Community Schools
September 19, 2018

North Country educators see 'promise' of community schools project

Author: By Sylvia Saunders
Source:  NYSUT United
North Country educators listen to the Whitney Point team talk about building a community school model from the ground up. Student Mackenzie St. John, who now serves as a program student mentor, is planning to become a social worker. Photo by Sylvia Saunders.
Caption: North Country educators listen to the Whitney Point team talk about building a community school model from the ground up. Student Mackenzie St. John, who now serves as a program student mentor, is planning to become a social worker. Photo by Sylvia Saunders.

Whitney Point junior Mackenzie St. John had a little confession for a busload of North Country educators who visited her Southern Tier community school program.

Mackenzie St. John"I really hate Wednesdays," she said. The reason? That's the only weekday her community school's drop-in center is not open.

St. John is not the only one who feels that way. A couple of years ago, when the fledgling drop-in center was only open two days a week, students successfully petitioned the district to double the Promise Zone program to four days. They simply needed more.

The drop-in center is a lifeline for students looking for some friendly faces, a little extra support during study hall, or maybe just to avoid the social difficulties of the high school cafeteria.

"There's no judgment in the drop-in center," St. John said. "People stop in before school, after school, in between classes — it's just a very welcoming, supportive place." The center is staffed by Binghamton University graduate students working toward master's degrees in social work and David Puglisi, the district's full-time community school coordinator and a member of United University Professions, better known as Mr. P.

The drop-in center, which offers everything from academic support to donated prom dresses, is just one piece of the Broome County/Binghamton University Community Schools program, a partnership of county/community agencies, SUNY Binghamton, Broome-Tioga BOCES and area school districts.

Using a state grant five years ago, Broome County partners launched its community schools project with nine buildings in five districts. Since then, the state's only multi-county community school initiative has expanded to 27 buildings in eight districts including Binghamton, Johnson City, Union-Endicott, Whitney Point, Chenango Valley, Windsor, Harpursville, Broome-Tioga BOCES and Elmira.

Overall goals include increasing school attendance, fostering pro-social behavior, strengthening academic achievement and family engagement and expanding access to services to address barriers to success. BU researchers are tracking results of the program and have already seen a drop in disciplinary referrals and improvements in attendance and family engagement.

North Country educators, who made the trek to learn more about the community school concept, quickly found out there was no one-size-fits-all model they could take home in a binder. Services are tailored for each site, depending on needs and available resources. For example, after educators in one rural district noticed grandparents were raising many of the students, the coordinator put together a well-received intergenerational science camp with the help of a BU gerontologist.

Other activities vary from site to site, including a Parent Café to promote positive family/school connections; five-week Summer Zone sessions to avoid learning loss and offer academic/extracurricular enrichment; plus opportunities for health and mental health services, civic engagement, youth leadership and field trips to area colleges.

"It's not us coming in to save the world," said Luann Kida, Promise Zone Community Schools Director and a UUP/Binghamton member. "It's about using your own community resources — then building from there. It's looking at what you do have — not what you don't have."

For Broome County, it was about seizing the power of students at SUNY Binghamton — not just the MSW students, but also those from many other majors — like the nursing students who offer diabetes education. Promise Zone has also tapped into local foundations and business leaders like Kim Myers, the daughter of the founder of Dick's Sporting Goods, who has established a Bucks incentive program for kids who reach set goals, such as school attendance.

Kathy Sheehan of Broome-Tioga BOCES urged the North Country visitors not to underestimate the power of BOCES, which can help channel cost-sharing and higher state reimbursement. Community schools can also leverage a wide array of state and federal grants for programs like anti-bullying. In-school mental health clinic services can be billed through Medicaid.

Saranac Lake TA's Don Carlisto, a NYSUT Board member who helped put the bus trip together with support from American Federation of Teachers and NYSUT, said the field trip proved to be affirming and inspiring. He said the group spent a large part of the long bus ride back brainstorming lists of community partners and programs they'd like to try.

"I was struck by how much potential exists to tailor the community approach to your own district's needs," Carlisto said. "We returned home even more committed to bringing the model to the North Country."