A standard, innocuous elementary school classroom assignment: draw a picture of your home. One student’s drawing made its way to Cathyann Solomon’s desk as part of an application. The drawing was of a tent.
“That’s why we do what we do,” said Solomon, associate director of the Weekend Hunger Backpack Program at Gainesville Catholic Charities. “When you know there are kids out there who are living in a tent, you just can’t help but want to help them.”
As of today, 659 children receive food backpacks in Alachua County. They’ve been referred by their teachers to be part of the Catholic Charities program to pick up backpacks of donated food to carry them through the weekend when school-provided meals aren’t available.
The schools in Catholic Charities’ network are some of the most struggling schools in the county.
For example, Lake Forest Elementary School, only 12 miles west of the “A” school William S. Talbot Elementary, is a failing school, according to the Alachua County School District website. One hundred percent of its students are considered economically disadvantaged.
Hunger is just one of the aspects of poverty that affect students’ ability to succeed in school.
Enter the community school. It’s a program that allows schools to act as a connection point, linking families in need to public benefits programs and partnering with local charities and benefactors. The community school concept is meant to address poverty and its effects directly, instead of focusing only on academic performance, by making anti-poverty resources available at schools to give parents and students to have easier access.
The idea is that by addressing issues like hunger, access to healthcare and stress, schools can also boost academic achievement among poor students. After the concept proved success at Evans Community High School in Orlando, Howard Bishop Middle School became the first first full-fledged community school in Alachua County in fall of 2016, after school officials saw how the concept worked in Orlando.
Eighty-one percent of Howard Bishop’s students are economically disadvantaged. The community school office at the middle school (called “The Nest” because of the school’s mascot, the Howard Bishop Hawks) has become the hub for students seeking referrals to in-house guidance counselors and a community school director who meet families to help them get connected to resources.
Another benefit of community schools – “It’s freeing up teachers to teach,” said Mike Gamble, Howard Bishop’s principal. Teachers working at high-needs schools like Howard Bishop often provided supplies – out of pocket – to their students.
“We’ve had teachers take kids to Wal-Mart to get glasses when their glasses break and they don’t have anyone else to get them fixed,” Gamble said.
There are some caveats to the community school initiative. It can take years to fully implement. It can be challenging to get partners to commit to the program. It also requires, on a day-to-day basis, more meetings and time on the part of the school administrators. However, the community school model has shown real, quantifiable success in counties across the country.
Why Community Schools?
Caroline Nickerson and Anupa Kotipoyina, senior undergraduate students at the University of Florida, created the Enriching Lake Forest after-school program with a civic engagement grant from the Bob Graham Center for Public Service. The grant enabled them to create a school garden at the struggling elementary school. They’ve positioned the garden as an applied science program for Lake Forest students, as well as a way for them to get outside, play and burn off energy after being in school.
But many of the students at Lake Forest face challenges beyond needing a place to work off excess energy. For instance, one student Nickerson had befriended during her two and half years of working with the school – (“My favorite kid – although I know I’m not supposed to have favorites”) – broke his foot at school. The aftercare director called the student’s parents, who didn’t come to pick up the child until hours later.
“I think that’s what made me step back,” Nickerson said. “From my background, if I had broken my foot at school, my parents would’ve been there right away.”
Whether it was access to health care that was the issue, that the parents were unable to get away from their job early, were unable to get transportation or were simply not very present in the child’s life, realizing the number of factors that could have affected their ability to pick up the student made Nickerson take pause.
“I was taken aback that he was just stuck there,” she said.
The effects of poverty are long-lasting and insidious. It’s more than the day-to-day logistics of picking up an injured child from school. Living in poverty at a young age – especially before elementary school – can irreparably harm academic performance. Everything from access to pre-natal care, nutrition and stimulation in infancy has long-reaching effects on behavior and performance in schools.
“So many of our children come to school so far behind their peers developmentally, intellectually, emotionally, behaviorally, and it’s just a lot harder to get those kids caught up,” said Jackie Johnson, Alachua County Schools Communications and Community Initiatives director.
According to the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan research and educational institute, community school programs that make anti-poverty resources available at schools have many advantages. Making programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman Infants and Children (WIC), Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and resources for public housing and emergency housing available at schools eliminates many of the barriers that prevent families from accessing these services.
For example, schools are centrally located, often in the heart of low-income communities, allowing for easy access. Some parents may be unwilling to risk the stigma of visiting facilities identified as places to receive public benefits, so allowing them to access the resources at schools, where they have a reason to be regularly anyway, may help with ease of access, according to the Center for American Progress.
Schools also can offer easy access points for families without reliable transportation who may not be able to repeatedly visit government offices, which can be miles away. Additionally, because students spend so many hours at school, teachers and administrators can identify what specific needs a student may have, like the referral process at The Nest at Howard Bishop.
There are numbers to back the benefits.
The United Way of the Bay Area in California, which has been spear-heading a community schools network, saw considerable jumps in graduation rates at the high school level in schools that were part of the community school model. Eighty-eight percent of seniors graduated, compared to the 70 percent national average.
In San Mateo, CA, community schools that were part of the United Way network saw an increased “proficient” or “advanced” scoring in math from 39 percent to 59 percent, according to United Way Communities in Schools.
The San Diego Local Initiatives Support Coalition increased enrollment in the SNAP/Food Stamp program after determining that many eligible families were not participating in the program, according to the Center for American Progress. They estimated that providing counseling through the program for 600 families at the four participating schools resulted in an average annual benefit of $39,116 for the families – benefits that families and their children most likely would not have seen without the counseling of the volunteers.
Additionally, community schools are uniquely positioned to address struggling schools and systemic poverty in a way that other programs, such as charter or magnet schools cannot.
For example, charter schools, which have long been touted as a way to provide tangible improvements in school grades across the nation, also have caused outcry from civil rights organizations such as the N.A.A.C.P., which argues that these programs take funds that normally would go to traditional public schools and instead funnel them into the privately run schools that leave many minority students boxed out from the benefits. Similarly, charter schools also enroll a lower proportion of students with disabilities than traditional public schools in the nation, said Gary Orfield, director of The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Johnson, from Alachua County Schools, also said charter schools haven’t solved the achievement gap problem.
“It’s a mixed bag,” she said Johnson. “If you look nationwide, the studies show they (charter schools) don’t do any better that traditional public schools.”
Community schools are a way to directly address the lack of resources that struggling schools and children living in poverty face, instead of simply prioritizing school grades and district rankings.
Why Alachua County?
About 90 percent of the students who attend Howard Bishop, the first full community school in the county, are on free or reduced lunch programs, said Gamble. Howard Bishop Middle School was selected for the program because it was a high-needs school.
But it wasn’t the only one in the county. Six elementary schools in Alachua County (Lake Forest, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Boulware Springs Charter, Myra Terwilliger, Chester Shell and Alachua Elementary) are on the Florida Department of Education’s list of the lowest ranking elementary schools in the state. Five of the failing schools serve primarily minority students. Less than half of the students at all of these schools achieved basic benchmark competency in mathematics.
“The strongest correlation between standardized test scores on which these rankings are based is with student poverty,” Johnson said.
At many of these schools, despite not having a formal community school program, community involvement is helping to keep students afloat. They’re already working to provide “wraparound services,” a term used for any services provided that do not pertain to education, including those that address everything from nutrition, to counseling, to access to health care.
“You have to deal with the whole child,” Johnson said. “It’s extra time in the school day. It’s making sure that those kids have enough food.”
All students at the high-needs schools in Alachua County receive free breakfast, lunch, and even dinner in many cases, Johnson said, and high-needs schools also have school days that are an hour longer than other schools in the country. These schools also offer basic dental care and nurses to provide basic health care.
However, the formalized community school programs, like that at Howard Bishop, makes it easier to access grants and resources through partners like the Children’s Home Society.
For people like Nickerson who work one-on-one with the students at struggling schools like Lake Forest, these complexities are all very apparent.
How’s it Going to Work?
Evans Community High School in Orlando was the first community school in Florida. The program was modeled after a similar successful initiative that partnered the New York City Public School system with the Children’s Aid Society. It’s been 25 years in the making.
Evans, before it was a community school, was a “differentiated accountability school,” or “DNF” – a label given by the Department of Education to schools that have had three or more consecutive failing grades. DNF schools are required to propose a school turnaround program.
It was the DNF designation that got David Bundy, director of the Center for Community Schools and Child Welfare Innovation at the University of Central Florida, involved.
“One of the things that we would like to see in the future is that community schools get recognized as a very viable turnaround option,” Bundy said.
First a high-needs school needs to be identified. Howard Bishop was selected by Alachua County School and its partner, the Children’s Home Society, as a good candidate for a community school program.
Then, three to five positions in the school are created: a community school director, an afterschool coordinator, a parent resource coordinator, a case manager, and if needed, an administrative support position. They then coordinate with willing partners in the community who can provide food, healthcare, and other assistance at the schools. Another reason that community schools are attractive to administrators: they’re cheap.
“It takes advantage of resources that exist, for the most part, in the community. The only incremental cost is four [or] five positions in the school to work with the principle, to reach out to community agencies and put in place services at the school that would be most helpful for students,” Bundy said.
Bundy estimated that it costs an additional $350,000 to $400,000 per year to employ the necessary people.
“All of the other services – which are many – are done by getting organizations in the community to commit resources they already have funding for,” Bundy said.
In addition to community organizations, some community schools partner with a university, the way Evans is partnered with the University of Central Florida and Howard Bishop with UF.
One issue with community schools is how long it takes to show results. There’s no “quick fix” for the symptoms of poverty. Programs often take years to fully develop and implement, and many students graduate or leave the school before the full extent of the resources are available. Howard Bishop, for example, has signed on for a 25-year partnership, Principal Gamble said.
“Another key phrase of the community school is, ‘It’s long-term commitment, but small steps,’” he said. “It’s not like – bam – two months down the road you have a full community school with a dental clinic and a health clinic.”
Building trust between parents and the school can be another obstacle, but it’s especially important because a child can’t receive resources unless a parent signs off. Gamble remembered one child at Howard Bishop whose parent didn’t want the child to talk to the school therapist because the parent was concerned about how confidential the sessions might be.
The parent resource coordinator has to be committed to understanding cultural and socioeconomic barriers that may prevent parents from turning to the school for help. At Evans High School, for example, the resource coordinator holds frequent workshops and actively recruits parents in the community to help others view the school as a place to get help, and not as a place to be apprehensive of.
Developing trust between the school providers and the students is important, too. A student told a school provider that she had been molested outside of school. By working with school staff and police, they were able to arrest the perpetrator.
“People generally don’t understand,” said UF’s Bundy. “It’s one thing to go to school, attend and struggle [to learn], but when you’re dealing with all of this other stuff, it just becomes that much harder.”
It’s a common theme – and the crux of the argument for community schools. Students cannot achieve academically when they’re facing the trauma of extreme poverty and all that entails once they leave the school gates, said Kotipoyina, co-founder of the Lake Forest garden program.
“You forget that those are the realities of those students – you forget when you’re having fun – some of the struggles they might have faced,” she said. “Kids are very honest, and they’ll sometimes say things that’ll really remind you of the inequality.”
For Kotipoyina, it’s always jarring that so many of the students she works with are food insecure. It’s a harsh reality check when students remind her that they need to pick up their weekend backpacks of food.
“These are societal issues,” said Johnson. “It’s going to take a societal response in order to help these kids overcome all of these issues that are affecting their ability to learn.”