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Community Connections

Smart school districts reach out to their communities to make turnarounds and improve learning

Digging up an 18th century fort in Bedford, Penn., keeps students honed into their history.

Encouraging people to own homes in once-run-down Bay Shore, N.Y., improves stability and student success.

And using environmental organizations to study water samples in Collier County, Fla., schools create real-life learning for students studying science and math.

Life in the 21st century is posing road blocks for schools that they never faced 10 or 20 years ago--creating an almost must that schools hold hands with community people. The road blocks are piling up: an achievement gap among poor students and many English language learners; increasing special education needs; a greater push for accountability via the federal No Child Left Behind act; teacher shortages; funding gaps; and a public that has disengaged itself from public institutions, according to Kathy Gardner Chadwick, author of Improving Schools Through Community Engagement, published by Corwin Press.

"If we are to solve and to address the issue ... it's not reasonable or realistic to let public schools do it alone," says Chadwick, also a professor of economics and management studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. "We have to step up to the plate. I don't see how community engagement is avoidable."

"The idea is that learning does not stop at the school house doors. Learning must be a two-way street. It's not just about students in school."
-Patrick Crawford, superintendent, Bedford (Penn.) Area School District

And the community schools movement, which has tripled in size in the last five years, is apparently growing in the Northeast as well, according to Martin J. Blank, staff director for Coalition for Community Schools. Many people recognize that students need more to succeed than what is offered in the confines of one school building. And research has shown a direct link between a child's well-being and academic achievement.

By tending to the whole child's needs, community schooling is improving academic learning, Blank says.

But educators and community school experts agree that to build cohesion requires much time and devotion. "It's a process," Chadwick says. "There's no cookbook formula. It's not a one-size-fits-all... It has to be tailored and customized to the individual school and the district."

It requires a constant stream of networking and meetings to get the right people involved in the most appropriate projects--work that will pay off in the end.

"I have a high energy level," says Barbara Fishkind, a retired 33-year coordinator of School Community Services for Bay Shore Free Union School District in New York. "Day and night I worked. Success breeds success. ...We have 600 people in our database of volunteers and the range of jobs they do."

In 2000, National School Boards Association chose the Bay Shore system among 15 districts nationwide as a model for public engagement. The honor was given based in part on the fact that the board and superintendent were accountable to the community and engaged the community to create a vision for student achievement.

Bay Shore Superintendent of Schools Evelyn Blose Holman adds that her job is never done. "If you stay stagnant, you fall behind," she says. "It's very much time consuming. But it's a payoff that saves you time later on."

For example, informing the community immediately that an old school needs renovation is key in making sure people will approve a bond measure a year or so later. Waiting the month before the meeting to decide won't instill much public confidence, nor a desire to vote 'yes' on funding, Holman says.

Coming Back Home

Patrick Crawford, a self-pronounced "superintendent of education" in the Bedford Area School District in Pa., says using community groups and volunteers allows learning to stay flexible. "It's getting the right people on the bus and putting them in the right seat," Crawford says.

Crawford grew up in Bedford County and started his teaching career in the Bedford school district. In 1996, when Crawford started as superintendent, he faced a torn, fractured town and hurting school district, with neighborhood elementary schools closing its doors to be replaced with consolidation, which many parents opposed, and quick turnovers on the Board of Education.

"When I got here, there was a real strong sense that school was isolated from the community," he says. "The general feel was that the school district did what it wanted to do and moved forward without community support."

So Crawford says he joined the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce and started chatting with real estate agents because they have a sense of the "concerns and strengths in schools and the community." And he says he gathered a "good administrative team and good teachers."

"No school is better than its principal, and no school district is better than its superintendent." -Evelyn Blose Holman, Superintendent, Bay Shore (N.Y.) Union Free School District

Six members of the Rotary Club and Crawford discussed a community school connection and in 1996-97 they started the Community School Excellence Council, comprised of teachers, administrators, community members and parents, to build a better relationship between the schools and community. "We started with the idea of building a community of lifelong learners," he says.

The high school underwent a $13 million renovation and five elementary schools consolidated into one new $12 million school.

Today, the council is an umbrella group for various programs and organizations including: Bedford Elementary Success Training, a character education program for grades K-5, teaching perseverance, respect and honesty; and a mentor program, for third graders where adult mentors are matched with children for an hour a week. Mentoring shows children that someone cares about them and their success in school.

Allegheny College of Maryland is also providing several courses to high school students for college credit via telecommunications, so students in high school can sit in their typical classroom and look in on a college class miles away.

Leadership is another theme in the district, with Leadership Bedford County created for community members to prepare them to take on leadership roles. Those interested attend seminars once a month for nine months. And the Superintendent Leadership Academy is designed for high school juniors and seniors to learn about leadership styles and great leaders.

Another community program is BASICS, Business and Schools and Cooperative Solutions, which was an idea taken from a neighboring county. It assesses how schools can help prepare students for the future workforce and how businesses can support educational issues, such as with tax-free donations.

Then there is the quintessential "walk-through." Business leaders and community people visit classrooms at every school building twice a year. They pull out a few students to ask: What are you learning? How will the lesson connect to how and what you do in the future? Administrators can then review curricula and consider if changes need to be implemented. "Are we connecting students to learning?" is one question they can answer, Crawford says.

Crawford, like several other leaders, says he doesn't consider tests the most important measure of success, though he says test scores have improved. "Forced accountability is losing sight of the most important thing about school. I welcome accountability. We should be accountable for whatever the community and school says the indicators of success are."

Digging up History

In Bedford, the Heritage Committee in town targeted a site where a 1758-era British fort stood during the French and Indian War. With help from the Downtown Bedford Inc., which is renovating downtown, the old fort near the river was unearthed by students and teachers and led by an archaeologist. "The chance to actually be involved in a dig of this nature is unique," says Ronald Markwood, a 34-year school board member who spearheaded the dig. "I don't know of a school that has a fort of that antiquity sitting in the middle of its town."

"We couldn't have done it without school participation. The kids got more out of it than any of us. ... Each day the kids got to learn about their own history, they learned archaeological techniques..."

The top layers of dirt were removed with a backhoe. Then last September, dozens of high school students used shovels and picks to find traces of the foundation. They not only found darker dirt, revealing vertical logs had been there, but also pieces of cannon balls, bent nails, pieces of clay pipes, and musket balls. They are erecting a memorial at the location and building a replica of the fort.

"The idea is that learning does not stop at the school house doors," Crawford says. "Learning must be a two-way street. It's just about students in school."

Ultimate Success Story

Ten years ago, Bay Shore, N.Y., had little else but a great location on the Great South Bay on Long Island.

As grand as it is, the hamlet of Bay Shore had a poor tax base, 42 percent vacancy rate on Main Street, cluttered with dilapidated and boarded up buildings. And teachers at Bay Shore Union Free School District were striking due in part to salary disagreements.

Now, SAT scores are above the state and national average, an $83 million bond was passed to renovate the high school and build additions at the middle school and an elementary school, 90 percent of students are attending college, people are buying homes, and Main Street is active, decorated and alive in part with flower pots and plants. The middle school also houses a Wellness Center, with the help of time, money and expertise from two hospitals, several cardiologists and other health professionals, institutes of higher learning, pharmaceutical companies, and parents. Students learn about healthy lifestyles at the center.

Bad times in Bay Shore started to turn when the new superintendent came on board in July 1994 and gathered school, local and state leaders to create a new community. "I think there was a lack of confidence in the public schools, which was reflected in the budgets not passing, contracts with teachers not being negotiated. Teachers were having a great deal of strife with the administration," Holman says. "I think the community was basically losing confidence in the teachers and administration."

Holman organized a town meeting to discuss the community's problems, with the school as the host, and 1,000 people showed, including politicians.

A survey taken at the meeting showed that among the biggest concerns there--and many other districts--was safety and security. Holman created a Code of Conduct committee. Parents and staff worked together and instilled a dress code along with defined rules and consequences for disobeying.

From that meeting, six committees were formed, including the Quality of Life Committee, which gave birth to the Youth Services Committee. It raises money for and organizes, among other events, sporting events and a Web site featuring places at which students can volunteer. From there, the six committee chairpersons and key leaders in town, such as the Chamber of Commerce and hospital presidents, created the Summit Council. It was new leadership for the hamlet that served as an umbrella for all committees and a link between schools and the community.

Holman also encouraged home ownership and connected with local banks to offer mortgages to keep people in town, therefore, keeping students in the classrooms.

The evolution brought pride in the community that seeped into schools. "The budget has passed overwhelmingly in the past 10 years," Fishkind says.

Holman, whose own home has tripled in value in 10 years, says a key to success is listening to the concerns of board members, parents, community leaders and business people to instill trust. She also credits the school board for looking for someone who had experience in bringing peace and cohesion to a divided community, which Holman had coming from another district in Maryland.

"No school is better than its principal and no school district is better than its superintendent," Holman says. "Very infrequently do you find a good superintendent without a good school board behind her. In this case, the board hired a superintendent to meet the needs of the community. And it understood that schools can't be separate from the community. If downtown is in disrepair, the schools will be in disrepair."

Holman focused on certain goals. Her first priority for high school was to raise the SAT scores so she had math and English teachers review for the SAT exam. The district also pays for every child to take the PSAT and SAT with the idea that students who take the PSAT will perform better on the SAT, she says. Now they are above state and national averages. "There is nothing on the SAT that we can't teach our students," Holman says.

Getting Hands Dirty

Three years ago, the Collier County School District in southwest Florida wanted to better integrate science and math lessons and grab the interest of sometimes fidgety middle grade students. The JASON Foundation for Education, an experience-based science and math curriculum for grades 4-9, was one such idea. What the district needed was a place for lab work and an annual two-week long telecast. So they went to the nearby Nature Conservancy, which helps the district train teachers on the the ins and outs of the JASON curricula while students are in class.

Now that more students are taking part, the district needs more space. They use their own classrooms for the telecast but now use Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a National Audubon Society sanctuary, and the Rookery Bay National Estuarian Research Reserve for labs. "They provide an excellent place for us to have students do science research and math," says Craig Seibert, science coordinator for Collier County schools.

At Corkscrew, students take samples of nearby Lake Trafford to consider Ph and oxygen levels and temperature, says Curt Witthoff, math/science specialist for Collier County schools. "Math and science teachers are working more closely together," Witthoff says.

Seibert adds that JASON and the partnership has created "attitudinal change in teachers" because students see real-life science that brings more legitimacy to their lessons.

And using the partnership is key. "We think here in Collier County that it's extremely important," Seibert says. "The more the community is involved the better off we are in education."

Angela Pascopella is features editor.

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