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Community schools serve families, neighborhoods

Community schools create "an opportunity hub, an access point that doesn't already exist."

At Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary, the 2:25 p.m. bell signals when the school day ends. But the school's broader mission is just underway.

Parents come to its food pantry to stock up on groceries. The aroma of turkey and mashed potatoes fills the cafeteria, supper for children staying after school. A classroom of chattering students works through multiplication lessons. The voice of a karate instructor booms through the gymnasium.

Calvin Rodwell is one of dozens of schools in Baltimore's thriving "community school" movement, which operates under the guidance of The Family League, recently recognized as a national leader in transforming schools into community hubs of resources and services.

In a year that has seen children hurling bricks at police, students navigating crime scenes to get home from school and midafternoon gunfire in neighborhoods, the call for schools to expand their role as havens and community anchors has grown louder. The Family League has helped to increase the number of community schools in the city to 52, partnering with dozens of organizations to serve 24,000 students.

Through the school's collaboration with the nonprofit Child First Authority, nearly 200 students at Calvin Rodwell are guaranteed more learning time, enrichment activities and a hot meal in the after-school program.

Out-of-school time is a key component of the community schools model, and the one that has shown the most impact in outcomes such as student attendance rates.

"This has changed everything for us," said Leon Pryor Jr., a third-grade teacher who also works in the after-school program supported by Child First Authority. "To have them here, safe, for extended time — it's just making sure that they're taken care of top to bottom, every day."

For years, the Family League of Baltimore has worked to connect schools with community organizations to offer a holistic approach to improving residents' quality of life. This year, the city's community schools movement is celebrating milestones.

In the spring, the Family League and three city schools received an Award for Excellence from the Coalition for Community Schools, a national organization representing the community schools initiative in nearly 50 cities across the country.

In the community schools nationally recognized this year — Wolfe Street Academy, Benjamin Franklin High School and the Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary — successes ranged from helping 60 families find housing to transforming school performance from among the worst in the district to among the best. In those schools, tens of thousands of service, learning and volunteer hours are being logged by parents and students.

Every community school has a food pantry that can feed residents for a month, and every school with an after-school program feeds students supper daily. In the first six weeks of school, the Family League served more than 95,000 meals after school. On Friday, 4,000 pounds of food was offered at the food pantry at Calvin Rodwell, located in West Baltimore's Howard Park neighborhood.

Freda Warren, a resident of Howard Park, uses the school's pantry every month to get food for herself and other senior citizens in the neighborhood. She said the help is invaluable.

"This is a good community but an aging community, and we don't see a lot of young folks around here no more," she said. "A lot of seniors in our area don't eat because the [cost of] medication is so high."

Some services provided in community schools are tailored to their community's needs but can range from internship programs for students to job placement for their parents in local businesses.

Through various partnerships, community schools also provide help that school budgets do not support, such as mental health services and extracurricular activities.

The nonprofit Family League of Baltimore operates as a local management board and grants millions of dollars each year to programs that embody its mission to improve lives from prenatal care to post-graduation services.

This year, the organization has an operating budget of about $30 million from state, local and private sources. The community schools program, implemented in conjunction with the mayor's office and the school system, costs about $19 million.

While the community schools concept has evolved in the past 20 years, Family League officials say the vision for Baltimore's model has never been clearer than this year.

During the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American who died after suffering severe spinal injuries in police custody, community schools considered themselves "first responders," providing transportation, meals and places to vent.

"What we heard over and over again throughout each community was there is a lack of access, there wasn't opportunity," said Julia Baez, senior director of initiatives for the Family League.

"Community schools are about creating an opportunity hub, an access point that doesn't already exist."

Among the most valuable resources is an on-site staff person funded by the Family League who is responsible for coordinating resources and acting as a community liaison.

Gwendolyn Unoko, community schools coordinator at Calvin Rodwell, said she has learned that "being a community school leads to all kinds of possibilities."

In the week before school opened, she led a small team on a "community walk" through the Howard Park neighborhood, knocking on doors to inform residents of coming events and checking to see whether they needed help preparing for the school year.

The group included Principal Samuel Rather II and students boasting of the school's offerings — the food pantry, a Breathmobile that helps treat students with asthma and the popular rain barrel collection workshop.

Rather said it was important for him to be present in the community because residents "need to know I rely on them and they can rely on me."

Along the way, Rather knocked on the door of Calvin Rodwell's former principal, Cynthia Winkler, who led the school for five years before retiring in 2009. The educator of 38 years recalls when being part of a community represented a way of life.

"The whole sense of community is what made the Baltimore of the past great, and we're losing that. People don't know their neighbors anymore, they don't take care of their seniors, look out for their children," she said. "I'm glad to see them out here, trying to connect those dots again."

John Neale, a fifth-grader at the school and vice president of the Student Government Association, said he likes that Calvin Rodwell is a community school because it can draw people back to the school.

"A lot of kids around here are going to other schools and they need to come here," he said. "We need to teach them that even though crimes happen sometimes, they don't happen at Calvin Rodwell."

Forest Park High School is one of six schools coming on line as a community school this school year.

Its plan includes more tutoring and internship programs, parenting classes, establishing an SGA, and encouraging community organizations to tap student talent, like those who excel in the culinary program.

Students and staff say they hope that when community members begin to share the school's space and its goals, they will share in its pride as well.

Devaughn Jackson, a senior at Forest Park High School, is anxious for that change. He notices that his neighbors greet him with skeptical stares as he walks past their homes in his street clothes but wave hello when he walks to school in his JROTC uniform.

"I'm tired of everybody saying that we're the Forest Park of the past," he said. "We're building step by step. I want people to see that."

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