Detroit, January 2014 — A single mother of two students at Bennett Elementary in southwest Detroit survives being shot ten times at a friend’s home. Her leg is amputated and her health issues remain severe. Her family life was in disarray even before the shooting because of economic stress and other pressing issues. With all these problems to endure, how can the children possibly focus on their education?
This situation is a dramatic example of the challenge that Detroit Public Schools face: All too often, students and their families are experiencing serious needs that may compromise the motivation and capacity of students to learn and succeed in school.
In this difficult context, improving academic outcomes requires rethinking how schools operate. Schools must become places that help address the multiple needs of the families they serve.
Community Schools, which began in 21 DPS schools last year, is a promising model that has been making a difference in other urban school districts in the country. The model envisions schools as neighborhood hubs that connect families to community-based programs and partnerships to provide a wide range of services to students, parents and community residents. Many of the services are offered on-site. Community Schools have extended hours and may stay open as much as 12 hours a day, seven days a week. (DPS Community Schools are phasing in extended hours.)
Southwest Solutions is a key partner at eight DPS Community Schools: Bennett Elementary School, Cody Campus, Earhart Elementary-Middle School, Fisher Magnet Lower Academy, Harms Elementary School, Munger Elementary-Middle School, Priest Elementary-Middle School, and Western International High School. At each of these schools, Southwest Solutions employs a Community School site coordinator who is based at the respective school. Coordinators help secure and facilitate services that can benefit students and their families.
“Community Schools focus on the whole child,” said Ines DeJesus, who manages the Community Schools initiative at Southwest Solutions. “Community Schools is not a program, in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a dynamic strategy and shared vision of organizing resources, removing barriers and providing opportunities to promote student success.”
The array of resources and services provided at a Community School depends on what families need and want. They may include health clinics, mental health services, housing assistance, childcare, prenatal and early childhood development training, parenting skills, youth development activities, mentoring and tutoring, adult literacy and ESL, career development, technology skills, financial literacy counseling, and more.
All Community Schools emphasize real-world learning, expanded learning opportunities, parental and family engagement, and community problem-solving. The model encourages partnerships with organizations, businesses and other groups to enhance opportunities for students, families and community members.
Community Schools have shown promising results in Cincinnati and other cities. Academic performance, attendance, parental involvement, school safety, and other important measures have significantly improved.
The DPS Community Schools model is integrated with the “Pathways to Potential” program instituted by Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS). Pathways places DHS caseworkers in schools to help families achieve greater self-sufficiency and access benefits like food stamps, cash assistance, Medicaid, childcare, emergency aid, and more. These caseworkers are known as “success coaches.” The Pathways program and DPS funded the Community Schools coordinators, and the success coach teams with the coordinator at each school to address the needs of families.
This team approach was evident in the case of the Bennett parent who was shot. The success coach at Bennett is Nicole Pringle; the Community Schools coordinator is Norma Galvan. Nicole and Norma met with the parent at the school and at her home. Nicole helped the parent secure important health and economic benefits available through the State. Norma researched other programs and agencies that could help the family. Together, Nicole and Norma persuaded the parent to get her children back in school, although this remains a difficult issue and ongoing effort.
“I know my kids are smart and I want them to have a better life than me, but I’m worried about what is going to happen because our life is so hard right now,” the parent said.
At Earhart Elementary-Middle School, the philosophy of Community Schools has defined its culture since it opened in the fall of 2011. Earhart is a state-of-the art, $22.5M school across from Clark Park. The school provides a wealth of opportunities and services for students and their families. Earhart also boasts one of the highest parental participation rates of any DPS school.
“Everyone here works hand in hand to create a welcoming and vibrant environment centered on the wellbeing of children and families,” said Gerlma Johnson, who, as principal of Earhart, sets the tone for entire school.
Erica Negron has two children who’ve been attending Earhart for all three years that the school has been open. She is an active volunteer, and she encourages her children to take full advantage of the activities that Earhart offers, including additional academic help, mentoring, sports and the arts.
“I know for sure that all these opportunities have been very good for my kids,” Erica said. “Because the school engages so many of my kids’ interests, they are even more excited to learn and they look forward to coming to school.”
Quisha Brown is the Community Schools site coordinator at Earhart. Although she has only been at the school since last fall, her work has already drawn praise from staff and parents.
“Quisha is a great addition to the school and I know for a fact that she has been able to bring in resources which wouldn’t be here if not for her efforts,” said Maria Ortiz, with the Local School Community Organization (LSCO) at Earhart.