A Community School ‘Wraps Its Arms Around a Family’

community school model

Students at Walt Whitman Middle School (© 2019, The News Service & Syndicate, Reprinted with Permission)

What happens to a 13-year-old boy who witnesses the murder of his uncle, then, just days later, loses his father to suicide? What happens when he sees his great grandmother, his sole caregiver, lost in an ocean of grief over her two grandsons and filled with worry because she can’t afford their funeral expenses?

If the family is forgotten or disregarded by their community, that boy could harden against the hurt. He could withdraw, become self-destructive and face a future as grim as his father’s and uncle’s. Fortunately, he goes to a community school, which made all the difference in what happened next.

“A community school wraps its arms around a family, providing services that extend far beyond academics,” says David Greenberg, the coordinator for Community Schools for the Las Cruces Public School District.

“These kinds of services can make or break a crisis situation. If we had no way to support that student, he’d have no chance.”

The boy is an eighth grader at Lynn Community School in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which offers mental health services to students who are in crisis, so that they can cope and not fall through the cracks. The boy was able to talk about his grief and his anxiety rather than swallow it or face it alone. What’s more, the full-time community school coordinator spent hours researching and applying for a grant to pay for his father’s and uncle’s funerals, a time-consuming effort that would be impossible for staff at a regular public school to handle on top of regular workloads.

The funeral costs were covered, the great grandmother received an outpouring of support from the community. Later that fall, she came to the school to pick up a full Thanksgiving dinner to serve at home—one of 150 holiday dinners provided by the school to families who would have otherwise gone without.

What is a Community School?
(Photos by Luis Gomez)

A Long History of Community Schools

At its core, a community school is a network of partnerships offering services that remove barriers to learning, like trauma, hunger, homelessness and the myriad of other problems faced by families living in poverty. Research consistently shows that the problems of students in school and the problems of the community they live in are intertwined. One can’t be addressed without the other. The community schools model aims to tackle these problems together.

The idea of a cohesive community school goes back more than 100 years. The school house has traditionally been a social center where everyone gathered to celebrate or to grieve. Into the mid-20th century, the school-as-social-center continued. Families and neighbors came to enjoy musical performances, to cheer on the basketball team, or meet for spaghetti dinners and pancake breakfasts. When a crisis struck, the community joined together to face the crisis with the affected family, arm in arm.

Then the winds shifted toward individualism. Families moved for better jobs, then moved again, becoming more isolated. Communities became more fractured. Meanwhile the problems of society, particularly low-income society, persisted. Students whose basic needs weren’t met couldn’t focus on learning while struggling under the weight of poverty. Enter the community school model.

Assess Needs, Offer Services

Up and down the halls of Lynn Middle School is evidence of the community- oriented mission. In a room near the front office, community schools coordinator Sylvia Chavez maintains racks of donated clothes. “We always need shoes. We have boys who wear size 11, 12, 13. I’m constantly looking at men’s feet and asking, ‘What’s your size?’” she laughs. Nearby, “the family computer center,” which includes a pair of computers, printer, and array of office supplies, can be used by parents to update resumes, print documents, sign up for community programs, or whatever they need, says Chavez.

Sylvia Chavez (photo: Mary Ellen Flannery)

During the school’s “assets and needs assessment,” a necessary precursor to the development of a community school, teachers and parents pointed most frequently to hunger and mental health issues. One in four children is food insecure in New Mexico and, as any educator can tell you, hungry children can’t learn.

A new food pantry, supplied by local non-profit Casa de Peregrinos with daily snacks and take-home bags of food, tackles hunger. Between the various agencies involved, some Lynn Community School students eat three meals a day at school, and many take home food for the weekend.

Farther down the hall, in a space now occupied by a teachers’ lounge, a mental health clinic will open later this year with visiting counselors from a community health center. “Our social workers are super overworked. They can do crisis care, but they can’t do the kind of ongoing, sustained behavioral care that parents want,” says Chavez.

These kinds of services can make or break a crisis situation. If we had no way to support that student, he’d have no chance.” – David Greenberg, Las Cruces Public School District

In the adjacent room, a school-based dental clinic will open, too. Being a community school mean inviting the community into the school, but also reaching out, says Chavez. “I meet with teachers and ask them, ‘How can you teach science and also engage with the community? How can you teach social studies and also engage with the community?” One media teacher started a student-run newspaper for and about the community, she says. Others are growing vegetables in their courtyard and sharing them.

Chavez, who was a teacher for 20 years before coming to Lynn last year, calls it a work in progress. “The struggle is to get parents to change their mindset and realize that this is truly their space. This school is for the whole family,” she says.

In essence, all community schools are works in progress as school personnel identify different needs and new partners while looking for additional funding streams and strategies to bring the community back to the schools with an “It takes a village” view.

Educators Focus on Education

Across the country in Alexandria, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., Walt Whitman Middle School became the second community school to open in the Fairfax County Public School district this academic year, along with Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School.

The schools were chosen based on the high needs of their students who live along what’s known as the Richmond Highway Corridor, a busy four-lane street lined with strip malls and check-cashing stores, low-rent apartment buildings and trailer parks.

It’s a pocket of disadvantage in a sprawling county that is also home to some of the most affluent families in America. At Walt Whitman, more than half of families live below the poverty line. Their most pressing need: food.

Walt Whitman students can pick up clothing in the community room. (Photo: Luis Gomez)

There are hungry students all over the country and educators do everything they can to help, but without someone to help coordinate efforts to reduce hunger on an ongoing basis, those attempts are stretched to the breaking point.

“There is no end to what educators want to give,” says Karisa Gearheart, the social worker at Walt Whitman who used to juggle feeding hungry students on top of her caseload, while helping homeless families find housing, or connecting uninsured students to free medical and mental health services.

“But in a community school, the silos are removed and helping meet students’ needs is more streamlined and sustainable,” Gearheart says.

Now, if someone at the school notices that a student has no warm coat or is wearing shoes with holes, they don’t have to make a weekend trip to Target. They can bring them to the community room to pick something out from racks of clothing brimming with coats, shoes and kid’s attire in every size, including infants. There’s also a food pantry in the community room, stocked by the Capital Area Food Bank, where students and their parents can grab whatever they need for weekday and weekend meals.

“There is no end to what educators want to give. But in a community school, the silos are removed and helping meet students’ needs is more streamlined and sustainable.” – Karisa Gearheart

The community room, a converted classroom now furnished with sofas and tables, is also a meeting space for parents who gather every Friday for workshops on managing household finances, saving for college, and drug, alcohol, and gun violence prevention.

Once a month, the school opens a fresh food market where families can get free fruits and vegetables—even whole chickens and other fresh meats.

It’s enough food to feed a family for at least two weeks. Students and staff work together to set up the market each month, bagging vegetables and carrying groceries for “customers.” The market brings together students who don’t regularly hang out and it builds comradery among educators.

“I like having the opportunity to help other people in my community,” says fourteen-year-old Mario Pineda.

“The first time I carried so many boxes to cars I was really sore the next day!”

Mario is a student in Beverly Wong’s AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) class, a college readiness course that focuses on writing, critical thinking, teamwork and leadership.

Wong, who has taught at Whitman for 17 years, brings her AVID class to the market every month so they can volunteer, earn community service hours and practice leadership skills.

“When my own kids were young, we volunteered at the food pantry and they learned so much from that experience,” says Wong. “I really appreciate being able to volunteer right here at school and involve my students in the process so they can help each other and learn what it means to contribute to their community.

Students give, students receive, and all of this allows us to do our jobs better.” The community schools coordinator, Delia Montecinos, makes it all happen.

She is the conduit between the school, the community, and the services provided through a partnership with Fairfax County Public Schools, Fairfax County Government and Neighborhood Services, the United Way of the National Capital Area, and United Community Ministries, Inc., a community advocacy organization that has worked with low-income residents of Fairfax County for more than 50 years.

By connecting the students and their families to the services they need in the community, Montecinos allows educators to focus on educating.

The hope is that all schools in the district will become community hubs—centers of learning that offer food, clothing, and classes, plus on-site laundry, medical, and dental facilities.

Their lens will widen from focusing only on students in a classroom to focusing also on the needs of a student’s siblings, parents, grandparents, and neighbors. The idea is that lifting up a student isn’t possible unless her community is lifted up, too.

According to Wong, there is one simple reason for the critical work of community schools: “We need to do this,” she says. “We’re raising the future.”