Community schools idea growing in Richmond

on September 24, 2012

School, that place all students have to go for classes, could also become the place where students and community members go for a wide range of essential services such as healthcare, academic help and job placement.

The idea to turn schools into “full service community schools,” or schools that offer more services to students and the community, was presented Wednesday night to the West Contra Costa Unified School District School Board.

“A lot of schools have a community service aspect,” said School Board member Elaine Merriweather. “A full service community school has a lot more resources and partnerships. It’s got real potential to help our students.”

The schools would become hubs in part by allowing outside agencies to come into local schools to offer services often not typically found in a school.

Tashaka Merriweather, a school health and community schools coordinator for the district, said for example that the Fire Department could come to talk to students about fire safety, and the school could invite community members as well.

A School Board resolution written by San Pablo Vice Mayor Leonard McNeil, who has long supported community school services at Helmes Middle School, contains 12 strategies to help the district become a full service community schools district. They include developing a long-term plan, increasing collaborations with community based organizations and reaching out to the public to ask what services they would like to see both during the school day and after school.
If the board approves the resolution, which it will vote on at its next meeting, it would pledge the district’s support, helping attract funders who increasingly want to see collaboration, School Board member Todd Thurmond said.

Although the definition of a community school can vary, the Coalition for Community Schools, an alliance of national, state and local education organizations, reports there are more 5,000 examples of community schools programs worldwide.

The full service community school movement has been in the works for a couple of years in the West Contra Costa area but recently the district was asked by a Richmond health group to join in the effort, Tashaka Merriweather said.

Earlier this year the city and School District partnered with Contra Costa Health Services, UC Berkeley Associate Professor Jason Corburn, the California Endowment and local community-based organizations to form the Richmond Health Equity Partnership, which will examine health disparities in Richmond, according to the group’s website.

Richmond could use grant money it received to address health inequalities to pursue the community schools idea, Tashaka Merriweather said. The city is one of 14 statewide that are part of the 10-year, $1-billion Building Healthy Communities program funded by The California Endowment.

Shasa Curl, the administrative chief for the City Manager’s Office in Richmond, said that as part of the Richmond Health Equity Partnership, the city is creating a full service community schools committee to develop a strategy for the district to make this program work in Richmond schools.

The committee would like to begin by developing a pilot initiative at Peres and Chavez Elementary schools, where there are already aspects of a community school in place such as a dental clinic at Peres that will open later this month.

If the pilot went well, Curl said, the district could consider expanding the program to other schools.

Tashaka Merriweather said one of the challenges the committee faces is how to align the needs of all of the five cities the district covers and avoid duplicating services.
“If you were to look at employment or something of that nature, people going to work, housing and things like that, you would get one number in Richmond versus a city like Hercules or El Cerrito,” he said.

Helmes Middle School in San Pablo is already a full service community school, and while Community School Director LaZena Jones called it a success, she said it took local government, community and outside organizations to make it so.

Jones said when the program began in the mid-‘90s, services were on an as-needed basis and the phrase “community school” hadn’t yet spread.

The school first started with case management services, after-school programs, college readiness and parental engagement, with money from the California Healthy Start program, which provides school-integrated services such as healthcare, dental care, family support and tutoring through grants administered by the California Department of Education according to their website.

“We were a community school long before we even knew what a community school was,” Jones said. “We have seen student achievement. We’re seeing an increase in safety and health and well-being.”

Helms has a major partnership with city of San Pablo, the county and more than 30 community organizations. The school has designed and designated its campus into three houses — three communities aligned with three of the academies at Richmond High School, Jones said.

“It’s a huge collaborative effort to make community schools work,” she said. “Often the tools are not accessible to the schools and neither is the funding.”

Tashaka Merriweather said next steps include gathering more data from the county about what health risks affect different populations, assessing schools that face particular risks and asking the schools what services they think they need.

“I think we’re excited to be moving in this direction,” he said. “The biggest thing is making sure we keep the momentum going and they we are really able to put a plan in place and that we work together. We need to take the time to roll this out right, to make sure it’s sustainable.”

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