A resource for the family

The Baltimore Sun

At Baltimore's George G. Kelson Elementary/Middle School, Hilary Jones is helping a homeless family settle into an apartment of its own.

At the Lake Clifton high school complex, Nzinga Oneferua-El is keeping a close eye on a boy in her vocational program who is fighting the lure of the streets.

And at Tench Tilghman Elementary, Sister Agnes Rose McNally is running a support group for women raising their grandchildren.

These three are among 27 people hired to coordinate "community schools" in the city. Community schools are public schools that help low-income students and their families find all of the social services they need, often providing some of the services on site.

The concept has taken off in Baltimore this academic year. The city is paying $2.3 million for coordinator positions and various services at 26 school campuses, including the 11 failing schools that the state targeted last year for outside takeovers. A nonprofit is funding a 27th at George Kelson.

City Council President Sheila Dixon says community schools will be "a major priority" of her administration when she becomes mayor next month. Dixon visited a community school in Chicago a few years ago and said it achieved "phenomenal" results in one of that city's toughest neighborhoods.

"We have lost sight of ... many of the issues that our young people and families deal with on a daily basis," she said in an interview. "That has impacted their learning ability in the classroom."

Community schools are charged with meeting the needs of the neighborhoods they serve. Each one in Baltimore has a sponsoring community organization, such as the YMCA, and an advisory group that includes parents.

In general, the schools are trying to increase recreation opportunities for children, educational and employment opportunities for adults, and health care for the whole family.

They are striving to provide, if not one-stop shopping, one place where families can turn for referrals to all the social services they need and get help navigating various bureaucracies. In some cases, there's talk of setting up satellite offices of nonprofits and the city departments of social services, health, housing and employment.

The concept of pairing education and social services dates back to the late 19th century. The educational philosopher John Dewey saw schools as social centers, while the pioneering social worker Jane Addams combined schooling with services at the settlement house.

Over the past decade and a half, with teachers and principals in urban schools overwhelmed by their students' social and emotional needs, the community schools movement has gained renewed momentum in cities including Chicago, New York and Portland, Ore.

"What we see among the leaders in those communities is a recognition that they cannot avoid paying attention to a whole range of issues that young people face," said Martin J. Blank, who directs the national Coalition for Community Schools. "They need to offer them as rich an array of supports and opportunities as upper middle-class people offer to their kids."

The new House majority leader, Maryland Democrat Steny H. Hoyer, plans to re-introduce legislation in the next Congress to authorize $200 million for community schools and to create a federal advisory panel on the topic.

Community schools try to improve use of existing resources by putting them where they can better reach families in need.

At the 11 Baltimore schools targeted for takeovers, which the General Assembly delayed for a year, the city is sending housing department employees to help families at risk of being evicted or having their heat shut off. Those employees are already on the city payroll, but they are working out of schools now.

The largest startup cost for community schools is the coordinators' salaries. Jessica Strauss, co-director of the nonprofit Baltimore Community School Connections, an advocacy group that provides technical assistance, said that funding needs to be permanently built into city and school system budgets.

The city tried to launch community schools in 2005 by requiring some of the after-school programs it funds to also start community schools, without any extra money. By early 2006, it was "clear this was not the way to go," Strauss said, and the city agreed to fund the community school effort separately. (All the city's community schools also have after-school programs.)

Community school advocates are trying to slow a process under way to close several city schools in the next few years. The school system has space for tens of thousands of students more than it has enrolled, but the advocates say they need extra space to do the work they envision.

Strauss said the Department of Social Services had to scrap plans to open a satellite office at Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle when hundreds of students from closing Highlandtown Middle transferred in, eliminating the extra room. Dunbar's community school coordinator ended up with an office in a custodian's closet.

In the past year, there have been proposals to move two schools into the basement of the Lake Clifton complex. But that space houses community school programs, including vocational training for students and parents in silk-screening and floral arranging.

Oneferua-El, Lake Clifton's community school coordinator, said her program needs not only to keep its space, but for the school system to renovate it and provide security at the campus after school hours.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who sits on Lake Clifton's advisory group, has introduced a resolution for the school system to delay closures and consolidations, in part to evaluate the space needed for social services.

"It's as if we're being disregarded in this process," she said at a recent meeting of the Lake Clifton group. "We're here. ... We can't sacrifice all the gains that have been made."

City schools interim Chief Executive Charlene Cooper Boston said the system will account for the needs of community schools as it continues to make closure decisions. Dixon said community schools weren't on the radar last spring when the first decisions were made, but they must be a factor in the coming years.

Before starting new community schools, Dixon said, she wants the existing ones running smoothly: "It was jump-started maybe too quickly in this last school year, where maybe all the principals weren't on board."

In pockets of the city, community schools began years ago.

The Julie Community Center in Southeast Baltimore first sent a health and social services advocate to work out of Tench Tilghman Elementary in 1998. McNally - who keeps a food pantry for families going hungry and a stash of extra school uniforms for kids without them - has been there as coordinator since 1999.

And for the past several years, the Greater Homewood Community Corporation has sent workers from AmeriCorps, the domestic Peace Corps, to form community partnerships at six area schools.

Today, as a result of dozens of partnerships, students at those schools receive free vision and hearing tests, glasses, tutoring and mentoring from senior citizens. The partnerships have led to a variety of strategies to boost parent involvement in schools, from the donation of a washer and dryer for family use at Dallas Nicholas Elementary to a literacy class for mothers learning English as a second language at Medfield Heights Elementary.

Sylvia McGill, Greater Homewood's education director, said the six schools have seen an increase in student achievement: Four of them met state goals on standardized tests in 2006.

But Tench Tilghman's McNally cautioned that it's overly simplistic to evaluate the effectiveness of partnerships and services based on a test score, given the complexity of issues in children's lives. "It doesn't work like that," she said.

Advocates say they want to evaluate community schools using factors such as juvenile arrest rates, attendance and special education placements.

Some of Baltimore's community schools are recruiting their coordinators and other employees and volunteers from their neighborhoods, so they will better understand the community's needs.

Oneferua-El, in her second year as coordinator at Lake Clifton, knows Baltimore street violence: Her fiance was murdered in 1992. Last spring, her closest friend was fatally shot; she could relate to a student whose father died that same week.

The student, 17-year-old Tavon Pryor, said it was "Momma Nzinga" who kept him from dropping out of school amid his grief. Last month, she took him in a group to an anti-violence conference in Birmingham, Ala., and he came home pledging to stop hanging out in the streets.

Oneferua-El said about 85 percent of the students she works with report having witnessed someone being beaten, stabbed or shot, and about 85 percent have had someone close to them killed. To break the cycle of violence associated with the drug trade, she said, "they ask for activities and things that lead to making money: job development, academic support." The theme of her program is entrepreneurship.

Some of the newer community schools are still assessing the needs of their neighborhoods.

In September, the national low-income housing provider Enterprise Community Partners opened a community resource center in a spare room off the library at George Kelson. Coordinator Jones and an intern started by compiling a directory of social services in the area.

Parents can drop in at the center anytime. On a recent Friday morning, Jones received a visit from Shawan Coner, a 42-year-old who describes herself as a recovering drug addict working part time as a nursing assistant. She said she and her four youngest kids were kicked out of a shelter this fall, and they lost all their clothes and possessions. They've been staying with her mother.

Since then, Coner has been a regular visitor to the Kelson center. Jones helped find clothes for Coner's family and arranged for food and gift baskets to be delivered for Thanksgiving and Christmas. She also helped Coner find an apartment nearby. During the Friday visit, Jones was on the phone with the Department of Social Services, trying to get help for Coner with a security deposit and first month's rent.

"It's hard starting back over," Coner said. "This center, it's kept my hair from falling out because I was really, really stressed."

Coner and her kids are now living in their new home.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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