At PS 18 Community School in the South Bronx, the reality of poverty hits the children right between the eyes. Literally.
Last spring, staff visiting from the nonprofit Helen Keller International organization administered vision tests to the school's fourth- and fifth-grade students and the news was astonishing: More than 40 percent of the children needed glasses right away. A few needed to be referred to an eye specialist.
"The results were pretty scary," said United Federation of Teachers Vice President Karen Alford, who heads the union's Community Learning Schools initiative in New York City. "But it also dramatically shows how the community school model can make a real difference in our kids' lives."
Glasses were delivered in time for the students to take the state's English language arts exam, and they were free. The students did not lose a day of school and their parents did not miss any work.
"It's just one example of how we can broker much-needed services to help our kids succeed," Alford said. "It's a common-sense approach for the common good, and one that I truly believe will reduce the barriers to education."
The UFT launched its community schools initiative last year in six schools, using a combination of union, city and private funding. It proved so popular, the UFT this fall expanded the effort to 16 schools, leveraging a $700,000 state Senate grant for more support. UFT President Michael Mulgrew hopes to grow the program even further with new state funding.
"New York must go beyond its funding of traditional education services in struggling schools and provide the addition-al support services that students living in poverty — and their families — need to be successful," NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi told the New NY Education Reform Commission at a hearing. "Community schools like those spearheaded by the UFT are a simple answer to a very complex problem."
UFT launched its pilot program after visiting a union-led model developed a decade ago in Cincinnati. Since incorporating additional supports for students through its Community Schools Program, Cincinnati is now the highest-performing urban district in Ohio. High school graduation rates climbed from 51 percent in 2000 to nearly 82 percent in 2010. Achievement gaps between African-American students and white students narrowed from 14.5 percent in 2001 to 1.2 percent in 2010.
Like Cincinnati schools, each UFT pilot school has grown its own program based on local needs, Alford said. Currently four schools have their own resource coordinator who works with a school team to conduct a local needs assessment, including community focus groups and surveys. The coordinator then makes connections to facilitate private-public partnerships and work with government agencies to use existing funding to deliver what's needed. The goal is for each school to have its own resource coordinator.
Typical wraparound services go beyond health and dental clinics, extended school hours and counseling.
Many students were going hungry over the weekend, when they don't have access to school breakfast and lunch. PS 18 and PS 188 partnered with the Food Bank For New York City to provide a bag of food once a month for each student's family. The bag contains enough cereal, milk, pasta, tomato sauce, fruits, vegetables, tuna and other canned foods to get families through the weekends.
At another community school where obesity is an increasing problem, a fitness program evolved. At yet another school, Pricewaterhouse Coopers introduced financial literacy instruction, even arranging visits by professional athletes.
A Harlem school is working with faith-based groups to bring in Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, along with enrichment activities. After determining students needed a greater sense of their community's rich cultural background, the school worked with a local non-profit group to take students on a walking tour of Harlem landmarks.
Connecting with parents and making them feel welcome in school are also crucial, whether its providing them with legal services, counseling or healthy living programs.
A Queens school new to the initiative will focus on adult education and help parents earn their GED, Alford said. Another school launched a fathers' group; another started a Zumba class for parents. A "make and take" arts-and-crafts program and breakfast for parents proved to be a lot more popular than the traditional parent-teacher conference.
"There have been some very interesting partnerships with unlikely allies," Alford said. "Who would think PricewaterhouseCoopers would be willing to do so much? It's all about developing relationships. Sometimes all you have to do is ask."
While the kinds of services vary, the common variable is reducing barriers, Alford said.
"Figure out what the need is and let's address it so teachers can teach," she said. "The goal is leveraging neighborhood resources and existing funding to make the program self-sustaining."
NYSUT has urgently called for the state to invest in more programs like the UFT's Community Learning Schools initiative. The union also cites other models that work, including the union-backed Say Yes program in Syracuse and a pioneering coalition in Rockland County that brings together eight school districts, the local BOCES and teacher center and a number of public and private agencies.
In response, the governor this year established a $15 million Community Schools Grant Initiative program that is expected to provide up to $500,000 to about 30 schools starting in December.
"Unfortunately, the grant program will not go far enough," Iannuzzi said. Hundreds of schools have applied for the funding, including rural, urban and suburban schools. "We're hoping the governor and Legislature will recognize that this is a program worth investing in and expanding."
DID YOU KNOW
NYSUT United and its predecessor, New York Teacher, have published several stories about community schools. Visit the archives on www.nysut.org/communityschools to read about the Say Yes program in Syracuse, the Thomas Edison Elementary community school in Port Chester and Rockland 21C, a coalition that serves eight school districts in Rockland County.
WHAT'S A COMMUNITY SCHOOL?
Community schools are neighborhood public schools that address the needs of students in a holistic way — not just their academic achievement, but their overall health and well-being. Using the school as a hub, community schools integrate services, coordinate with partners and use existing government funding to meet students' academic, enrichment, social and health needs — removing barriers to learning and helping students succeed.