April 09, 2010

Community schools are removing the barriers to learning

Author: Lyrysa Smith
Source: New York Tecaher
Maria Flores, community school coordinator; parent Patricia Bautista; and Port Chester Teachers Assocation President Linda O'Connor discuss the school’s strategies for improvement. Photo by Maria R. Bastone.
Caption: Maria Flores, community school coordinator; parent Patricia Bautista; and Port Chester Teachers Assocation President Linda O'Connor discuss the school’s strategies for improvement. Photo by Maria R. Bastone.

A decade ago, the strains on elementary students at Thomas A. Edison School were intense: Families worried about their legal status, language barriers, cultural differences, unemployment. Children, living in uncertainty, had a hard time focusing on school.

Edison's staff knew, too, that barriers associated with poverty were affecting students' well-being and contributing to low academic performance.

In comparison to surrounding communities in affluent Westchester County, the 440 K-5 students at Edison, in Port Chester, were predominantly Hispanic (88 percent).

More than half were English language learners, and overwhelmingly poor.

More than 80 percent of the students at this Title I school received free lunch.

The numbers are roughly the same today, but Edison School is transformed. It is now a full-service community school and full-fledged success story.

In 1999, only 19 percent of Edison's fourth-graders were proficient in English language arts. Last year, it was 75 percent.

Proficiency rates in science, math and social studies are even better, with some grades at 90 percent and higher. And all children are tested, including English language learners and special education students.

"The same challenges in the population we serve remain; the difference is we now offer services that help remove barriers to learning," said Eileen Santiago, the school's principal for the last 14 years who initiated the transformation. "The caring teachers were already here. The change began with the decision to turn Edison into a full-service community school."

Today, Edison provides a range of services to students and their families, including an after-school enrichment program, a school-based medical center, therapeutic child and family counseling, education and outreach for parents, and student teachers and professional development through a nearby college.

"Thomas A. Edison is a prime example of what schools can accomplish — working collaboratively and deliberately with all the stakeholders to provide a quality education and improve students' lives," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira.

Edison hosted focus groups at the school and in the community. They interviewed the students and conducted surveys that asked school employees, parents and community representatives about their concerns.

"We needed to understand precisely what the conditions were influencing our students' ability to learn," Santiago said.

The needs became clear. Teachers said children were coming to school sick and not doing their homework. Teachers also cited a lack of opportunities to communicate with parents.

Parents needed a safe place for their kids to be after 3 p.m. They also expressed a strong desire to help with their children's homework, communicate with teachers and get involved at the school.

Community groups said emotional and physical stresses on children and families, resulting from having little or no access to health and human services, were hampering students in school and adults in the community.

"We believed we could optimize good teaching and learning by removing these obstacles. Santiago said. "But we would have to combine a variety of resources to address the range of needs."

A community-school advisory board was created and an after-school program was started to help students with homework and provide the childcare both teachers and parents wanted, said Maria Flores, the community school coordinator.

The program started with 35 children. Today, it serves 150 students daily, and enrichment activities, such as martial arts, photography, art and chess, have been added.

Linda O'Connor, president of the Port Chester Teachers Association, said it's important to start small.

"Each school, even in the same community, has different problems to solve. Change doesn't happen overnight. You try one solution and build from there," she said.

Manhattanville College volunteered to become one of the first partners at Edison. The college provides student help for the after-school program and student- teachers in classrooms. The college also provides free courses onsite for Edison's teachers.

"Thanks to Manhattanville, Edison is a professional development school, too," said Santiago. "Thirty percent of our teachers are alumni. They're very qualified and willing to work in a school confronting the difficult conditions of poverty in the student population."

Edison's health center provides medical care, through the Open Door organization, in a shared space with the school nurse. These services are then coordinated with a mental health provider, The Guidance Center, Inc., also located on the school site.

Together they offer an array of related services to all families at the school site, with a focus on reaching out to those who are uninsured.

Robin Dillon, Open Door's pediatric nurse practitioner, works with school nurse Regina Peniowich on the prevention and treatment of illness, and on maintaining the health and nutrition of students, parents and faculty.

"Before, I had to send kids who were ill home. Then a parent would have to leave work and take their child to a doctor or ER," recalls Peniowich. "Now, we treat them right here."

Edison's health center stayed ahead of the recent HINI flu, vaccinating 300 students in three weeks. Children didn't miss school and parents didn't miss work.

"Many of our parents do not have 'sick time,'" said Dillon. "They work two or three jobs. If they don't go to work, they don't get paid. It's no wonder kids were coming to school sick."

After 28 years at Edison, Barbara Cohen, a reading teacher and Port Chester TA member, says the difference is remarkable.

"I can tell you, the school-based health center means kids don't miss an entire day of school anywhere near as often as they used to," she said.

An integral part of the health center team is Carmen Rosario-Parker, a full-time bilingual therapeutic social worker from The Guidance Center. Rosario-Parker provides counseling for students and collateral support for parents.

"It's great to be in the school. I can observe children in the different settings that are their world," she said. "I see how they interact in class, how they behave socially at lunch or at recess. It's very useful."

Full-time caseworkers from the Guidance Center help distressed families with legal advice and protection, and help them secure work permits, insurance and legal residency.

In a bright room with colorful walls, caseworker Gladys Hernandez runs a parent center and library and the popular "La Segunda Taza de Café" or "A Second Cup of Coffee."

The weekly bilingual gathering for parents is a friendly chat over coffee with workshops on a variety of topics, such as parenting issues, health and nutrition, literacy, finances, resumes and job skills, citizenship, even the U.S. Census.

"Usually 20 to 30 parents attend, but it can be many more. Parents come with all kinds of needs I help them with — translating, filling out forms, finding a lawyer or immigration help," Hernandez said.

Monica Arellano, a single mom of twin 8-year-old boys, was going through a difficult time and heard she might find help at Second Cup.

There, Arellano felt comfortable right away and discovered she wasn't the only parent with hard problems and was relieved to find a network of support.

Arellano's boys participate in the after-school program and she's active with the PTA.

Many parents also take adult education classes at Edison, such as literacy, GED completion and ESL, through a partnership with Southern Westchester BOCES.

Teachers appreciate the change. "You turn a corner now and find a parent," said Cohen.

"Now they come to parent-teacher conferences, we have bilingual staff to help translate, and the PTA is stronger than ever."

Parents also connect through Edison's Closet, a donation center full of items — clothes, shoes, gloves and hats, as well as books, school supplies, games, and toys — given by teachers, staff and community members. 

Elsy Gonzalez, a Port Chester TA member who has taught first and fifth grades for 10 years at Edison, says the school's ambiance is now welcoming.

"Parents are empowered here. That's an asset to us," said Gonzalez.

"Before it was hard to find out what was happening with a student. We were blind. But because a student is serviced in so many ways by the partnerships here at school, teachers are knowledgeable about students' well-being and how we can improve their learning."

"It's a matter of trust," said local president O'Connor. "Trust between students, teachers, parents and community partners. Everyone here knows they're safe because there's trust and there's trust because everyone feels safe."

The full-service community school grew out of needs and continues to evolve to solve new problems.

"We've boosted the quality of learning and teaching in a school where many of its students face the challenges of poverty and being recent arrivals to the United States," Santiago said.

"We're also improving the lives of students and their families, which helps the community."

Lyrysa Smith is a freelance writer from Valatie, Columbia County.


Community schools work

Collective results from 20 community school initiatives across America show that students benefit in four important ways:

Community schools:

• Improve student learning;
• Promote family engagement with students and schools;
• Help schools function more effectively; and
• Add vitality to communities

For more information, see the "Community Schools Toolkit" at http://www.communityschools.org/

Thomas Edison School's DIY

How to Create a Successful Community School

  • Know your students; know your families; know your community.
  • Take away the barriers to learning by determining what the needs are. Grow a full-service community school one inch at a time, based on need.
  • Ask what the needs are from teachers, school administration, students, parents and community representatives.
  • Hear the perspectives of all stakeholders, in and out of the school building, about the needs of children and families.
  • Engage all community members in shared decision-making and creative problem solving.
  • Take a broad view of developmental growth and learning; it's not just test scores.
  • Refine the mission as ensuring the overall developmental growth of children and the new ABCs – Autonomy, Belonging, Competence.
  • Ask for help, seek out resources in the community, go beyond school walls, open the door.
  • Gather willing partners and combine community and school resources.
  • Realign programs and services to meet the needs of children and families in a comprehensive, integrated manner.
  • Assess if goals are met and progress is being made. Fine-tune, ask again about needs, check in, take time to reflect and strategize away from the daily pressures of school.
  • Recognize it takes time to build and grow and evolve a community school.

By the Numbers

Celebrating more than 10 years of growing into a full-service community school, Thomas A. Edison has been recognized by the State Education Department for its innovative practices and achievement gains.

  • In 1999, just 19 percent of fourth-graders achieved a passing score on the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) assessment; in 2009, 75 percent achieved a passing score on this assessment, including English Language Learners (ELL) and special education students.
  • In 2009, 85 percent of third-graders and 81 percent of fifth-graders achieved a passing score in ELA assessment. Once again, almost every ELL and special education student was tested.
  • In 2009, 99 percent of third-graders, 84 percent of fourth-graders and 95 percent of fifth-graders achieved passing scores in math assessments, including ELL and special education students.
  • Since 2004, more than 90 percent of fourth-graders achieved passing scores in state science objective and performance assessments.
  • Since 2001, more than 90 percent of fifth-graders achieved passing scores in social studies assessments.
  • Today, 99 percent of Edison students have access to primary health care, thanks to the HealthCenter, compared to 23 percent in 1999.
  • In 2008-09, 75 percent of Edison families participated at major school-wide events.
  • In 2008-09, more than 90 percent of parents attended parent-teacher conferences.
  • Disciplinary office referrals dropped from 25 percent in 1997-98 to 9 percent in 2008-09.

Thomas A. Edison Elementary School

Percent of students meeting proficiency

2007 | ELA 70% — Math 90%

2008 | ELA 75% — Math 94%

2009 | ELA 81% — Math 93%