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RapidBlog: Community Schools, by Wendy Falb

A longtime Grand Rapids community activist, Wendy VerHage Falb has her Ph. D. in English from Michigan State and is now serving on the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) Board

Don’t you want to live in a neighborhood where the local school is a robust community hub? Doesn’t it just make sense that our public schools should belong to all of us whether or not we have children enrolled in them: that local businesses, homeowners, renters, churches, and community organizations take ownership and feel a part of their neighborhood school? And doesn't it make sense that by making the school a community hub we might enable access to services meeting the non-academic needs of families, thereby increasing parental engagement and student attendance? Having the school function in this way might also lend needed support to our teachers and principals while deepening their connection to the communities they serve.  And all of this might just improve academic performance for the children who attend the school.

There is a name for this concept: Community Schools. It is a national movement and part of the conversation about how we as a nation improve and reinvigorate our public schools. It has not gotten the press, legislation, or federal dollars that “choice” and “charter” has gotten, and yet it has a track record of proven outcomes. And while “choice” and “charter” may inadvertently dismantle the cohesiveness of urban neighborhoods, transforming schools through a Community School based approach will only strengthen them. 

Several Grand Rapids Public Schools and their surrounding neighborhoods are benefiting from this approach.  I would like to introduce two very different examples here: One, a six year old, top-down, systemic approach, “Kent School Services Network”; the other, an emergent grass-roots neighborhood initiative, “East Hills Loves Congress.”

Modeled after the Children’s Aid Society in NYC, Kent Social Services Network or KSSN targets the non-academic needs of children in poverty.  A group of community leaders who had come together wanting to improve outcomes for children in GRPS recognized that coordinating and improving access to already existing services by locating them in the school would be a very effective approach.   The Community Schools model was adopted.  There was buy in from then GRPS superintendent Burt Bleke, and the project was granted a three year pilot.

That was 2006. Currently, KSSN is in eleven buildings in eight Grand Rapids’ neighborhoods (as well as in some surrounding districts). Alger Middle, Burton Elementary, Burton Middle, Gerald Ford,  MLK, Campau, Coit, Chavez, and South West Community Campus are all Community Schools. On the other side of the river, Sibley and Harrison Park function as Community Schools models. This means each program has a designated School Coordinator who works with a school leadership team. This team--made up of mental and physical health professionals, DHS workers, the principal, representatives from local businesses, and parent leaders--develops an annual needs assessment and coordinates a network of services and partnerships that will support the families in their school community. The school becomes a place where children can receive dental work and their parents English Language classes. Barriers to learning are removed and families feel welcome and view the school as a resource. Teachers and Principals can put more focus on the academic needs of their students, knowing that the many non-academic needs these children have will be addressed.

My first exposure to this model was Stocking Elementary. It was January 2010 and the district administration had recommended its closure, and as a new board member I attended the meetings held to address staff and parental concerns. In a packed over-heated gymnasium, I witnessed families with restless children straining to hear translation explaining to them why their school was closing. I learned that in addition to their deep trust for the staff and principal, the school was their community center. Many of the families had purchased and improved homes to be in walking distance from Stocking. Its playground was their green space. It was where they received their healthcare, their language classes, and their kids had quality afterschool programing. It was a high functioning school with rising attendance rates and test scores.  I voted against its closure and became an advocate for Community Schools.

Much different from the county wide systemic approach of KSSN, “East Hills Loves Congress” (EHLC) is fueled by the passion of neighborhood activists and organizers. They love their neighborhood and have embraced their neighborhood school as an asset to be cultivated and supported. Many national school reformers talk about the importance of “social capital” to a school’s success. Social Capital means transforming a school culture where every stakeholder is proud of and takes ownership of the school, from principal to janitor and from enrolled families to the elderly neighbor across the street; this will change the performance of the school and the futures of children. The organizers of East Hills instinctively have understood that.

Their goal: a thriving Congress Elementary that is the school choice for all families in the East Hills neighborhood. They want to make clear that Congress is not a “charity case” but a key partner and asset to making East Hills an even more desirable place to live and run a business.  While they have partnered with the principal, staff, and other long-time supporters to educate themselves on the needs of the school, they have also begun an extensive survey of resident and business resources, aligning the two and envisioning new ways to enrich Congress.  A historic designation for the architecturally significant building is in the works. A community garden and an expansion of the tree-scape, with a science curriculum to connect them is being planned. The Meanwhile said it would support a fundraiser for the soccer team; Reagan Marketing is partnering with East Hills and GRPS to develop a marketing brochure. Housed in the former Literary Life Café is an afterschool creative writing center spearheaded by the owner of Sparrows coffee. Organizers are joining the PTA and developing a parents club. The neighbors also have long-term aspirations for the program: dual immersion and expansion to K-8. 

A former spokesperson for the “run it like a business” model, Jamie Vollmer, disillusioned with the competetive framework, now travels the country with the message “Schools Cannot do it Alone.” Re-making Schools into cornerstones of our community will not only transform our schools it will transform our city.
A special thanks to Carol Paine-McGovern (KSSN), Johannah Jelks, and Claire Fisher (East Hills) for their assistance on this article.
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