By: Larry Gavin, Evanston RoundTable
Published: May 6, 2015
On April 28, a panel of community and school leaders gave an upbeat report on the community school pilot at Chute Middle School to the District 65 School Board. It appears that a strong team of parents has taken hold, developed goals, and implemented their goals at the school. This has been viewed as an early priority.
The panel was composed of Melissa Carpenter, director of community schools at Youth Organizations Umbrella (Y.O.U.); Seth Green, executive director of Y.O.U.; Jim McHolland, principal of Chute Middle School; and Chute parents Sharon Watson and Elizabeth Averyhart.
The community school model was piloted by Y.O.U. at Chute in the 2012-13 school year. On Aug. 19, 2013, the District 65 School Board decided to partner with Y.O.U. and McGaw Y in an Evanston Community Schools Initiative (ECSI).
Last fall a Leadership Council, composed of representatives of District 65, Y.O.U., McGaw Y, Foundation 65, United Way North-Northwest and Family Focus was formed to consider expanding the model to another school.
Community schools are being established across the nation. The lack of progress in addressing the achievement gap has led many scholars, educators, and parents to advocate for a more holistic approach to address the needs of students from low-income households. They posit that providing a network of services at a school and keeping the school building open during after-school hours can improve student health, reduce impediments to student learning, increase student engagement, open doors to parental involvement, provide a more supportive environment for learning and create conditions for high student achievement.
There is no set model for community schools. They can offer a wide range of supports and services, such as after-school learning programs; enrichment activities; physical, dental and mental health services; counseling services; adult education programs; housing and job assistance; and parent leadership development. Generally the services are provided through partnerships with community organizations.
"The goal is not simply to fill schools with a variety of services," says a memo provided to the Board, "but to also integrate a sense of community ownership into the school culture, utilizing the school and its social capital to convene stakeholders to work toward common goals for the school and the community beyond the school doors."
Ms. Carpenter said, "There are great disparities in achievement for young people, driven by inequities in access to supports among families in Evanston. These inequities are felt at home, in schools, and throughout the community.
"Our vision is through a deep and sustained focus on relationship and community-building, community schools can build a sense of belonging and connectedness that will break down barriers to opportunities." She added that a community school can be "a hub of resources" that can provide resources for mental, social, and physical well-being for youth and their families.
Mr. Green added that a community school can be a vehicle to align programs at the school. "All the stakeholders are together at a table at the school really making sure that we’re on the same page about the goals and the behavior and the way that we do things in school and out of school."
A Focus on Engaging Parents
A community school typically has four core operating elements, says the memo: 1) a school, where leadership and the staff foster a culture of community and collaboration; 2) a Community School Action Team, which is a group of stakeholders that sets priorities and goals for the community school; 3) a Lead Partner Agency and a Community School Manager, who is based in the school and is responsible for convening community partners and leading the development and sustainability of the community school; and 4) partners and service providers that offer programs and services in the school that are responsive to the goals and priorities set by the Action Team.
A key part of a community school is to build the Community School Action Team, said Mr. Green. As a step toward doing this, "Y.O.U. has identified leadership development among diverse parents as an early priority, … specifically among families that may not otherwise feel welcome or strong ownership in the school community," says the memo.
"We’ve been bringing together incredible parents and building their representative group of stakeholders to really fill in a Community School Action Team," said Mr. Green.
ECSI began this effort in the 2013-14 school year by facilitating a six-week parent leadership training program for parents from Chute and its feeder schools. The training program, provided by an organization called Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), trains parents on how to set personal goals, how to build a web of supports to achieve those goals, and how to translate that into building goals for the community and solutions to achieve those goals.
The Chute parent group, which calls itself, Parents on a Mission (POM), has expanded from seven parents in 2013-14 to 17 this school year. Ms. Averyhart said the original group trained other parents using the COFI model and continues to recruit additional parents.
"One of the first goals that the team wanted to accomplish was ‘eat fit, get fit, and be healthy,’" said Ms. Averyhart. "We were concerned about the health in the community. From that we developed a cookbook and steps to go by to stay healthy."
POM also organized a wellness program attended by 70 parents last spring.
"In our second year, we focused on bigger goals that we have in common as parents," said Ms. Averyhart.
Ms. Watson said, "Our mission is to come as a group. We are a network of community leaders connecting family, schools and community by lifting up our voices to strengthen, empower and cultivate healthy, diverse and family friendly environment."
"POM parents have actually a sense of belonging in a school and the community. We form relationships. We build trust in those relationships with one another at a personal level, family and then the team," said Ms. Watson.
"In order for us to connect and fulfill our goals we have to come together. We have tremendous connections in the community," Ms. Watson continued. "By hosting events, reaching out to people, we make positive connections all the time. We gain wisdom through this, wisdom of self, wisdom of others and generally wisdom of life."
POM has met weekly for 36 weeks and has conducted outreach to 59 additional parents, and collected 55 community surveys.
Ms. Averyhart said, "This matters because it’s a group of parents coming together learning from each other, learning about resources, we’re building upon the toolbox of resources to come together. It also matters because it affects our children. They see us being leaders. They also want to participate in being productive in our community. They want to give back."
"It has been absolutely eye opening to see what has happened with this group," said Mr. McHolland. "I thought I had a pretty good rapport with the parents and I still think I do. But I have to tell you that after having seen the parent program, I had no idea how good it could be.
"The capacity that we’re starting to build with an expanded parent base, it’s not just PTA – as great as PTA is, as wonderful as they are. This goes beyond that. It brings more people into the discussion of things that need to happen at Chute. … We’ve empowered this group of parents to be an integral part of what goes on at Chute, and it’s impacted the lives of kids."
Mr. McHolland added that kids are helping out in POM’s activities and, in doing so, developing responsibility.
Progress in 2014-15, Plans for 2015-16
In addition to expanding and strengthening the parent base, Mr. McHolland listed some of the activities that ECSI has implemented at Chute:
• They provided vision screening and eyeglasses to 94 students through a partnership with an Art of Vision clinic.
• They sponsored a healthy kids market in late April through a partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Volunteers distributed fresh food produce and healthy groceries to 65 Chute families. It is contemplated that the market will be a weekly event.
• Ten caregivers have joined a grandparent support network, developed specially for grandparents raising grandchildren who attend Chute.
• They added seven new partners.
Next year, a main focus will be to develop the Community School Action Team, with increased participation, to engage teachers, community partners, parents, and the PTA. This group will develop a shared vision, a common understanding of the issues and a joint approach to results through agreed upon and mutually reinforcing actions.
The plan for next year is also to build a system for volunteer engagement and coordination, further enhance the capacity for after-school hours at Chute, and create new partnerships, programs, and services that are responsive to community input and meet the needs of youth and families.
Mr. Green said the community school initiative is closely aligned with District 65’s Strategic Plan that was approved by the Board on March 23. Two goals of the plan are to increase family and community engagement and to provide a safe and supportive school climate.
A community school provides a way to develop "partnerships for the whole child and the whole family and the whole community at the same time," said Mr. Green. "It is a micro collective impact for the whole child."
Board President Tracy Quattrocki said, "We’ve spent a lot of time here talking about community engagement, parent engagement, and community partnerships. This is one of the most powerful examples I’ve seen of this coming together. It’s really amazing."
Katie Bailey, who served on the Leadership Council, said, "This is incredibly important moving forward in how it fits into the strategic plan. … I’m really very hopeful to see the role it plays at Chute and future schools. It’s integrated so well with the goals in the strategic plan."
Candance Chow, also a member of the Leadership Council, said, "To me, hearing you talk tonight, helps me have the strategic plan come alive, specifically where we talk about new and different opportunities to engage and what parents as partners means. It’s integrated to all that we do to have that connection between the home and the school and the trust that you’re building with the school through your sense of ownership. I think it will pay dividends. It will pay dividends for you children; it will pay dividends for their friends; it will pay dividends for children that will come after them."
Richard Rykhus said, "I have friends who have worked in community school programs – large community school inititiatives – that you’re building toward. I’ve seen how successful some of these schools can be largely because of the community school’s effects. I’m really enthusiastic where this is heading."
Mr. Rykhus asked if the Leadership Council was thinking of expanding to a K-5 school or another middle school.
Ms. Carpenter said, "All options are open at this moment. What we’re here today is to ask for us to plan together."
Superintendent Paul Goren said, "We’re looking forward to rolling up our sleeves at the table and figuring out where we go from here."
It is anticipated that the Leadership Council will present its recommendations to the Board in the fall. A goal is to expand the community school model to another school in the fall of 2016.