Shaping our students: Community Schools

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By: Lauren Keating

In the past few years, New York has begun to see a rise in community schools. A community school is a hub that is a partnership between the school and community resources. Not only are students being educated, but they also have access to both physical and mental health services, tutoring and afterschool programs.

A community school is a hub for families and engages the community to be active members. With this strategy of organizing the resources of the community around the student, the student will be more likely to succeed. Community schools include strong core instructional programs to assure students meet academic standards, while expanding learning opportunities for both the student and their families, as well as offering health and social services. As a result of integrated resources, student learning is improved and strong families and healthier communities can exist.

The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) uses a model that consists of a developmental triangle. There are three sides of the triangle, where the child is at the center and around the child is the family and the community. One side of the triangle the CAS is not responsible for, the core construction of programs, is handled by the Department of Education. However, CAS tries to influence that as much as possible. The academic program at community schools focuses on real-world knowledge and community problem solving.

CAS is responsible for the other two sides of the triangle, which includes expanded learning opportunities by afterschool programs, and comprehensive support services, which includes physical and mental health services. In order for a school to be effective, there must be integration of all these elements.

The CAS was founded in 1853 with the goal to assist the needs of poor children in New York City. The Children’s Aid Society has partnered with the New York City Department of Education since 1992, Washington Heights being the location for the first middle school. Since then, they have opened 24 schools throughout the years; however, only 19 are open now due to lack of funding. The locations of the schools include: Washington Heights, Harlem, the South Bronx and Staten Island.

These community schools receive funding from CAS, as well as city, state, and private funding. As a partner with the Department of Education, CAS is giving services in exchange for space. CAS provides full services to the flagship community school, Salomé Ureña de Henríquez. Not only is this location a community schools, but includes charter schools are well, as it is the colocation of I.S. 218 Salomé Ureña de Henríquez (grades 6-11), M.S. 293 City College Academy of the Arts (grades 6-8), and M.S. 322 (grades 6-8).

These services CAS offers at the Campus includes: after school, Saturday, holiday and summer programs; medical, dental, mental health and preventive services; parent, family and community engagement and development opportunities. These include: a family resource room, vocational and educational trainings, adult education, and advocacy and leadership opportunities.

Having full services offered is beneficial to a student’s learning. If a child is sick, no longer does their class time have to suffer. At the Salome Urena de Henriquez Campus, located in Washington Heights, a boy without panic in his eyes sits in a wheelchair and is pushed down the hallway that is full of bulletins such as one with pictures from a recent trip to China that included parents, and is taken into the “Student Wellness Center.”

Instead of being pulled from the classroom and having to wait in a hospital, the student can get medical attention right at the school. If a student cannot read the blackboard, they could get glasses if optician services are offered. If they have suffering from personal problems and need someone to talk to, they just have to walk into the clinic and discuss their issues.

“Teachers don’t have to worry. They can focus on educating,” stated Maria Astudillo, the Deputy Director of Mental Health for The Children’s Aid Society. Emergency room visits reduce classroom hours, while can be financially straining. “It doesn’t produce anything positive.”

By offering health services, the school uses all of its resources to encourage a healthier student.  “A community school organizes resources from the community with open relationships and extended services in order to bring results for student success,” stated CAS Director of External Affairs and Communications, Hersilia Méndez.

With a grant from New York State, the mental health clinic at the Salomé Ureña de Henríquez Campus was able to hire social workers that screen patients for suicide, depression and other issues. However, many of the parents seek help as well. The CAS also receives money for family planning services to combat high rates of ten pregnancy and sexual abuse. The clinic also focuses on trauma treatment for students while preparing parents for discussing sensitive topics. Because 90% of the Campus’ population is of Dominican decent, the Campus has hired staff with similar background that can connect to parents culturally.

Poor families in particular have a lack of knowledge in terms of physical health and mental health. “Mental health is a necessity, but we don’t focus on it. As a society, we focus more on physical and spiritual health,” stated Astudillo. It is in the “Family Room” where workshops are provided on topics such as anxiety. At the Salomé Ureña de Henríquez Campus, 222 students were serviced in mental health, whereas 126 of those went on to long-term counseling this year.

While support services are important in a community school model, expanded learning opportunities are equally essential. Most community schools are open all day and well into the evening, six days per week, year-round.

parents summer camp 2011There are holiday and summer programs offered in order to prevent loss of learning time. “Research shows during the summer, students loose one month of reading and math. This in particular affects poor children,” said Méndez. “Usually for poor kids don’t have the opportunities,” she added.

Only 300 of the 1400 middle school kids in Washington Heights attend after school programs because of lack of funding. However, the CAS makes sure that those students in need of the programs the most are the ones who seek the resources. “We have a habit of thinking of universal targeting; we think that all children need to have everything. In reality, there are some children who need more than others and also there are limited resources. We really need to target hose who need it the most,” Méndez stated.

However, every student that goes to the school “has access to the medical services, dental services, and the parental engagement program,” she stated.

Salomé Ureña de Henríquez captures the parents in action in both the morning and after school. “We believe that if the parents are not engaged than nothing will happen. One of our main objectives is to work and develop the leaderships of parents both in the school and in their own homes because we see immigrant parents and they come here and don’t speak English. Their children are English speakers so the child becomes the parent,” stated Méndez.

Resources for parents are also offered in community schools, which are important and enrich the family. Family and community engagement and development opportunities offered by CAS include: a family resource room, vocational and educational trainings, adult education, and advocacy and leadership opportunities.

Isaac Smith is one of those people who took advantage of the opportunity to be a leader. Smith has been the PTA President at the CCAA Academy (the 293 branch) for two years. This will be his last year because he wants to give other people a chance to have the leadership opportunity. As a PTA President, Smith as had the opportunity to be a leader and advocate. Smith and the PTA would hold meetings with the administration where parents can attend, which allowed parents can have a say in the school.

Being an education advocate comes out of Smith’s over twelve-year experience as an educator. As a special education teacher and also as parent, he noticed that children need participation from both parents and teachers so that they will be able to have a positive and successful school experience.

father's clubSmith believes that there needs to be more parent participation in their children’s education. At the Salome Urena de Henriquez Campus, Smith would organize events for the parents and touch base with them since many are Latino and do not speak English.

These parents can’t communicate very well and Smith regularly comes to the Campus to have conversations with them, addressing concerns that are relevant to the student. Some would say that Smith is like a “mini Dr. Phil.”

“Parent involvement is the most important thing because that child knows that their mother and father are there for him one hundred percent and there is nothing he or she can’t do,” Smith stated.

There are so many children that come from broken homes and lack that structure and end up dropping out of school. Smith said that just as much there are success stories there is the other side of the coin and as a parent and educator he feels that is it so important to invest in children.

Parents become “absolute leaders,” as Méndez calls them, at the Campus through adult education programs such as ESL, GED, and citizenship, to name a few, that take place in the “Family Room.”

“The biggest problem is parent participants. We carry that message to the family center where the parents from the three different schools come and discuss programs,” said Smith.

Across from the “Student Wellness Center” is the Campus’ “Family Room,” that is hard to miss with its fluorescent neon sign. This family center is the home of the Fathers Club, a unique place where fathers can lean on each other for support. Events and workshops are often held such as a discussion about raising young ladies through the workshop “How to Understand Women.”

“When we are in there we talk about so many things that time flies,” Smith said about the club. The father’s are taught skills such as computer and language. “Believe if or not, they do chess. That’s a big thing. Chess is the game of kings.”

Smith believes the Center is a wonderful resource. “We come from diverse backgrounds. Some of us are educators, some of us are laborers, and some of us are migrant workers.” Smith thinks the experience of having a diverse community and for that community to come together in a positive way is a wonderful thing. The group allows what Smith said a more human way of dealing with issues and being proactive and invested in education for themselves and their children.

Family room at the Salomé Ureña de Henríquez campus.
Family room at the Salomé Ureña de Henríquez campus.

“It doesn’t matter with whom you sit with, but the fact of the matter is you can sit with somebody, talk about your concerns, agree to disagree at times, and come out with a smile on your face,” said Smith.

“We have a responsibility to our children, and not only fathers but mothers too, need to step up for our children because they are the ones that will be holding the candle of the future. We have to step it up now as much as we can to be able to pave a decent way for them for the future,” he added.

Evidence that the community school is working can be found in the rate of attendance.  The 2009-2012 attendance rate at M.S. 293 was 95.2%, I.S. 218 90.9%, and M.S, 322 91.1%. The more time students are in school, they greater chance they have at succeeding.

“Public education is the backbone of democracy. We have an obligation to change it for the better; it’s a cause. For immigrants and colored people, community schools are the best option,” stated Mendez.


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