Connecting communities and schools in Baltimore

Community schools are gaining traction in "connecting the dots" for Baltimore students and their families.

A sea change is taking place in Baltimore, and it recently received national recognition. Where it's taking hold, school attendance is up. Chronic absenteeism is down. Student achievement and promotion rates are up. More families are engaged. School climates are being transformed.

The genesis of these shifts is a fundamental rethinking of what a school is. It's not just a building where kids enter and leave at the bell; it's a place that houses opportunities and provides resources. It's a neighborhood hub and anchor, providing a range of services for students, parents and community members. It's a 365-days-a-year, 360-degree proposition happening in our hometown that is a model for cities and school districts across the country.

Last month in Washington, D.C., the Baltimore City Community Schools program was one of two initiatives nationwide recognized by the Coalition for Community Schools. Three Baltimore City schools also received national honors.

Over the past decade and with bipartisan support, "community schools," which connect schools within a community-based context to support student success, have spread to 49 states and D.C. In Baltimore City, where 85 percent of the district's 85,000 students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, we know firsthand what research clearly shows: that the total environment surrounding a child from before birth and going forward affects all aspects of their school career.

Baltimore City Community Schools, led by the Family League of Baltimore in partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools, the mayor and the City Council, currently consists of 45 schools — 14 elementary, 22 pre-K-8, three middle and six high schools — serving 22,000 students. These schools are unique in their comprehensive services supporting "the whole child" and families, including physical and mental health supports, after-school programs, and access to meals. They also house preschool classrooms, parenting support centers, workforce development, and social support and legal services.

With principals as their steadfast allies, the cornerstone of each community school is a full-time community school coordinator whose job is to think about the needs of the student population in their school. In-school coordinators work with lead organizations such as neighborhood groups like Strong City Baltimore, community organizations like Koinonia Baptist Church and Southeast CDC, and anchor institutions like the University of Maryland School of Social Work, plus dozens of other youth development organizations such as the YMCA to form what one community school principal calls "a seamless web of supports and learning opportunities."

Flexibility, deep listening and partnership are the hallmarks of community schools. While the tendency is to have preconceived notions about a community's needs, we don't get a true picture unless we talk and visit with students, families and neighbors. By directly working with families and communities, we can match actual needs with resources and really move the needle for Baltimore's students.

And moving the needle we are. At The Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School, school readiness scores jumped 20 percent in one year. Access to B'More Healthy Babies led to a 12 percent drop in infant mortality over two years.

At Wolfe Street Academy, which moved from 77th to the 2nd highest performing elementary school since adopting the community schools strategy nine years ago, 5th grade reading proficiency increased from 50 to 96 percent. At Wolfe, 84 percent of students have access to homework help, sports, music and a science group until 5:40 p.m. through ExpandED, and average daily attendance is 96 percent.

Once considered low performing, Benjamin Franklin High School is now a top choice high school. A network of 75 partners customizes responses to the needs presented by the school's students and families. Students posted 17,000 service learning hours, 60 families were prevented from becoming homeless, and students are calling friends who dropped out and urging them to come back to school.

This spring committed advocates for education reform like Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, the Baltimore Education Coalition and the Maryland Out of School Time Network requested an increased investment for community schools. The call for action was resoundingly answered by Mayor Rawlings-Blake and the City Council by increasing the annual allocation for community schools and out-of-school time programs to $10 million, enabling six more schools to become community schools.

All children deserve equitable access to opportunities to reach their full learning potential. As the complexity of socially determining factors for Baltimore's students continues to grow, the broader community's vested interest must also keep pace. Not only are community schools a nationally recognized strategy, but they are gaining traction in "connecting the dots" for city school students and their families.

Jonathon Rondeau is president and CEO of the Family League of Baltimore. His email is jrondeau@familyleague.org.

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