A resource for the family

Baltimore's `community schools' help children by linking struggling households with social services

December 26, 2006|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

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.

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