Saige, a 10-year-old fifth grader at Roosevelt Elementary School in Allentown, Penn. has glasses, dimples and dark curly hair she wears in a long ponytail down her back. She also has long limbs and is a little on the tall side. It’s the perfect frame for a young girl who plays the cello, which she does for two hours, five days a week with an orchestra of other school kids.

Saige is a member of El Sistema, a social action music program for underserved and special needs students who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to participate in intensive daily music instruction and large ensemble performances. The program is sponsored by the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, a community partner of Roosevelt Elementary. Roosevelt is one of 14 United Way Community Schools in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, about 40 miles west of Philadelphia, where community partnerships like the one with El Sistema offer an array of programming for students and families.

Supporting community schools goes hand in hand with the United Way’s mission to identify and resolve needs within American communities by leveraging the power of local organizations. As any educator knows, schools and students always have needs—now more than ever. With state and local budgets cut to the quick, community support may be the only way to address those needs.

Poverty Presents Challenges That Extend Beyond the Classroom

Here’s the reality: More than half of public school students live in poverty, and these kids have challenges that make learning difficult if not impossible. When these students come to school, educators often take on the role of social worker. There’s no one else to step in and help.

Saige, fifth grader at Roosevelt Elementary School in Allentown, Penn.

Saige, fifth grader at Roosevelt Elementary School in Allentown, Penn.

Kids who live in poverty come to school hungry or tired. Often, they don’t receive adequate medical or dental care. Many can’t afford school uniforms or supplies. Many experience instability at home, moving around a lot, changing schools, districts, even states. More likely to have trauma at home, students from low-income families often lack the skills to cope with their struggles. A lot of kids living in poverty have high absenteeism and dropout rates and their academic achievement lags behind their more affluent classmates.

Simply put, kids in poverty have needs that directly impact their ability to learn. And these needs extend far beyond the classroom walls.

Often, the needs are basic (like a lack of nutritious food) but the collective needs created by poverty can’t be addressed by educators alone. That’s where the community comes in. In the community school model, the community is part of the school and the school is part of the community, acting as a hub where families can connect with the services they need.

“A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources that help address health, wellness and social needs of students and their families,” says Jill Pereira, Senior Director of Education at United Way of Greater Lehigh Valley, which acts as a partnership broker. “Partners can contribute to anything from academics, mentoring and enrichment programs to health, dental and social services to community development or community engagement.”

Partnership Building is a Top Priority

At Roosevelt, there are more than 35 dedicated partners.

There’s Second Harvest Food Bank which provides high-need students with a backpack full of sustainable meals to take home every weekend through the Backpack Buddies weekly food service. Second Harvest also hosts a “Cooking Matters” class to engage families and promote healthy eating. Families can plan budget-friendly menus while fighting the obesity epidemic that continues to plague poor communities.

Allentown’s Da Vinci Science Center offers after school STEM enrichment programs, and the Baum School of Art offers visual arts programs. “Girls on the Run” is a volunteer organization offering fitness and mentoring for at-risk girls and there’s an afterschool yoga program offered by a local studio.

The Lehigh Valley Health Network provides free dental services to students through Miles of Smile, a mobile dental clinic, while Sacred Heart Hospital offers health services scheduled through the school nurse’s office.

A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources that help address health, wellness and social needs of students and their families” – Jill Pereira, United Way of Greater Lehigh Valley

First Presbyterian Church of Allentown is another Roosevelt partner. Each year, members of the church hand-knit hundreds of hats for students, and the congregation holds donation drives to collect shoes, sneakers, socks, winter coats, gloves, clothing, and toys during a Secret Santa Holiday Drive. The church’s mission team provides parent education in a Systemic Training for Effective Parenting course, which focuses on building “responsibility, independence, and competence in children.” Members of the congregation also volunteer regularly at the school.

Local colleges and universities play a role, too. Muhlenberg College students offer individual and small group tutoring during the school day, while students studying for master’s degrees in social work at Cedar Crest College mentor kids and eat lunch with them each week. This way, kids have at least one caring adult to talk to and spend time with on a regular basis.

The integrated focus on academics, health and social services improves student learning and builds stronger families and healthier communities.

“It’s like the school and surrounding community has wrapped its arms around the students and their families,” says Nashira Williams, Roosevelt’s Community School Coordinator. In fact, health and social services provided at schools are often called “wraparound services.”

A Community School Coordinator Brings it All Together

Williams manages all of the school and community partnerships, and is actually employed by the school’s lead community partner, the Boys and Girls Club of Allentown, which developed an incentive-based after-school program to support reading and math learning throughout the entire school year.

Nashira Williams

Nashira Williams, Roosevelt Elementary School’s Community School Coordinator

As community school coordinator, Williams has a big job. She finds partners, organizes engagement events and enrichment programs, develops relationships with service providers, and is also the main point of contact for families in need. She meets personally with parents, talks to them privately about their concerns, then connects them to the appropriate programs and services. She regularly visits homes, finds out who isn’t coming to school or who is struggling in class, and offers solutions.

Her job ebbs and flows with the students and their families. Low income communities have transient families who transition in and out of jobs and housing. New faces arrive all the time, bringing with them their own sets of needs.

Williams meets once a month with the community partners to talk about school needs and how partners can help fill them. Roosevelt’s Breakfast Buddies program was the result of one of these discussions.

Volunteers from a local company, Air Products, dedicate an hour each week to mentoring students. The mentors meet one on one with 5th-grade students for a hot breakfast and other special incentives. While tutoring and learning activities are included as part of the program, the true purpose of Breakfast Buddies is to foster relationships between the mentors and the students. Students learn that there is someone else in the community who cares about them and wants them to succeed.

The Breakfast Buddies program was started before Williams became the Community Schools Coordinator, but she continues to work with Air Products and employees to match them with mentees and to find other ways to contribute to student success.

“This is my dream job to work with kids while engaging with the community,” she says.

Stabilizing Families in Crisis

About three miles to the east, in neighboring Bethlehem, Penn., is Fountain Hill Elementary, another United Way Community School where Paige Hoffman is the community schools director. Her position, along with a part-time parent engagement coordinator, are provided by the school’s lead partner, Northampton Community College, with some funding from United Way.

Everyone in the community knows Hoffman and when parents come into the school, they immediately seek her out for help. Sometimes the families are in crisis with nowhere else to turn. Several of them reside at two nearby shelters—one is a homeless shelter and another is a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

We all benefit when parents come in to participate and become our partners in their child’s education” – Jeremy Ginsberg, Fountain Hill Elementary

A young mother of two students at Fountain Hill was living at the domestic violence shelter when she contacted Hoffman. She had fled her abusive partner in the middle of the night with her two girls, leaving everything behind. When the shelter helped her find housing, she had nothing to put in it and couldn’t risk going to get any of their belongings at their house.

Hoffman put out a call to her partners and soon supplied the family with mattresses and bedding, kitchenware, clothes, and toys for the young girls.

“The mother wrote us a letter telling us she’d never had such an experience of unconditional help in her life,” Hoffman says. “She expressed such heartfelt gratitude, and it’s that kind of thing that makes everything we do worthwhile.”

With United Way funding, the school is able to assign social workers to more than 40 families in need. The social worker visits the family wherever they are living and connects them to affordable housing, transportation services, access to medications and career counseling.

When families basic needs are met, they can also go to the school for enrichment programs. As a hub for the community, the school offers programs and enrichment for parents and students. There’s a Salsa night, ELL and GED classes, and resume building workshops. The Bethlehem Public Library provides homework workshops for parents so they can better assist their kids with assignments and help them develop good study habits.

“The school’s educators are really dedicated to helping parents,” says Hoffman. “They stay late for evening programs and really contribute to making this work.”

community school

Kindergarten teacher Jeremy Ginsberg and teaching assistant Nancy Marcial work with Kinder Camp students, a preschool program for low income students.

Students Who Are Ready to Learn Allow Educators to Focus on Teaching

The educators themselves also feel supported by the Community School model, says kindergarten teacher Jeremy Ginsberg, who everyone calls Mr. Jeremy.

Through a grant from United Way, the school is able to offer Kinder Camp, a summer preschool program for low-income kids who need a boost before entering Kindergarten in the fall. With the state’s draconian education cuts, preschool programs were eliminated and many students were starting Kindergarten without knowing what a line looked like or how to sit with other children for circle time, let alone knowing their colors or how to write their names.

Some of the kids need more time to prepare socially and emotionally, as well.

“I had one student in Kinder Camp who hid under a table every day for a week,” he says. “He wouldn’t talk or do anything and only his mother or grandmother could coax him out. But by the fourth week, he was doing okay, and by the time Kindergarten started, he was doing great and became one of the most successful kids in the class.”

Early education programs are critical, but the most significant benefit of the community school model, says Ginsberg, is that it allows parents, many of whom are learning to speak English, to feel comfortable coming into the school and being involved.

“We all benefit when parents come in to participate and become our partners in their child’s education,” he says.

Nancy Marcial has been a bilingual special education teaching assistant at Fountain Hill for six years and says the school community is like a family.

“All of the parents know that this is a school they can trust, a school that will help them,” she says. “Everyone is proud to be a part of it because they know there’s something good happening here.”

In a community school you frequently hear the word “family” and the phrase “it takes a village.” The saying may be a bit overused, but it’s an apt description for what happens in the community school model, where everyone shares the responsibility for the education and well-being of all students.

“We get called all the time from different United Ways around the country who also want to be a a catalyst for robust community change and this model is perfect,” says Jill Pereira of Lehigh Valley’s United Way. “It’s collective thought and collective action with a common agenda with a clear goal. This model is the perfect vehicle for education change in a community.”

Photos: Jacqueline Agentis