Stressed brains can’t learn.
That simple phrase was the “Aha!” moment a few years ago for Albany Public Schools Teachers Association President Laura Franz when she attended a presentation on the power of community schools.
“When you think of all the ways our students experience stress, that’s where I see community schools responding,” Franz told more than 100 participants at NYSUT’s Community Schools Summit in October. “Whether it’s hunger, physical illness, mental health challenges, poverty — so many kids are in pain.”
“When we can reduce barriers, we know kids will thrive,” said United Federation of Teachers Vice President Karen Alford. “It’s a matter of addressing the educational, emotional, social and health issues that can stand in the way of learning.”
NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said the statewide union hosted the Community Schools Summit to bring together teams of educators, administrators, school board members and parents who want to start or expand community schools in their districts.
“This is such a great mix of urban, suburban and rural districts,” Pallotta said. “It sends a powerful message that this model works for everyone — and that we need more funding.”
The summit offered panel discussions from a variety of community school advocates who shared lessons they learned along the way and tips to get started. Their top recommendation was to assess local needs by listening — whether it’s conducting surveys, town halls or focus groups.
“Get feedback from everyone. Most of all, listen to the kids,” said Joseph DiCrescento, a principal at PS48 in the Bronx. “They’ll tell you what they need.”
“Don’t make assumptions,” Alford added. She explained how one school wrongly assumed that parents wanted to earn their GED, so they set up a program. “Nobody showed up,” she said. “In fact, they wanted help with resumes and finding a job.”
Several panelists suggested starting small, perhaps with one initiative — rather than trying to create a comprehensive model.
“We started by taking on food insecurity in one school with a food pantry and Homework Diner,” said Rob Wood, Rome Teachers Association. “Now we’re Connected Community Schools with 60 schools in 20 school districts.”
Other successful starting points might be increasing family engagement or tackling childhood obesity, said LuAnn Kida, executive director of Binghamton University Community Schools. “Start small and build out,” she said.
Others talked about popular enrichment offerings such as a “Mind Your Business” financial literacy program, art therapy, or bringing in retired teachers to conduct tutoring.
“Our retirees love to do it,” said Alford, whose own mother is a tutor. “We train them in best practices and assessments and they not only build relationships with the kids, they help us track data.”
Other successful offerings include activities the students might not otherwise be exposed to such as swimming, skating, chess, karate or making smoothies in a cooking class.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of reaching out to community partners to provide enrichment in art, music and dance enrichment. “It can give them such a sense of joy and be the highlight of their day,” said Albany Superintendent Kaweeda Adams.
Throughout the conference, participants emphasized the need to hire a community schools director or coordinator to access existing services, seek grants and figure out ways to problem-solve. Massena Community Schools Director Kristin Colarusso Martin said she has successfully applied for grants that more than cover her salary and benefits.
NYSUT’s Director of Policy and Program Development Peter Applebee and Dena Donaldson of the American Federation of Teachers talked about available state and federal funding for programming and to hire a community school director. In the next legislative session, NYSUT will be advocating for a $100 million state budget allocation specifically for community schools. These funds could potentially double the number of districts utilizing the community school model in New York state.
To add a little perspective, NYSUT Executive Director Melinda Person played a video clip of legendary union leader Al Shanker making the case for teacher unions to press for economic and societal changes (like raising minimum wage and providing decent health care) to help students academically.
“By pressing for this social legislation, which will make life much better for millions who now find it intolerable, we will be doing a tremendous amount for children,” Shanker said. “As a matter of fact, we’re going to be providing the conditions for them which will make it possible for them to learn in school.”
“That was 50 years ago,” Person said. “We’re very proud of our history and our work for community schools is a continuation of the fight to address inequality in society.”