Rochester, Deer River begin building full-service community schools thanks to state funding
The districts were able to start programs after receiving the state grants approved by the Legislature in 2015. The Legislature is considering a bill to continue those funds this session.
Deer River kindergarten teacher DeAnna Hron heard about Duluth’s Myers-Wilkins full-service community school and immediately was interested in learning more.
“The needs of our students are growing,” she said. “I thought this would work for us. In fact, we were already doing pieces of it.”
Hron started conversations with other educators and administrators, all of whom were interested in the concept.
After the Legislature allocated $500,000 for two years of grant funding to help support the effort in 2015, Deer River was all in. They applied for the first round of grants but did not receive any money. Then last year they applied again and received an implementation grant.
“Even though we didn’t get that first round of grants, we continued to move forward,” Hron said. “We added mental health and nutrition services and an after-school program.”
With the grant funds, the district has hired Chad Evans as a site coordinator and is starting the community needs assessment process.
“The social and emotional needs of our students are important,” Hron said. “We will bring in the community, have a meal and talk about what those needs are. Then the site coordinator will go out and start putting those things in place.”
Evans is already working on improving what programs the school currently has in place.
“We have a food shelf in partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank, but we can make it better,” he said.
The focus of the needs assessment and their planned implementation process is to ensure families and the community feel connected.
“The school is the hub of our community,” Evans said.
The district spans 500 square miles, located between the Leech Lake Reservation and the Iron Range, and has 70 percent of students participating in free and reduced lunch.
“We have issues connected to rural and poverty needs,” Evans said. “Some students need someone else besides a parent to fill these roles. We need to close the opportunity gaps, which will then close the achievement gap.”
A lot of what schools across the state are currently doing is part of the community school model, said Evans.
“This just takes it one step further by creating more meaningful connections in the community,” he said. “The solutions to these problems are already around us, we just need to find them. And if we don’t have the tools, then we build them.”
“I see the unmet needs of students in the community and then I am looking at my classroom and am trying to meet their needs there,” Hron said. “My kids need these things, but I can’t do it all. That’s where the community school model comes in.”
The same passion for students and meeting their needs is what got Rochester teacher Julie Ruzek interested in the full-service community school model.
“Seven years ago, I went to a national community schools conference and it was the most impactful conference I have ever been to,” Ruzek said. “I realized that we’re doing a lot of this work already, but our systems, work and teams haven’t been aligned with each other.”
Ruzek took charge and received grant funding for 11 people from the district, including the superintendent, to attend the next national conference.
The superintendent was on board and at the end of 2014, the district announced that two of their elementary schools would become community schools.
“We applied for state grants for both schools in 2015 but only got funding for one,” Ruzek said.
That is when the district got the United Way of Olmsted County involved.
“I knew the United Way support the movement nationally,” Ruzek said. “We realized it would be a good partnership here.”
Last summer, the partnership agreement was finalized, and the United Way is now helping the district with data, funding and finding additional partnerships.
“We work with community organizations to align strategies and monitor process through data,” said Chad Campbell, vice president of community impact at the United Way of Olmsted County. “We bring the lens of relationship building with nonprofits and government agencies in Olmsted County. We have access to philanthropic efforts that schools wouldn’t have. We are largely behind the scenes doing partnership resourcing and administrative support for the effort.”
“Yes, we may receive some financial support from United Way but it’s much bigger than that,” said Ruzek. “The whole part of this was to talk to all stakeholders, needing to get the voice of our community partners. Having this team that we’ve built has been very beneficial to the work that we do.”
The district reapplied for the state grant last year and received funding for two additional sites. The district now has three community schools: Gage Elementary, Riverside Central Elementary and the Rochester Area Learning Center.
All three schools have site facilitators, and Ruzek is on special assignment as the district’s Family and Community Engagement facilitator and volunteer coordinator.
“We meet with all of the facilitators as a professional learning community,” Ruzek said. “We talk about things site specific and districtwide. We’re allowing some opportunities at sites to be organic and some are districtwide.”
Gage Elementary was the first site to be up and running with the first state grants funds.
The site now hosts a variety of grade-level and building-wide events for families, has built an outdoor classroom and garden, has one-to-one iPads and focused art activities, integrates community service projects, works on STEM and Humanities curricula, has a Spanish Immersion program, hosts a food and clothing pantry, has increased mental health supports and is growing medical supports.
And even in the short timeframe, they are seeing evidence of progress.
The school has seen 108 parents attend academic-focused family events, all second- and third-graders involved in enrichment opportunities, 96 percent of students express interest in continued arts enrichment, positive feedback from all 18 partners involved in enrichment day, 56.2 percent of families attend extra events beyond conferences, over 100 students see a dentist on site and more.
At the time of the school’s needs assessment, only 10 community partners responded. Now the school has more than 25 partnerships in place, with 100 percent of the partners desiring a deeper partnership.
“Community schools are working to address barriers in a student’s school career and their life outside of school,” Campbell said. “We’re using evidence-based strategies that move students forward.”
What is a full-service community school?
A full-service community school welcomes community members as partners in school improvements, brings community services into the school and empowers the people closest to students to examine disparities. They put social, medical and before- and after-school academic services and enrichment activities where they are most accessible—on the school campus.
What programs and services might a full-service community school offer?
Childcare, adult education, early childhood education, medical clinics, mental health services, food shelves and family literacy classes.
Programs that help parents and community members develop deep involvement and leadership in their school.
High-quality before- and after-school tutoring, college application help and specialized training and professional development for educators.
Services that improve school climate and health, such as using restorative justice tactics, training teachers in social and emotional learning and offering school-based health centers.
What is the Legislature proposing to support full-service community schools this session?
Bills to appropriate $20 million, $10 million each year, from the general fund to help support full-service community schools are in both the House and the Senate. They are being laid over for possible inclusion in the omnibus bill.
Learn more about full-service community schools by reading Education Minnesota’s Educator Policy Innovation Center report.