belong to multiple communities of practice (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011), are often central catalysts in urban school/community collaborative efforts. Frequently educators holding non-faculty positions such as community-based school counselors (Bryan, 2005; R. E. Lewis, 2004) or social workers (Garcia, Mizrahi, & Bayne-Smith, 2010) act as these boundary spanners. Both establishing and maintaining relationships across organizations is difficult, as connections are difficult to forge and can be tentative, fragile, and vulnerable (Wilson, 1983). Yet, as Schutz (2006) suggests, these bridging relationships are essential. The transformation of the individual lives of inner-city residents cannot be disentangled from the transformation of their communities and their relationships to each other and to those outside, (p. 693). From a school reform perspective, persuading the community of the need for reform is very different from engaging them in creating and implementing the reform process (Gold et al., 2005).

Related to boundary spanning, another dimension of this theory that is reflected in neighborhood educational opportunity zones is the recognition that communities of practice exist within and across organizations in constellations. A helpful illustration of this is the applications for Promise Neighborhood Grants (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). Numerous configurations that could be conceptualized as separate communities of practice are embedded in these applications. These range from clusters of individuals within one organization (e.g., a team of educators from a participating school) to groups spanning across multiple organizations (e.g., individual health care providers from multiple organizations). A core group of individuals serving as a planning team who took the lead crafting the application might be seen as another community of practice. These multiple communities of practice web together, with some individuals spanning boundaries among different ones, forming a constellation. The point is less about identifying the correct configurations of these individual communities of practice or the constellation that they collectively form, and more about noticing how learning (of individuals and organizations) occurs in a sociocultural manner.

In sum, many characteristics of communities of practice are embedded in literature describing neighborhood educational opportunity zones. This is not surprising, because the theory of communities of practice emphasizes that such groupings are a locus of much learning that occurs within and across organizations. However, empirical research seldom intentionally applies this sociocultural learning framework to examine the interactions of individuals working in these zones. In this study we foreground communities of practice as a guiding theoretical framework and attend to the three components community, domain, and practice in our analysis of the learning. Since school/community collaboration is a learning process, this theory of learning is a salient analytic tool. Our presumption is that a significant amount of the learning among adults engaged in this collaboration is occurring within and across communities of practice. Accordingly, we explored how individuals, interacting in social networks (Daly, 2010), came to understand a common domain and share practices. We now present this analysis in the case of Clare Horizon.


Clare Horizon (all names are pseudonyms) is a neighborhood in an urban area of the Midwestern United States. During the course of this research, Clare Horizon Community School (CHCS) was formed within this neighborhood. This school resulted from merging two public schools that had experienced declining enrollments over the previous five years. CHCS was created as a new, neighborhood-based public school and located in one of the two previous buildings. Our unit of analysis is CHCS as a subset of the neighborhood educational opportunity zone of Clare Horizon.

Since the theory of communities of practice was our starting point, we sought qualitative data to illuminate groups of individuals (communities) focused on specific knowledge and skills (practices) in certain areas (domains). We wanted to know who was involved and what they saw as their common purpose in the work in Clare Horizon in general and in the formation of CHCS in particular. We gathered data between September 2010 and August 2011. Qualitative data were first generated from community meetings and historical documents in the fall of 2010. Interviews with stakeholders in the Clare Horizon community began in December. We conducted semi-structured interviews with key informants who we identified through snowball sampling. The interviews explored four areas: issue conceptualization, networks, organizational connections, and personal connections (see Appendix). The intent was to solicit from the participants: (1) a description of the central issues that the nascent partnerships were addressing; (2) who was involved in these partnerships; (3) how their organization was connected to the partnerships; and (4) how they were personally connected to the partnerships.

Connecting these to communities of practice, the first question provided a sense of the domain, the second suggested the membership in the community, and the third and fourth pointed toward some dimensions of the practices emerging. The first question asked participants to put the central issue(s) of the school/community collaboration in their own words. We sought to understand how these core members described the focus of this work, and were interested in the degree to which this indicated a common domain. Having allowed the participants to identify the central issue(s), we turned to address the network of relationships of individuals with whom each participant discussed these issues. In this manner our pool of interview participants expanded from an initial 3 core figures to a pool of 12 people whose names kept recurring. Finally, we asked about their own organizational affiliation and about their personal background and motivations. These questions probed dimensions of their own practice vis-à-vis these issues.

These interviews led to the other qualitative data relevant to understanding the learning that was occurring among the adults in Clare Horizon. Specifically, we gathered field notes and minutes from attending two planning and two board meetings, documental data (e.g., brochures and publications) of organizations working with Clare Horizon Community School, and field notes from six visits to Claire Horizon neighborhood. These site visits ranged from events for families and community members at the school to informal neighborhood walks.

We initially coded qualitative data (interview transcripts, notes and minutes from meetings, and field notes) by the three central characteristics of communities of practice described above: domain, community, and practice. We created a network map webbing the relationships noted by each interview participant. Subsequent coding identified indications of promoters and detractors of social capital and relational power in the domain and practice. The interviews provided evidence of the goal, purpose, and intent of the community school initiative, the networks of individuals involved, and the organizational and personal learning that was taking place as the initiative unfolded. The meetings and field notes provided evidence that at times corroborated these interviews, and at other times complicated the picture. Given this framework, we now turn to the case study itself to illustrate how communities of practice influenced the learning among the adults in a neighborhood educational opportunity zone. We divide our findings into two parts, first describing the formation of CHCS within Clare Horizon, and then presenting the three core dimensions of a community of practice involved in this formation.


The primary learning that emerged in this case involved the formation of a community school within the neighborhood educational opportunity zone of Clare Horizon. To set a context for understanding this learning, a timeline of the formation of this school, CHCS, is a helpful tool (see Table 1). In January 2009 the Interfaith United Education Committee first started to pursue the community school idea. Situated in an urban context characterized by a plethora of educational reform initiatives ranging from charter schools to public funding for private school vouchers, Interfaith United was a nonprofit organization composed of a coalition of religious congregations. The Education Committee was a subgroup of Interfaith United that sought to increase educational opportunities in traditional public schools. After putting their community school initiative on the back burner in the spring due to a more pressing public school policy battle involving mayoral control, the Education Committee returned to it in the fall. Committee members gathered research and were guided by the resources provided by the National Coalition of Community Schools. The Committee learned that a community school intentionally fosters extensive partnerships with external organizations in an attempt to address students and families holistically. These partnerships typically provide students and families with opportunities for physical and mental health care. They also promote economic development in the neighborhood and address related issues such as job training, affordable housing, and environmental protection.

Table 1. Timeline of Genesis of Clare Horizon Community School



Interfaith United Education Committee first started to pursue the community school idea


Intervening policy initiative causes Interfaith United to place community school idea on hold


Gather data from National Coalition of Community Schools and identify an initial candidate for pilot site



Clare Street School identified as alternate pilot site after initial site didnt develop


Interfaith United spearheads efforts to lay foundation for piloting community school at Clare Street site via funding from local foundations, meetings with representatives from National Center for Community Schools, and meetings with school, district, and neighborhood leaders



School district crisis leads to decision to merge Clare Street School with Horizon Street School. District administration recommends locating this at Horizon Street School.

Lobbying from Clare Street School Community and Interfaith United convinces school board to override this recommendation. Clare Horizon Community School formed at Clare Street Site.

An initial search for a public school that might make a strong candidate for piloting a transition to a community school led the Committee to one school, but a lack of follow-through by the building principal led the Committee to abandon this location and look elsewhere. In spring 2010, Clare Street School was identified as another viable site for piloting the community school initiative. Clare Street School faced considerable problems, including declining enrollment, abysmal student learning outcome as indicated by standardized test scores, and poor attendance (see Figures 1 and 2). Moreover, Clare served a neighborhood that was disadvantaged in many ways.




Aspects of Clare Street School suggested strong potential for transforming into a community school. As a traditional public school, Clare had established a track record of strong partnerships with a faith-based community (namely St. Helen Lutheran Church) and with several community-based organizations (including After School, Hope Mentoring, and Dreamkeepers). Clare Schools location was seen as an additional benefit to the site. It is situated on the edge of the Clare Horizon, a region that received targeted neighborhood development funding from a local foundation over the past 5 years. When approached by the Interfaith United Education Committee to discuss transforming Clare School into a community school, Dr. Perez, the principal at Clare School, was enthusiastic. Hence, the Committee chose to focus their efforts on this site.

A Critical Juncture

During the summer and fall of 2010, the Interfaith United Education Committee continued to spearhead efforts to lay the foundation for piloting a community school at Clare St. School. The Committee began soliciting funding for a community organizer from local foundations and worked with Dr. Perez to establish a committee of partner agencies. In the fall of 2010 the Committee met with the superintendent of the public school district and garnered his support for the community school initiative. By spring 2011, the Committee had secured funding from a local foundation to sponsor a visit of a representative of the National Center for Community Schools. The purpose of the visit was to continuing to build understanding of and support for the community school model. Hosted by the Committee, the speaker was featured at a meeting for the general public and also with the public school district and a prominent local foundation. This confluence of events resulted in momentum and enthusiasm for initiating a community school pilot project at Clare Street School.

That spring a crisis in the school district level emerged. The central office determined that due to declining enrollment and budgetary constraints, Clare Street School should merge with another public school located a mile away, Horizon Street School. The districts recommendation was to locate the merged school in the Horizon Street School building and enact the community school model there. This became a critical juncture in the formation of the community school. Members of the Clare Street School community, who had been working hard to strengthen partnerships with local organizations in their neighborhood, were alarmed. Despite the close proximity of the two buildings, Clare Street School was located in walking distance from the homes for many students, while Horizon Street School was over a mile away and would necessitate either walking across two busy streets (and past two charter schools), or busing.

In response to the central offices recommendation, members of the Clare Street School Community took up a concerted effort to lobby the school board to override the administrations recommendation. They did not object to the merger per se, but vehemently disputed locating the merged school in the Horizon Street School building. Working closely with teachers and parents, leaders from Interfaith United (Fathers Park and Amos) and St. Helen Lutheran (Pastor Meg) argued that Clare Street School was the better site. These religious leaders had been working together over the past year exploring the community school model. During two public meetings with the school board, dozens of members of these communities gave public testimonies in defense of locating the merged school at Clare Street School. As a result, the school board overrode the recommendation of the administration and selected this location. This represented a remarkable victory for the teachers, parents, and community partners. Clare Horizon Community School (CHCS) was officially announced in the late spring of 2011. Dr. Perez, the principal of Clare Street School, was selected to be the leader of the CHCS.


This timeline sets the context for this study. During the course of this research, the school changed names from Clare Street School to CHCS, but stayed in the same building and with the same principal. The educational opportunity zone of Clare Horizon is largely defined by CHCS, but encompasses the broader region as well. (In fact, toward the end of this research study a coalition of organizations in Clare Horizon conceived of and began preparing an application for a Promise Neighborhood Planning Grant [U.S. Department of Education, 2010] identifying CHCS as a foundational site.) Our central question regarding how communities of practice influence the learning among the adults in a neighborhood educational opportunity zone focused largely on the formation of this school, since this was unfolding as we collected our data. In this second section of our findings, we turn our attention to present the three dimensions of communities of practice community, domain, and practice in relation to forming CHCS.


On a blustery night in the late fall community members crammed into a church to attend a public meeting of Interfaith United. The scene was standing room only, with a diverse group of faith traditions Christian, Jewish, Muslim congregating to affirm their support of the group and hear of future directions. While Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that churches remain one of the most segregated of settings (Carson, Englander, Carson, & Jackson, 2007), the crowd this night was pluralistic by race and ethnicity. Fathers Park and Amos stood to announce the work of the Education Committee, describing the initial work to explore a community school. The first author, attending this meeting, was intrigued, hungry to hear more.

A few weeks later, in December 2010, Author One invited the Education Committee to meet to explore the possibility of researching their process. The participants were receptive, and the study commenced. As suggested earlier, these initial interviews with Father Park and Father Amos led to identifying other informants who we invited to participate. Through snowball sampling, eventually the 12 key informants were identified (see Table 2). We came to think of these individuals as core members of a community of practice who were working together in partnerships to support the educational opportunity zone of Clare Horizon, and, more specifically, involved with the formation of CHCS. Some commonalities across the group were evident. For instance, 1/3 (4 of 12) of these worked directly within Clare School, and 1/4 (3 of 12) were affiliated with faith-based organizations. The remaining individuals were primarily affiliated with service providers or the school district. The group was relatively homogenous by race and ethnicity: the vast majority (9 of 12) identified as White, with 2 identifying as Black and 1 as Latino. In terms of gender the informants were more evenly split with 7 women and 5 men.

Table 2. Key Informants in Clare Horizon



Race / Ethnicity

Ms. Swan

Clare School


Dr. Perez

Clare School


Ms. Kay

Clare School


Ms. Leslia

Clare School


Pastor Meg

St. Helen Lutheran


Father Park

Interfaith United


Father Amos

Interfaith United


Mr. Gordon

Interfaith United / School District


Ms. Cort

School District


Mr. Roy

After School / Hope Mentoring


Ms. Britt



Ms. Kane



Cohesive Membership.

As this suggests, our first step to determining how communities of practice influence learning among the adults in Clare Horizon involved identifying who might be considered a member. Membership is not necessarily formalized (e.g., people who are part of the same committee or official group), but rather defined by who is learning together to pursue a common domain. Our sampling technique allowed the membership to emerge from the participants themselves. A network analysis shows evidence of high degrees of interconnectivity among these 12 individuals. In response to the interview question about people with whom they discuss the issues affecting Clare Horizon in general, and CHCS in particular, these informants tended to identify each other. Indicators of a community that is mutually engaged include overlapping descriptions of belonging and sustained relationships (Wenger, 1998).

Graphing these networks indicates the level of internal and external connections of each of the key informants (Figure 3). Internal connections refer to occasions where an informant had a strong relationship with a fellow informant. External connections indicate occasions where an informant identified a relationship with someone else. This graph is organized showing the informants with the highest number of internal connections on the left, and those with the lowest number on the right. The pattern suggests that the most central members of this community of practice are listed on the left: Dr. Perez, Ms. Leslia, Ms. Kay, and Pastor Meg. Each of these members was connected with 6 or more fellow key informants. The graph also shows that the majority of the informants (8 of 12) had strong relationships with at least 3 of their fellow informants, again suggesting the strength of this group as a community. Meetings and field visits lent further support to the conclusion that the key informants constitute members who are mutually engaged. For instance, these informants played central roles organizing parents, students, teachers, and community partners to at present public testimony at the school board meetings in which the location of CHCS was being debated. Interfaith United core team meets every month at St. Helen Church, in which nearly half (5 of 12) of the key informants (Ms. Kay, Ms. Leslia, Pastor Meg, Father Park, and Father Amos) participated.

Figure 3. Self-reported network of colleagues


Figure 3 further suggests that some members who appear to be more peripheral to the community of practice (as evidenced by the relatively low number of internal relationships) have significant levels of external relationships. Mr. Gordon, Ms. Britt, Ms. Kane, and Mr. Roy all tended to identify external individuals as those with whom they discuss the issues affecting Clare Horizon. In the language of the communities of practice theory, all these individuals spanned boundaries. Only 1 of the key informants Ms. Swan appears to be an isolated figure with few relationships to fellow informants or external individuals.

Web of Relations

Another strategy to understand the nature of the community is mapping the networks identified by the key informants. In Figure 4, the 12 larger shapes represent key informants, while the 45 smaller shapes indicate external contacts. Lines between shapes indicate individuals that key informants identified as important individuals with whom they discuss the unfolding collaborative initiatives in Clare Horizon. Significantly, these relationships were solicited from an open-ended prompt (refer to Interview Question 2 in the Appendix). The shapes signify affiliations with organizational types: triangles for school; circles for school district; rectangles for community-based organizations; and diamonds for faith-based organizations.

Figure 4. Networks of communication in CHCS






school district


community based organizations


faith-based organizations


 The network map, at first glance, appears a complicated jumble of connections. Upon further consideration, however, one can note several distinct patterns. First, this map shows that 3 of the 4 central members of the community of practice noted above Dr. Perez, Ms. Leslia, and Ms. Kay are all school-based. The exception is Pastor Meg, who is affiliated with a faith community of St. Helen, located up the street a few blocks from the school. Second, the map suggests several boundary-spanning patterns. The vast majority of the key informants (9 of 12) indicate relationships across at least 3 types of organizations (illustrated by the connections with different types of shapes). These connections show individuals who identified one another as key people with whom they discussed the work of supporting Clare Horizon and establishing CHCS. The range of organizations represented suggests that the 12 central individuals play boundary-spanning roles across sectors. Third, the map points toward several peripheral members of the central community of practice. The small shapes clustered on the outer edges represent the 45 external individuals identified by core members of the community of practice, the 12 key informants. A third of these (15 of 45) were identified by at least two key informants. This suggests that these individuals may be peripheral members of the community of practice. In particular, the 5 individuals who were identified by at least 3 of the key informants could be characterized as peripheral members of the community of practice that the 12 key informants comprise.

Constellation of Communities of Practice

An additional pattern that emerges when considering this network from the learning framework of communities of practice is that a constellation of communities of practice is evident. In other words, several distinct clusters of individuals that may in fact interact with one another. We demonstrate one version of this constellation in Figure 5. The circles in Figure 5 show clusters of individuals with consistent linkages. Further data collection may flesh out the contours of these clusters and other members that belong. This points to the fluidity of the theory of communities of practice as a tool to examine learning. Those individuals who are initially obvious, such as those with formal roles in the organization, may in fact identify a plethora of individuals with whom they are learning who do not appear within the institutional structure. In addition, it underscores the point that the dimensions of communities of practice are subjective interpretations with shades of gray, not cut and dried categories with strictly defined boundaries.

Figure 5. Constellations of communities of practice






school district


community based organizations


faith-based organizations


In sum, a solid case can be made that the vast majority of the key informants (11 of 12, excluding Ms. Swan) create a community that is mutually engaged. Further examination would likely identify others as peripheral members of this community. We now turn to consider the evidence regarding whether and how these people learned with and from one another as the educational opportunity zone of Clare Horizon emerged by looking at the domain of the learning and the practices in which they engaged.


Having established this web of relationships, we now turn to consider what common concerns brought these folks together. To what degree do these individuals share a similar understanding of their work with Clare Horizon and CHCS? Looked at from a wide angle, the problem that CHCS is ostensibly addressing is consistently understood. We initially provided a general prompt: Id like to hear about the story of your community and this neighborhood. What is happening here? What are the greatest challenges facing Clare Horizon? What are the neighborhoods greatest assets? (See Question 1, Appendix). Further reflections emerged from the questions regarding their organization (Question 3) and their personal motivations (Question 4). From this, 86 different references were made which we coded into 8 categories (see Figure 6). Two themes family struggles and poverty emerged in the descriptions of all 12 informants, and together these accounted for nearly half (49%) of all references. Responses coded as family struggles described a range of challenges that people living in Clare Horizon were perceived to confront that related to the quality of life within their families. Responses coded as poverty referenced dimensions of the Clare Horizon neighborhood attributed to the lack of economic resources endemic to the area. Thus, on one hand, there is a consistent sense that poverty and family struggles are core issues at hand. As the following excerpts illustrate, individuals emphasized various dimensions, describing the focus of CHCS in decidedly personal terms reflecting their own encounters and experiential knowledge.

Figure 6. Frequency of issues referenced by key informants


Insiders and Outsiders

The theory of communities of practice emphasizes that learning is largely participatory and involves forming and reforming identity. As such, ones experiential knowledge is central. Accordingly, one way to consider the learning among the adults in this community of practice is examine members experiential knowledge of the neighborhood itself, considering the degree to which a member of the community of practice might be considered an insider to Clare Horizon neighborhood. If placed on a spectrum from insiders to outsiders, the two individuals who would be the closest to the insider end are Mr. Roy and Ms. Leslia. Mr. Roy is a Black man who has worked for decades in various schools in Clare Horizon neighborhood as a teacher and an after-school coordinator. He also grew up in the area and has maintained strong connections to many residents and leaders there. His description points toward what he perceives as a weakening web of supports for children:

The family structures [in Clare Horizon] are broken down. Of course there were two-parent families when I was growing up, but there was also the combined support systems in place: the neighbors, the ministers, the coaches, the extended families, grandparents, cousins. Everyone was there and supporting the family structure. & If you did something wrong you would get three whippings. The teacher would whip you, the neighbors would whip next, and then the parents would whip you. And that's true! Youd get chastised all the way from messing up at school through the neighborhood until you got home. Word travels fast by word of mouth. What I see now is the support systems are not there. A lot of the kids now, they do not have the family, the extended family, they do not have the two-parent family. They do not have the preachers looking out, and the teachers looking out, and neighbors. It is just not there. So what they have is they have themselves. And what you find now is when parents are the sole providers, the breadwinners, that parent is probably working more than one job. And if youre working more than one job, that means that somebody else is watching your kids, or the kids are watching themselves, latchkey kids. You have kids taking care of themselves, and then you have the streets just waiting on the kids.

Mr. Roys colleague, Ms. Leslia, is also an insider. A Black woman who proudly proclaims herself a lifelong neighborhood resident of Clare Horizon and alumnus of Clare Street School, Ms. Leslia expresses concerns similar to Mr. Roy. Having served as the parent coordinator in this school for several years, she describes the main issues of CHCS in terms of working with parents who, though varied, encounter common barriers:

One of our issues is getting our parents to cooperate with what Ive been trying to do. Sometimes I have a lot, sometimes I dont. Overall its a balance. Its not like everyones kid is the same age. Im an older parent and Ive got grown kids, and we have other & parents who [are] way younger. But my main concerns are their poverty and hunger. This is my neighborhood and we try to work with these families.

In contrast to Mr. Roy and Ms. Leslia, other members of the community of practice are more outsiders who have come to the neighborhood through work alone. Perhaps furthest on the spectrum toward the outsider end is Father Park. A White pastor affiliated with Interfaith United and one of the core members of its Education Committee, Father Park has only recently begun to get to know Clare Horizon. In his capacity with Interfaith United, Father Park had been working on the community school idea for over two years at the time of this research. He was the individual who first approached Dr. Perez at Clare Street School to broach this topic, and his advocacy on behalf of Interfaith United was central to persuading the central office of the school district to both support the notion of a community school and locate the first one in Clare Horizon. Yet while his perspective comports with these others who know the neighborhood experientially, it hints at limited tacit knowledge of the place: First of all it is a very impoverished neighborhood. I would assume its a high unemployment, fairly high crime neighborhood, it just distressed community in many ways. He continues by pointing toward the stabilizing influences in this area: But there are people who are homeowners, people who have been living in that neighborhood for several generations, and a sense of community & is centered on some of the institutions there, one of which is the school.

Another member of the core community of practice who is relatively an outsider is Ms. Kane, a White woman who works at Dreamkeepers. Dreamkeepers is a local agency that provides counseling support for children and families at the school and was one of the initial partners of Clare Street School. Like Father Park, Ms. Kane has a common sense of the core issues that are involved with the zone. Poverty, and all of things that come with poverty. I see that as the biggest one, is her initial reflection. Then she quickly moves to discuss family struggles as well: There is sort of a mixture & that you have a really strong parent group, and then you have parents that wont even return phone calls. So it seems that you vacillate between that. We have both. But in her work as a clinician, Ms. Kane sees herself as limited in becoming accepted into the community of educators: [One] limitation [is] getting familiar with the territory, so to speak. I have had to work hard Im getting to know staff. Not everybody is welcoming, or wanting somebody else in the school. Continuing, she described the line she walked between being an insider and an outsider:

It is almost like you have to become part of the culture and then also stay separate. And that's a challenge. Im not a school staff member, so I'm not going to be doing the same things & I am in the clinical role. So I have a different role than anybody else at the school. So it is sort of like Im an outsider.

The most expansive of the descriptions of the core issues in Clare Horizon comes from Dr. Perez. Identifying himself as a Latino man who has served as a teacher and assistant principal in the past in the school, Dr. Perez has been the principal for three years, overseeing the transition from a neighborhood to a community school. On the insider/outsider spectrum, Dr. Perez would be located midway. Although somewhat of a newcomer to the area, as school principal he has quickly developed deep ties to families and neighbors. In his description of the focus, he touches upon the interconnected issues of declining enrollment, lack of confidence in the school, lack of opportunities in the community, poverty, and family struggles:

If you look at the Clare School community, and the broader community as well, these are schools that have declining enrollment. Based on the small amount of school enrollment, their offerings [for students] were limited. At the same time [we] had a budding partnership with Interfaith United, and we were kind of on the same page, that we need a community school, based off the fact that we had students who attend the school and this affected [Horizon Street] School as well that had mitigating circumstances, with poverty being a big one, with specific needs, specific to medical, and dental, and even parenting being an issue.

As Dr. Perez continues, he places these issues in a broader context of diminished confidence in public schools in the district: There [is] a disconnect, and maybe even not maybe, but most certainly a level of distrust between the public the public being parents and the community and schools, particularly the public schools.

Another individual who would land somewhere in the middle on the insider/outsider spectrum is Ms. Kay. A White teacher who was among the most veteran of staff members, Ms. Kay has not lived in the area but demonstrates a close connection to it. She participates in other activities that place her in the neighborhood, such as attending St. Helen Lutheran Church. Perhaps the most poignant description of Clare Horizon is the label of the forgotten neighborhood that she coined for Clare Horizon. She explained her rationale for this: I think were the only neighborhood that does not have a neighborhood name & Were the only neighborhood that does not have a plan &  There are issues with garbage pickup, or lack of & with plowing & with slow police response time. She tells the story of a three-year fight to get a street sign posted for school crossing to help promote safety for children walking to the school:

This school has been here for over 100 years, and that shouldve been here a long time ago. We had to write letters and have phone calls and have meetings and do that over and over again to get a school crossing sign. That is how our neighborhood is treated & That is what our people get. That is what the people in our community get.

As some of Ms. Kays words suggest, she considers herself as truly a part of Clare Horizon. For instance, she describes CHCS as our school, and Clare Horizon as her neighborhood.

In sum, the 12 central members of the community of practice who were identified in this study range how central they are to the neighborhood itself. Still, core issues unify them: remembering this forgotten neighborhood and especially addressing the poverty and family struggles therein. They range widely regarding whether they might be considered insiders or outsiders; they share an understanding that the partnerships among the various members of CHCS and with organizations in the broader community of Clare Horizon should be addressing this set of problems. Thus, this community (as defined in the previous section) pursues a common domain.

Other Evidence of the Common Domain

Other data largely supported this perception that poverty and family struggles were central issues facing Clare Horizon. As mentioned earlier, CHCS was identified as a viable site to transform into a community school in part because of it is situated in a neighborhood that has attracted targeted investments from local foundations in recent years. Documentation from local community organizations who are receiving these investments describes the poverty rate in Clare Horizon as double that of the rest of the city. Census data confirm this. About three thousand people, including 1,039 households and 793 school-age children, reside in the less than one square mile that makes up the Clare Horizon neighborhood. Most (95%) of the residents are African American. While the neighborhood is ripe with assets (e.g., a longstanding urban farmers market, an array of established small businesses, multiple-faith communities), its high rates of unemployment (28%) and household poverty (41%) have remained relatively constant over the past 25 years, indicating that many Clare Horizon residents face significant social and financial challenges. When compared to the rest of the city, this neighborhood scores at the bottom on nearly every quality of life indicator (Promise Neighborhood Planning Grant Application).

Field visits to the neighborhood provided a more nuanced perspective of this poverty. Finding a block without a boarded-up home was difficult, and other signs of neglect, such as abandoned lots littered with debris, were commonplace. Yet, on the other hand, signs of investment sprinkled nearly every block as well, such as well-maintained homes and businesses. In the office of Ms. Leslia, the home-school coordinator, parents seemed to often drop in to discuss employment opportunities and community resources.

Data from the central office demonstrate that the two schools that merged to form CHCS served student populations faced significant barriers, including disproportionately higher rates of poverty (95.5% versus 82%) and mobility (17% versus 12%) than their other public school counterparts. Again, first-hand experiences add some nuance to these barriers. For instance, at the public meetings regarding where to locate CHCS, students, parents and community members eloquently described the strengths of Clare Street School as a site with exceptionally committed educators that provided an anchor of stability to the neighborhood.


We have described a community (refer back to Figures 4 and 5) whose members largely agree about on a common set of issues and concerns with which they are working (refer back to Figure 6). We now turn to examine the third aspect of communities of practice: the repertoire of practices that these members share. While the poverty and family problems afflicting residents of Clare Horizon are a common concern, less agreement emerged in Clare Horizon regarding how to address these issues. Most members of the community of practice highlighted these issues. At least implicitly, however, they seemed to see addressing these issues as a means to educational ends. The data suggest a latent tension. On one hand, many members prioritized practices that addressed the issues of poverty and family problems, with the (implied) hope or assumption that doing so would lead to educational gains for students. On another hand, some members prioritized school improvement directly, emphasizing that addressing these other issues needed to tightly link to this educational goal.

Debating and resolving this tension emerged as a central focus of the learning occurring among the adults involved in this evolving educational opportunity zone. This tension, rarely addressed explicitly, was latent in the different practices that emerged. While the last two sections have shown a relatively coherent community whose members both identified one another and agreed on the domain of issues that united them, in this section we show that there was much less agreement regarding what to do about these issues.

Community Improvement as an End

Many members of the community of practice emphasized directly addressing the problems experienced by residents of Clare Horizon. For instance, Father Amos, of Interfaith United, described the local faith community of St. Helens as working directly to confront the issues of concern in the neighborhood:

One of the concerns that has been voiced by St. Helens Lutheran Church is the grocery store that sells liquor just a block away or so, and the children have to walk past it. The kind of clientele that are hanging around, hanging on the sidewalk, is not at all good for the kids to have to walk past on their way to school and walked through. So that is one of the issues. Another is boarded up homes. St. Helens is getting after landlords and getting after the city to get after landlords. Those are the main issues the poverty, the unemployment, the boarded-up homes, and the sense of questionable safety walking past that store.

These practices involve working directly to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood by confronting those who held power to redress problems.

To others, the practices emphasized participation in the neighborhood institutions of the school and the church. To Pastor Meg, leader of St. Helen, the fate of her church and that of the school were entwined:

In our church, our oldest member just turned 90. She went to kindergarten here [at Clare St. School]. So the church connection to the school, formally and informally, it has always been that way. Both are neighborhood institutions. & Our church was very close to closure about 23 years ago. &The task before us was to regrow in the neighborhood, and we got to be more diligent about our connection in the school and in the neighborhood. Thats allowed us to be in the school. As we started to talk about community school, a couple of years ago that was already here. The intention was already here. So that is certainly a strength. & We walk around the neighborhood inviting people to our church, and to [CHCS].

These comments indicate how some participants understood these neighborhood institutions as intimately connected, each, in a way, helping the area regrow. Visits to the neighborhood provided further evidence confirming this connection. For instance, access to healthy food was enhanced by the corner store near CHCS carrying a small amount of fresh produce.

Community Improvement as Loosely Coupled to School Improvement

Implicit in these descriptions was the assumption that improvement of the community would lead to improvement in the school. To many of the members of the community of practice, however, these two issues school and community improvement were indirectly connected. When reflecting on what they do regarding the issues of Clare Horizon, how they respond to the primary problems the neighborhood is facing, some who worked in the school emphasized directly addressing the problems experienced by families of students. Father Park, of Interfaith United, lauds the school as an anchor over decades:  There are generations of people whove gone to that school. I have had personal experiences of that at parent night with parents who & visit the school. And some of the staff are graduates of the school. The practice that emerged from interviews emphasized organizing these parents to defend the institution and its positive role in the community.

Another example of this indirect connection came from the reflections of Ms. Kay, a teacher at the school. Ms. Kay was intimately involved in the fight to locate CHCS as a merged school at the Clare Street School site. This largely involved organizing parents. Describing the battle as it unfolded, Ms. Kays voice quaked with emotion:

We are going to the school board meeting next week. Pastor Meg got a bus. A lot of teachers would have chipped in to get a bus, because we need to get parents to a school board meeting, because & [teachers] can talk until we are blue in the face, but the school board wants to hear from parents. So if we can keep the parents, not necessarily riled up, but if we can keep the parents interested and get them there, I think we stand a chance.

As she continued, a sense of her respect for the parents tenacity came across:

I think what & sort of is helping our cause is that & our parents felt like they were being talked down to. And they kind of felt like they were just expected to lay down and roll over and accept this [school being merged and located at another site] & Our parents & they always lose out on everything, and now you are going to take our school too? The school that we count on?

This blended into her sense of allegiance she saw teachers and parents sharing, as she emphasized the difficult barriers these families faced:

The parents, they count on us [at Clare Street School]. We are the only thing they have. They need food, they can come here and Ms. Leslia will help them find food. They count on us for everything, and now youre going to take the one thing that they have left?

As she went on, the indignation in her voice grew to a crescendo:

They felt like central office people just expected them to say, Okay fine. Take our school. We are okay, we dont mind, just take it. And do you know what? Our parents have everything taken away for a long time. They are not putting up with it anymore! & You [central office people] need to think through some of the possibilities so that when parents ask you these questions, you have an answer. Do not talk around and around and around. [Which is exactly what they did!] And then you blame the parents for being angry? You cant even answer their questions!

As Ms. Kays impassioned account suggests, working alongside parents to promote locating CHCS at the Clare Street site was a central focus for many within this community of practice. Over half of the 12 core members lobbied the central office directly for this. However, the evidence here shows that their foundational argument did not emphasize the educational aspects of the school, but was instead grounded in defending a marginalized group of parents and striving against further unfair treatment. These participants emphasized that CHCS was grounded in the neighborhood, a stable institution, as opposed to an effective school. The link between community and school improvement was loose.

Speaking a few weeks later, after the board decided to overturn the district administration and keep the school at Clare Street School, Pastor Meg reflected on the importance of CHCS being rooted: There was such an upset reaction to the concept of moving everyone to Horizon Street. The idea that we would just pick up everyone and move, its not that big of a deal. Well, it is that big of a deal. We are connected to this place. Again here, the emphasis was on the location of the school as a stable institution in the community, rather than on the school as an effective one in terms of educating students.

Beyond the battle over the location of CHCS, the participants described practices that helped families. One of these was Ms. Leslia, the home school liaison, who served as a boundary spanner between the church and school. On some field visits she was in her school office, and on others she was working as a volunteer at the church. As a school alumnus, a neighborhood resident, and a mother of children in the school, Ms. Leslia carries a unique blend of authority and has earned many families trust. She drew upon this to connect with parents and families, attract them to the school to get health screenings, support them in parenting, and promote access to resources. Her description of a recent event focused on breast cancer is illustrative:

People were sitting in the hallway waiting to go in there [to a classroom to get screened] versus a doctors office. They were going into a classroom with paper over the window versus going into a doctors office because this was their environment, and they were comfortable here.

Ms. Leslia described working with the school social worker to coordinate different efforts to attain resources for the students. Sometimes these were directly to aid the families, such as holiday food: The corner store gave us abundance (sic) amount of turkeys. Eighty percent of the school got turkeys. Other times, the assistance was more connected to the health needs of the children in school. Ms. Leslia described one example of her advocacy: For instance we wanted to get the kids glasses, and I worked with Walmart and [the social worker] to get the kids glasses & they sent us some certificates so you could go to the nearest Walmart and get them. Again, these descriptions do not link community improvement tightly to school improvement, such as improved academic outcomes of students. The former is emphasized, and only loosely connected to the latter, if at all. Significantly, these examples suggest how members of the community of practice are learning particular practices, such as how to effectively connect parents and families to health care resources and food. These practices address the issues that these members see as central to Clare Horizon, such as poverty. These members do not explicitly and consistently frame these practices as means toward a larger educational end.

Tightly Coupling Community and School Improvement

By contrast, a few members of the community of practice emphasized school improvement as the primary end. To them, the school/community partnerships (existing and emerging) were valuable to the degree to which they served this end. One individual who explicitly bridged these two concepts was Mr. Gordon. With decades of experience as an administrator at the central office, (but at the same time a longstanding member of Interfaith United), Mr. Gordon articulated the goal of community development as congruent with, though distinct from, school improvement:

Interfaith United is in a position to kick start [a community school], but it has no money and it has little access. & There are lots of people involved in community schools. For better or for worse, it is something that nobody disagrees with. [A colleague at the school district] said to me, We are already doing community schools. Well, we are not. We are doing parts of the community school. There are pieces in there, but we are missing the essence.

Continuing, he recounts the roots of CHCS:

Interfaith United comes to the table and says look, This is about community development. We think community development and improvement in test scores in education are important to link. So this community organizer position and program organizer position are important because they help pupil servicing and being stable in the community as a whole. So once a community organizer goes out. & they may find that people want to learn about gardening. They might find out that one of the concerns that we have is about safety after school and going back home. So we want them to have afterschool. Soon they may need to organize, and figure out how to make the travel to and from school safe. And they may, there may be things about investing in the community public investments, those kinds of things. So I guess what I am saying is that & we have always articulated this difference in perspective. We thought of this as a community development approach not just a school approach.

Mr. Gordons comments point toward learning that is happening with regard to community and school development. He suggests that different people hold divergent notions of what community development involves and how this intersects with the core work of a school.

Not surprisingly, a chief advocate of tightening the link between community and school development was the principal. Dr. Perez took a sober look at the context of schooling within Clare Horizon. These are schools that have declining enrollment, he said, emphasizing the lack of public confidence in these institutions. In this context, merging Clare and Horizon schools into a community school struck Perez as an important synergistic opportunity:

We want to mitigate the circumstances that we know affect academic results, and at the same time build the academic support pieces that are in the school building. And those work hand in hand with the parent piece that will lead to greater outcomes not only for kids but the parents and the community as a whole, because we will build some of those bridges back up that over the decades have eroded.

Dr. Perez found strong supporters for the move to a community school in central office administrators, including both the superintendent and the associate superintendent who was his direct supervisor. The established track record of relationships between Clare Street School and community partners laid a valuable foundation for expanding these as CHCS began to officially form. During a site visit at the end of this research, Dr. Perez described conducting an informal gap analysis. This referred to a process of assessing what partnerships existed in the school and identifying gaps where needs were not being met. He raised this during a meeting of various community partners. He described the gap analysis in its current form as an informal process that he conducted primarily on his own, but one that he wanted to develop and draw upon the support of others to do so. As a nascent practice in the early stages of formation, the gap analysis is another example of learning what was unfolding in this community of practice. Here, however, the learning was more explicitly tied to school improvement. Other evidence supported the need for such an analysis, since some of the partnerships seemed less interested in promoting school improvement than they did the self-interest of different organizations. For instance, during a field visit to an open house at CHCS we witnessed families solicited by multiple, competing tutoring agencies to enroll their children in after-school support. These were clearly not integrated to a cohesive approach of classroom teachers nor were they coordinated to reach different groups of students.

Along with Dr. Perez, the other member of the community of practice who directly emphasized school improvement was Mr. Roy, the director of the after-school program. While he is not a teacher in the school, Mr. Roy foregrounded student learning and raised the delicate issue of critiquing the current practices of educators in Clare School. He drew upon the language of a previous principal who distinguished an adult problem. & [When] the problem was with the adults doing their job, and doing their job consistently and effectively and efficiently, from a kid problem. Mr. Roy expressed concern that adult problems impeded current efforts to improve the school:

I don't see a lot of commitment from the staff. &Three weeks ago I went to Dr. Perez and had a meeting. Dr. Perez is not my boss. I work for After School Association. But Dr. Perez is in charge of this building, and I know that my program is a collaboration with it. So I came to ask if he was happy with what I was doing. &  I also asked him what was going to be the difference between Clare Street this year [that just passed] and the year thats coming up. Because if I am at a school that I don't feel like the school &

At this point, Mr. Roy paused as if gathering his thoughts. He clearly wanted to speak honestly, but seemed mindful that he was relaying some sensitive information. When he continued, the source of his frustrations grew clear.

I will put it like this: if I am working at a school, and & I wouldn't send my own children there, [then] I don't feel good about the school. I would not send my kids to Clare Street School! So I asked Dr. Perez, what would be the difference? & I don't feel comfortable at a failing school that I don't feel is getting better. And when I asked him, he told me so many things that made me feel good about staying here this year, and being part of the change, that I felt well enough to stay on.

These reflections illustrate how central school improvement is to Mr. Roy. The partnerships, in his mind, are all means toward this end. This connection was reinforced during a field visit to Hope Mentoring, a nonprofit organization founded by Mr. Roy with a mission to provide mentoring and recreational opportunities for boys living in Clare Horizon. Over half of the 100-plus boys who participate in Hope attend CHCS, and all 6 senior boys (who serve in a leadership capacity over the younger ones), graduated from Clare Street School. The routines of Hope ranging from tutoring sessions to athletics to field trips into the broader community all seek, in the language of their promotional materials, to help the participants first survive the barriers that they encounter in Clare Horizon and then thrive by having the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will allow them to graduate from high school and be prepared for post-secondary education.

Resolving the Tension

This tight coupling of community and school improvement did not emerge from the descriptions of other members of the community of practice. For instance, while Mr. Roy described being encouraged that Dr. Perez was committed to addressing adult problems, few others made any reference to addressing these. In fact, some resisted critiques of the school. For instance, recognizing that others are critical of the school, Pastor Meg expressed confidence in the institution:  

There are people who associate the Clare School name with negativity; there has been discussion about changing the name for that reason. Thats associated with people having a narrow, negative concept of the neighborhood, without knowing the school, without knowing the neighborhood. & The negative perception is usually not based on actual experience. It is hard for me to imagine that someone would visit the school and not see the positive aspects. You also see the struggles. But it would be hard to be in the neighborhood, and not see how the school is valued in the neighborhood, how the school wants to be in the neighborhood and the neighborhood values it.

The contrast between how Pastor Meg and Mr. Roy characterized the school could hardly be starker. Both carried deeply established commitments to Clare Horizon in general and to CHCS in particular. Both agreed on the central problems in the neighborhood such as poverty and family struggles and were committed to addressing these problems. Yet Pastor Megs impression is that It is hard & to imagine a visitor to CHCS would not see the school as a positive place, while Mr. Roy flatly denounces it: I would not send my kids [there].

This tension strikes the core of the learning within this community of practice. Do the partnerships focus directly on school improvement or on community improvement? This tension was largely latent and unresolved. Members of the community of practice did not outwardly discuss it. However, on one field visit, some indications that the tension was being addressed emerged. The scene was a meeting of CHCS community partners. Five of the 12 core members of the community of practice who participated in this study sat at the table, along with over a dozen other representatives from organizations (who might be considered more peripheral members). The meeting itself illustrated how boundaries were spanned within the community of practice. As people provided updates on the kinds of work they were doing, potential collaborations across organizations began to appear, organically occurring as people listened to one another. Many of these representatives focused their comments on how the partnerships provided benefits to students and families in non-academic manners such as providing the dental care or the mental health services. Partners in academic areas, such as after-school tutoring supports, discussed numbers of students served, but did not connect their work directly to student performance at school. As the meeting continued, Dr. Perez was the only person stressing that the ultimate aim of these school/community partnerships needed to lead to school improvement. Cognizant that the success of the consolidation of Clare and Horizon Street Schools into CHCS would be assessed directly on the evidence of improved student learning outcomes, Dr. Perez, while graciously appreciative of the range of partnerships, kept steering the conversation back to school improvement.

This meeting was an occasion in which members of this community of practice both those at the core and those more peripheral engaged in discerning the nature of their practices. Participants largely agreed about who belonged at the table as part of the conversation (i.e., who are members of the community of practice), as well as about the general issue of poverty and a host of barriers to adequate health and educational resources associated with poverty (i.e., what is the domain of the community of practice). The topic of what to do to address these issues, however, generated less cohesion. The practices that this community shared were not as tightly defined. As Dr. Perez continued to bring the conversation to school improvement, several of the community partners raised questions about a different approach to this: could CHCS more directly control admissions? One person asked about the possibility of requiring parental commitments of involvement in the school. Another raised the idea of directly denying admission or, in the alternative, indirectly counseling out students who were not succeeding academically. That Dr. Perez had to adamantly insist that the school, as a traditional public school, was obliged to take all comers, underscores the lack of coherence regarding how these partners should be focusing their energies.

This was a rare opportunity over the course of the study when these latent tensions around practices surfaced. While most participants discussed practices that promoted community improvement, Dr. Perez persisted in framing these practices as serving school improvement. When the conversation then moved to address school improvement directly, most of the ideas members raised involved narrowing the range of students served (e.g., only those whose parents were actively involved, or only strong academic performers). The exchanges show the community of practice struggling to resolve this tension, struggling to learn.

To recap, the findings from this case illustrate how the framework of communities of practice can serve as a lens to unpack learning among the adults in a neighborhood educational opportunity zone. Each dimension of communities of practice is evident in genesis of CHCS. Certain individuals are closely involved in forging and deepening partnerships in the school, and these partnerships focus on addressing a commonly defined problem of a neighborhood public school in a forgotten neighborhood. Many described community improvement efforts as the primary focus; only a few emphasize school improvement. While not incongruent, these perspectives emphasize quite different practices. In the final section we discuss implications of this for educational reforms that focus on neighborhood educational opportunity zones.


The learning within the neighborhood educational opportunity zone of Clare Horizon is a messy, convoluted, inconsistent process. A cadre of individuals involved in school/community partnerships united to form CHCS. Yet the central academic problems of CHCS (e.g., declining enrollment, abysmal student learning outcomes as indicated by standardized test scores, and poor attendance of Clare and Horizon Street Schools) were not the core focus of this learning. Rather, the learning emphasized the domain of poverty and family struggles in the broader region of Clare Horizon. With the exception of 2 members of the community of practice Dr. Perez and Mr. Roy members of the community of practice primarily focused on improving Clare Horizon.

One potential reason for this is that the participants in this community of practice partners from community organizations and faith-based institutions or educators in Clare Street School formed the community exclusively from emerging relationships. Without formal guidance, the community of practice unfolded organically. No theory of action guided the solicitation of partners, and no common mission unified their involvement. Rather, a series of relatively independent partnerships evolved in Clare Street over time. That these coalesced in the formation of CHCS was more serendipity than design.

The purpose of the collaborations was understood to be to address problems that students and families of Clare Horizon encountered. General cohesion existed around defining these problems, while the shared practices of the community remained vaguely defined. In a single instance the efforts were focused: fighting to locate the merged school of CHCS at the Clare Street site. Scores of families, teachers, community members, and community partners attended meetings at the district offices to lobby for this, exhibiting a unified approach to a problem. Yet in most instances the efforts were diffuse, modestly addressing a wide range of problems, tackling none of these in a coherent, comprehensive, and steadfast manner. Consequently, evidence of success was eclectic. One participant cited an improvement in neighborhood safety (such as improved police response time as a result of lobbying the local precinct), while another reported increases in the numbers of parents and families attending school events. What was not evident was a shared sense of whether community improvement was a means toward the end of school improvement, or an end in itself. The community of practice was working to learn how to resolve this tension.

On one hand, this suggests wasted opportunities. Given the context of a school struggling to become an effective teaching and learning environment in the midst of a neighborhood struggling to ameliorate the negative impacts of poverty, it is disappointing that so many partnerships seemed to make little progress toward substantive gains. On another hand, this analysis suggests the potential of a tipping point. With the formation of CHCS at the culmination of this case study, hints of cohesion were beginning to show. One need not wear rose-colored glasses to imagine that the community of practice would begin to learn to direct these partnerships in a more coordinated fashion toward such gains.

In addition, our theoretical framework holds that learning does not just occur within communities of practice, but across them as well. Our data suggest several constellations of communities of practice (refer back to Figure 5); numerous alternative configurations could also be mapped. The important point is that neighborhood educational opportunity zones, by definition, are crafting not only new communities of practice, but new constellations among these. Complex webs of interpersonal relations promote learning within neighborhood educational opportunity zones. While not exploring these webs directly, this case study suggests that an important unit of analysis for such exploration is the group level, not just the individual level.


In the case of Clare Horizon, learning among the adults primarily educators in the school and professionals in partnering organizations has not yet generated tangible tools among the members. Melding the theory of communities of practice with literature on school/community collaboration suggests where this learning might gain traction. Literature on urban school/community collaboration emphasizes the importance of cultivating social capital and relational power (Warrant, 2005). The evidence from this case suggests that social capital and relational power were dissipated during these early stages of Clare Horizon, and that the partnerships, to a limited degree, were fostering both.

Both social capital and relational power were vehicles for addressing the problems constituents faced. Social capital was evident in relationships of trust among various members both within schools (i.e., teachers and administrators, parents, students) and between schools and the broader communities (i.e., community residents, local service providers). Relational power was evident in the members of the community of practice collectively achieving goals and accomplishing tasks. Examples of this abound, from the successful lobbying of the school district to overturn the district administration and locate CHCS at the Clare School site, to the efforts to reform some of the practices at the local convenience store in order to improve the safety in the neighborhood, to the partnerships with local businesses to attain resources for school families. Central figures, such as Ms. Leslia, were consistently referenced as leaders in fostering the social capital and relational power among families in the school community.

Yet the social capital and relational power were not focused explicitly on student learning outcomes. This leaves the sustainability of the CHCS in doubt, for if the enrollment and student learning trajectories do not substantially rise, the public school district will close this school. In this sense, the learning is caught between a crassly pragmatic approach to boosting enrollment and test scores and a naively idealistic approach that focuses exclusively on neighborhood and community improvements, heedless of these student learning outcomes. Whether the community of practice in Clare Horizon will learn to build the shared repertoire of social capital and relational power focused on the goal of advancing student learning outcomes remains to be seen.


Schutz (2006) identifies intransigence of urban school systems that leads scholars to the conclusion that we can have little hope for substantive reform without more robust community participation as a key component (p. 702). This case study explored one such sign of hope: the genesis of a neighborhood educational opportunity zone, Clare Horizon. In Clare Horizon, a nascent community of practice impelled a neighborhood educational opportunity zone, specifically in the formation of a community school in CHCS. The core group of individuals that comprised the community of practice in this study, while not entirely cohesive, was identifiable in composition and, to a degree, its focus. This community of practice experienced some success, but the success seemed tenuous and the trajectory of the initiative uncertain.

Applying this learning theory to analyze CHCS can provide direction to the constituents seeking to strengthen the odds of this success. Practitioners seeking to create and strengthen neighborhood educational opportunity zones may be well served by cultivating communities of practice therein. This does not mean creating a new committee or organizational unit (e.g., the CHCS Community of Practice). Rather, it means supporting the communities of practice that are emerging as a matter of course. In the case of CHCS, there is a clear community of individuals committed to the initiative. There is less clarity about the purpose of the enterprise and the ways to pursue it. An important step, therefore, would be for the primary boundary spanners to first flesh out the common purposes that unite them, and then identify some priorities and, critically, shared practices for pursuing these purposes.

Scholars seeking to understand these neighborhood educational opportunity zones may be well served by exploring learning processes both within and across individuals who are creating these zones. The theory of communities of practice is just one framework for analyzing the organizational structures and processes of the zones. Future scholarship may find that this framework is helpful. The constellation of communities of practice that comprise the zones may illuminate critical facilitators and inhibitors, such as how boundary spanners bridge learning. Future scholarship may also reveal that other frameworks have more analytic traction than communities of practice.

In addition, scholars and practitioners alike would benefit from attending to the organizational impediments to learning across schools situated within neighborhood educational opportunity zones. In Clare Horizon, CHCS exists within two miles of three other elementary schools, including two charter and one traditional public school. A balkanization of these schools has resulted from the market-mentality by which they are structured: each competes with the others to attract students and depends upon this enrollment for its very survival. Because of this, however, the schools have a disincentive to share either effective practices or collaborate to more efficiently deliver services. However, the formation of a neighborhood education opportunity zone (as opposed to merely the emergence of CHCS as an individual community school without formal connections to these adjacent school communities) may provide some structures for learning across school sectors.

In conclusion, scholars and practitioners alike will continue to pursue the urgent goal of urban school reform through sundry initiatives and efforts. Among these, neighborhood educational opportunity zones are emerging as promising. This ecological approach recognizes schools as nested in the broader communities and the interdependence of reforming both. The study of the genesis of Clare Horizon points toward the central role that communities of practice play in creating and sustaining such zones.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 5, 2013, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16948, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 8:13:52 AM

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About the Author
  • Martin Scanlan
    Marquette University
    E-mail Author
    DR. MARTIN SCANLAN is an assistant professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI. Scanlanís teaching and scholarship focuses on educational leadership and organizational learning, particularly with regard to promoting educational opportunities for traditionally marginalized students. Recent publications include an analysis of how school leaders effectively serve culturally and linguistically diverse students (Scanlan & Lopez, 2012) and a study of two socially just school principals (Scanlan, 2012).

    Scanlan, M., & Lopez, F. (2012). °Vamos! How school leaders promote equity and excellence for bilingual students. Educational Administration Quarterly, 1-43.

    Scanlan, M. (2012). Inadvertent exemplars: Life history portraits of two socially just principals. Journal of School Leadership, 22(1).

  • Peter Miller
    University of Wisconsin - Madison
    E-mail Author
    DR. PETER MILLER is an assistant professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research and teaching focuses on community-based leadership and integrated reform, particularly amid contexts of poverty and homelessness. Recent work includes an examination of homeless familiesí education networks (Miller, 2011a) and a critical analysis of the research on student homelessness (Miller, 2011b).

    Miller, P. (2011a). Homeless Familiesí Education Networks: An Examination of Access and Mobilization. Educational Administration Quarterly.

    Miller, P. (2011b). A Critical Analysis of the Research on Student Homelessness. Review of Educational Research, 81(3), 308-337.

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