I recently heard a story that explains why the community schools model -- a reform approach I've been touting for about twenty years now -- is so effective at helping children succeed in the classroom.
The story is about a small school district in northern California called San Rafael City Schools. I recently met with the superintendent there, Michael Watenpaugh, and he shared some details about the unique challenges that many of his students face.
The school district is located in one of the wealthiest counties in our country (Marin County), and yet some of the families who live in San Rafael are barely scraping by. Many of these families work odd jobs doing service work, such as housecleaning and landscaping. Some families live all packed together in one apartment, so as to make ends meet. Many of the parents and their children are learning English.
Not only that, many of these children and families live in a neighborhood, called the Canal, which is literally cut off from the rest of the community. This is how Michael Watenpaugh describes the neighborhood:
"It is surrounded by water. It's a moat, almost, with a few exceptions where the land connects to the surrounding area. It's very cut off and public transportation isn't good. Access to the greater community is challenging. There have been efforts to build a pedestrian bridge, but those haven't been successful so far."
If that wasn't bad enough, the children from the Canal neighborhood were also isolated from opportunities at their local school. As Watenpaugh explains, before his superintendency, students at the school district's middle school were placed into three academic tracks, with many of the Hispanic kids and many of the kids who were learning English placed in the lowest track.
Watenpaugh is now working to change all that, and he's using the community schools model as the way to do it. A community school is a place where kids not only receive engaging, individualized instruction, but also where they can connect to all kinds of special supports, services, and resources offered by community groups, government agencies, and business groups.
Watenpaugh says this approach helps ensure that each one of his students gets a fair shake at school: "We are bringing together partners and services that support the needs of kids, because we all know that some kids need more to get the same."
San Rafael City Schools now partners with dozens of nonprofit, government, and business groups to ensure that every single student not only graduates from high school, but is ready and prepared for college. The type of support that these groups offer ranges from mental health support to academic support.
For example, one of the district's newer partners, BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), offers a summer enrichment program for kids at the middle school. The program helps keep kids engaged and mentally active during the summer months, helping prevent the summer slide. A partnership with Bay Area Community Resources has brought counselors into the schools, so that students have a professional to help them work through life crises and extreme stress; and, as the Superintendent explained, screen ninth graders to "see if there are indicators of disconnection..." and to "[identify] which kids need our help and attention."
Additionally, in an effort to help pregnant high school girls graduate, San Rafael City Schools now partners with Head Start to have child care at school. Watenpaugh mentioned that "those little ones will soon be kindergarteners in our district," so it makes sense to support them and their families now.
With these community supports in place, Watenpaugh says his students are better prepared for success in the classroom. In fact, the school district has seen gains in student achievement every single year for the past five years for Hispanic students, low-income students, and students who are learning English.
More importantly, the school district has shown how far these students can go, if given an equal chance to succeed.
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