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The Youth Organization Umbrella (Y.O.U.) has asked School District 65 to partner with it and other key community organizations in an “Evanston Community Schools Initiative.” Y.O.U. proposed that District 65 join in “guiding and developing the vision, goals, staffing, oversight, and funding” for the initiative. Y.O.U. said it would invest $50,000 in the first year of the initiative. It asked District 65 to invest $25,000, and said it would ask McGaw YMCA to invest $25,000.

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 a school building open from dawn to dusk, six or seven days a week 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 offer a wide-range of supports and services, such as after-school learning programs; enrichment activities; sports activities; social services; physical, dental and mental health services; adult education programs; and housing and job assistance. Generally the services are provided through partnerships with community organizations. To make this work, it is essential to have a strong lead agency at each school that serves as the glue.

 Y.O.U. has provided an after-school program at District 65 schools since the 1990s. In its program, it provides academic assistance, enrichment activities, mentoring, and counseling services. A big part of what Y.O.U. does is to reach out to parents. In many ways, Y.O.U.’s program is the “backbone” of a community school.

Because its program was so holistic, United Way gave Y.O.U. a grant to pilot a community school model at Chute Middle School in the 2012-13 school year. In the first year, Y.O.U. continued to offer its after-school program at Chute, but in addition it partnered with a number of community organizations to provide a variety of additional services to children and their families. Y.O.U. is also continuing to work with families to define the particular needs and goals of the community at Chute. After goals are determined, a community school model tailored to the Chute community will be developed.

It is anticipated that the Community School Initiative in its first year will continue the pilot at Chute.

A big part of establishing a community school will be integrating services that already exist in Evanston. Evanston is rich with resources. We are fortunate to have many strong, caring agencies that are serving our youth and our community. The premise of community schools is that integrating the services of many agencies at one school can transform that school, engage students, engage parents and transform a community. “Integrated services and programs make it possible for collaborating partners to provide more efficient services and to achieve a powerful collective impact on students and families,” says a recent report issued by Elev8 Chicago.

The same report found that community schools increased students’ sense of belonging, increased parental support,  increased attendance rates, increased high school graduation rates increase, assisted in managing health and mental health problems and reduce the number of disciplinary incidents.

Y.O.U. says, “We hope to use our current experience to facilitate deep co-ownership with other partners who can move this initiative toward growth and success in multiple schools.”

At the District 65 Finance Committee meeting on Aug. 13, many School Board members voiced support for this initiative. It appears likely that the Board will approve it in the next few weeks.  

We strongly support this program. We hope many community organizations will join with Y.O.U. and District 65 as partners in this important initiative.