- - Tuesday, December 1, 2015

All children should be able to attain success academically regardless of their neighborhood or circumstances in their community. Undoubtedly, all students gain an advantage from extra activities and and non-academic experiences, but children who live in poor urban areas are especially likely to benefit from these types of programs. In reality, students living in the most poor areas need much more than supplemental programs after school — they need particular services that extend beyond the walls of schools. Seemingly too often, services like health care, immigrant support, child nutrition programs, parent involvement and other social services are separated from schools — though they are proven to be crucial to the success of students. Community schools, by building deliberate and intentional partnerships, have the potential to increase the academic success of students in low income areas by meeting the true needs of students, and solve problems faced by the community.

Studies from the past few decades have shown the gravity of the struggles that students living in poverty are fighting — one especially powerful study was following 9/11. In weeks after the terrorist attacks, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, concerned about the trauma that students might be facing as a result of the attacks, directed the New York City Board of Education and Dr. Pamela Cantor to lead efforts in studying the impact of September 11th on the students in the city’s public schools. Dr. Cantor and her team indeed discovered that a tremendous number of students in New York City schools were facing symptoms of trauma, but not for the reasons one might intuitively think.

Trauma symptoms faced by students in the city were not necessarily attributed to 9/11, and the students who did demonstrate symptoms were mostly crowded in the poorest neighborhoods. Their symptoms stemmed from the perils of their everyday lives rather than the terrorist attacks, this was true even in schools close to ground zero. Students were threatened by the fear of homelessness, the stress of addicted and depressed parents, the loss of family members to violence, the criminal justice system and a host of other conditions that students living in poverty are exposed to.

The study shed light on the daily trauma that poverty has on young people and revealed the shocking number of students who needed help. Twenty percent of children met the criteria for a psychiatric disorder and more than 60 percent of students experienced trauma previously that was sufficient enough to impair their functioning in school.

This study was and still remains a wake-up call to all parents, teachers, school administrators and policymakers to put into perspective the frightening state of mental health faced by our students in poverty. Dr. Cantor’s work is especially relevant today as the Southern Education Foundation reported earlier this year that more than half of students in U.S. public schools come from low-income families.

Though it is no secret that the number of families living in poverty is increasing, the report confirmed that 51 percent of students from pre-k to grade 12 were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches in 2012-2013 — the highest it has been in decades. While eligibility for free and reduced lunch does not necessarily indicate that a student is living in poverty, it certainly is a good indicator that families’ economic hardships are increasing. With the majority of our public school children living in these circumstances, it is without doubt a disgraceful milestone for the United States and a certain threat to a future of a skilled workforce in this country.

We cannot let the normality of this problem allow us to ignore it. Poverty has a profound interference with students’ ability to learn, making it easy to understand why students might exhibit disruptive behavior, have difficulty with homework, experience emotional outbreaks, display distracted thinking, etc.

This said, there are incredible existing programs that already serve as anti-poverty strategies in schools. One particularly effective method is the community school model. The Coalition for Community Schools describes a community school as:

“Both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. It’s integrated focuses on academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities. Community schools offer a personalized curriculum that emphasizes real-world learning and community problem-solving. Schools become centers of the community and are open to everyone — all day, every day, evenings and weekends.”

Essentially, a community school turns a public school into a crucial support space that brings together a variety of different partners in the community to support children, young people and their families. It makes other non-academic challenges a priority in schools that only focus on academic work. While the concept seems simple enough, community schools require a strong structure and sturdy collaborations. These schools typically offer academic services like tutoring, medical services from primary to vision to dental examinations, mental health services like counseling and a variety of other social services.

Following 9/11 and even before the tragedy, New York City schools began and continue to invest in community schools. The New York City Community Schools Initiative is a chief element of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vision for the city’s school system. His goal is to launch and sustain a system of over 100 community schools across New York City by 2017.

Other cities like Baltimore face similar circumstances to New York City. With crime spiking up following the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died of a spinal cord injury while in police custody, the city has set the record for homicide rates since 1993 — which has reached over 300 killings as of Nov. 18. One can only imagine the contradictory narrative of being expected to learn and contribute to the country’s advancement, while the world around them is falling apart. The constancy of homicide is just one common experience that many students in poverty share.

When visiting Benjamin Franklin High School at Masonville Cove, a community school in Baltimore, Maryland, I had the opportunity to see firsthand the outstanding power that community schools are having on students and their educational outcomes. BFHS won the “2015 Award for Excellence,” presented by the Institute for Education Leadership and the Coalition for Community Schools for their incredible transformation — moving from one of Baltimore’s lowest performing high schools to one of Baltimore’s top choice high schools in four years from 2011 to 2015.

In 2011, the federal government in conjunction with the state of Maryland, and Baltimore City Public Schools supported a $5 million project to renovate the school. This renovation added 3,000 square feet onto the school for community school programs, like mental health services. Ever since, BFHS has made an immense difference in the lives of students in Baltimore.

The Social Work Community Outreach Service expanded the school’s mental health program, and is located inside the school building itself. The University Of Maryland Baltimore Graduate School Of Social Work is one of the schools biggest partners, providing interns (supervised by a Clinical Instructor) at the high school Monday through Thursday every week. SWCOS provides individual counseling, group counseling, family counseling, crisis intervention, skills development, referrals to community resources and advocacy for students and their families. This allows students to have these programs available to them constantly and on site to facilitate the healing and prevention from crises.

Dante de Tablan, the community school site coordinator, is the one who organizes and matches up community organizations with the student’s needs. In September 2010, he partnered with the Maryland Hunger Solutions to provide tons of fresh fruit and vegetables to communities in the area living in a food desert. In a place with little access to high quality grocery stores and access to fresh food, programs like this are just one example of how schools partner up with organizations to help meet the basic needs of families. Not only was food provided, but other members of the community pitched in volunteering their Spanish speaking skills to bond with students and families, helping them apply to social services that will be able to serve them. Mr. De Tablan’s role as the community school coordinator is the “glue” that keeps the partnerships with various organizations together. While many schools have these different services, community schools are different, in that all of the partnerships are coordinated.

The principal of Benjamin Franklin, Christopher Battaglia, gave a great example of the magic possible from a community school in action: Two years ago in a team leadership class, a young man came up to the front of the room to do an exercise where students had to give a speech about themselves for two minutes. Within this two-minute speech, he broke down in front of his peers and began to cry because he was frightened about being evicted from his home. Steps from here were easy. Now that the teacher knew what he was struggling with, she able to refer him down the hallway to Kelly Baker from the United Way Family Stability Project. From there, Ms. Baker was able to work with the student’s family to keep them from getting evicted, and even further, help his mother get a new job. As this happens, all the teachers in the school — who are required to complete the Capturing Kids’ Hearts training by the Flippen Group – now have a better understanding of what was going on and can work together to support this student in the classroom. That student has since graduated from high school and attends college; which may not have been possible without the resources that were easily in reach for him and his family.

Stories like this are not rare, programs like this save the lives of students regularly — from helping teen moms get diplomas, to counseling students who have lost a family member to gun violence. Community schools offer a strong way for students to tackle adversities they may face and focus on learning. Not only do things get better for the students, but things get better for the teachers — allowing them to do what they do best: teach.

Community schools are working and not just in Baltimore. Mayor-Elect of Philadelphia Jim Kenny, and City Council President Darrell Clarke announced this month a renewed commitment to expand community schools in the city after to a visit to Cincinnati. Cincinnati Public Schools are quickly becoming an effective community school model in education reform, being the top rated urban school district in Ohio. Not only has Cincinnati set an example for other schools around the nation, but they’ve garnered the attention of major media spreading the word about the good work community schools are doing in the state. Other cities that have been successful with community schools are Chicago, San Fernando, San Francisco, Sacramento and Allentown.

With the federal level beginning to get on board, the U.S. Department of Education offers a Full Service Community Schools federal competitive grant to expand and develop full-service community schools. Unfortunately this grant and the few others that are available are pennies in comparison to what is needed. The resources currently available are not enough to serve schools that are ready to take on transitioning to a community school.

However, as schools in Baltimore, like Benjamin Franklin, and other schools across the nation make the switch to becoming a community school, the future is hopeful for students and families who had once lost faith in their future. As we remember the tragedy of 9/11 and provide support to the families of the victims, let us also work to provide support to the students battling trauma from daily tragedies attributed to poverty. For this to happen, policies must be set in place to support the creation and sustainability of community schools on the local, state and federal level. With the recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 there is certainly more hope for the success of community schools and the students who deserve them.

Cathryn Paul is a world traveler, and African American Studies student at the University of Maryland, College Park

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