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On Aug. 19, Seth Green, executive director of the Youth Organization Umbrella (Y.O.U.), presented a proposal asking School District 65 to partner with it and other key community organizations in an “Evanston Community Schools Initiative.” Y.O.U. is in the initial stages of piloting a community school at Chute Middle School. In its proposal, Y.O.U. says, “We believe the Community School model can impact Evanston families on a much larger scale, and that in order to do that, now is an opportune moment to expand the ownership for Community School development to include District 65, along with other key community partners.
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.
The School Board unanimously approved the project.
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.
Y.O.U.’s proposal says, “A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, services, supports and opportunities leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities. Schools become centers of the community, open to everyone, all day, every day, evenings and weekends.”
“At the core the idea is that in order to address the achievement gap, which all of us are committed to, we really have to address the opportunity gap,” said Mr. Green in his presentation. “District 65 has extraordinary schools and extraordinary teachers, but the kid’s ability to absorb that powerful education is very profoundly influenced by factors outside [the classroom]. Because there are traumas, health issues or challenges for a family, that kid is walking into the school door carrying those issues. … We have families in this community that come from very different means, and this is essentially a way to try to create the equal access and opportunity, which is a cornerstone of this District.”
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; counseling 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.
A recent report issued by Elev8 Chicago found that a group of community schools in Chicago had increased students’ sense of belonging, increased parental support, increased attendance rates, increased high school graduation rates, assisted in managing health and mental health problems and reduced the number of disciplinary incidents.
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. Y.O.U. also reaches out to parents. In many ways, Y.O.U.’s program is the “backbone” of a community school.
Because Y.O.U.s program is holistic, United Way gave it 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 there, 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 proposed Community School Initiative in its first year will continue the pilot at Chute.
Y.O.U.’s proposal says the goals in the first two years of the initiative are the following: parents from a more diverse spectrum of families will report higher engagement in school and community life; existing programs and resources will be significantly more aligned and coordinated to meet the site team and Initiative’s goals for serving students and families; and at least five new significant partnerships, programs, or services responsive to the site team’s goals will develop at the school.
Mr. Green told School Board members, “The biggest indicator we would like to see is the elevation of parental leadership and involvement.”
School Board members were positive about the proposal. Claudia Garrison said, “I am very, very excited about what I saw in your proposal.” Katie Bailey said, “I am wholeheartedly in support of this. I think it’s a great idea. It’s nice to see this vision come to fruition.” Richard Rykhus, said, “You’ve got my full support.” Tracy Quattocki asked, “What can we do in the next year to support you beyond approving this proposal?
Board members explored the viability of the program for the 2012-13 school year if Y.O.U. did not receive other financial commitments it was hoping for and how an expansion of the community school model might roll out. Mr. Green said Y.O.U. would make the program work next year. In terms of rolling out to another school, he said the school principal would need to be committed to keep the school open and provide inspiration, that it should be a school with a high percentage of students from low-income households, and a school where a high return on the investment could be obtained.
Nicki Pearson, a member of Y.O.U.’s Board, said, “We firmly believe this program will change children and their families. We are just on fire about this.”
Mr. Green emphasized, “We want this to be co-owned. The best community schools are supported by multiple partners. We want this to be seen as a community school, not as Y.O.U. and the District partnering together. Financial co-ownership is key for long-term stability.”