Perhaps you’ve heard of the community school strategy, either through local nonprofit Children First/Communities in Schools, an organization committed to advocating for and empowering children and families living in poverty, or through our organization via the weekly Homework Diners happening in conjunction with Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools. Perhaps you’ve yet to hear the term and are curious what sets this strategy apart from other school strategies or what a school strategy even means. So, let’s start there.
What is a community school? According to the Coalition for Community Schools, a community school is a public school - the hub of its neighborhood, uniting educators, community partners, and families to provide all students with top quality academics, enrichment, health and social services, and opportunities to learn and thrive. This interconnectivity fosters not only improved student learning and positive associations within the school, it also creates stronger families and healthier overall communities that are engaged with one another across race, class and social divisions.
So, how is this relevant to our organization, to Asheville and Buncombe County? Just four years ago, in 2014, our organization sent two staff members alongside a representative from the YMCA to the national Coalition for Community Schools Conference to better understand the community school strategy and bring pieces of it home to share with fellow nonprofits and administrators in western North Carolina. United Way staff returned from the conference excited and determined. From there, we moved forward in testing new strategies, offering connective after-school activities and engagement opportunities and worked to better understand the needs and resources of the students and families in the Enka district (where we placed our first full-time Resource Coordinator).
Fast forward to 2016 and the next Coalition for Community Schools Conference, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Three members from our team, two from the Buncombe County Schools and one from Asheville City Schools made the trip to learn from the thriving community school strategy that had been set into motion 10 years prior there. The city of Albuquerque, Albuquerque Public Schools, Bernalillo County, United Way of Central New Mexico and the Albuquerque Business Education all came together to form a partnership that utilized this strategy by aligning and creating thoughtful, integrated programs and services based on the needs of the students, families and communities within each district. These programs included the prototype of Homework Diners, a free family engagement program utilizing teachers, parents, and community members to offer a meal, homework help, mentorship, social services and additional support systems to families on a weekly basis.
Co-creating Community Schools in Asheville and Buncombe County
Our staff returned from Albuquerque fired up and ready to dig in alongside Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County Schools and many community partner organizations to grow our efforts here in Buncombe County. We created two new full-time Resource Coordinator positions for Erwin and Asheville middle schools. The Resource Coordinator’s role is to support students, families and the community within their school district, work with community partners to create Hubs of Service that offer the resources students and families in that district need, and help school administrators better track student progress and offer assistance. A year later, we added a Resource Coordinator at Owen Middle School. Resource Coordinators - working alongside school and community partners - collectively employ four strategies as part of the overarching Middle School Success initiative utilizing the community school strategy.
The four elements of the Middle School Success Initiative are:
- The Early Warning and Response System (EWRS): The first of its kind in North Carolina, the EWRS connects city and county schools with out-of- school time providers and volunteers. In real time, the system identifies when a student is falling off track and alerts a network of supportive, caring adults to take swift and meaningful action. This system enables teachers, counselors, social workers and community partners to access, analyze and act on the attendance, behavior and core academic data of each student.
- Who Got You Through: This is mentorship, a second shift of caring adults able to help students stay on track towards long term success. Interested? The United Way volunteer center (Hands On Asheville-Buncombe) recruits mentors and tutors for school and non-profit partners of the Middle Grades Network. Learn how you can become a mentor today.
- Homework Diners: These free weekly family engagement events are open to all families with K-12 students in any of the four school districts in which they are offered (Asheville, Enka, Erwin, Owen). They’re designed to build skills, relationships, and community, making the school a central hub of community support. Hands-On Asheville Buncombe recruits volunteer groups from the community who want to lend a helping hand in set-up, food service, mentorship and overall facilitation.
- Hubs of Service: Working with the schools, we support service providers like Green Opportunities and In Real Life, the Buncombe County Graduation Initiative and more who provide resources that will support the health, education, and financial stability of the whole family and community.
How Can you be a part of the Community Schools in Asheville and Buncombe County?
A community school offers a revolutionary vision of the roles parents and community can play in education as well as the role a school can play in its community. The primary goals are the education of children and their healthy development. Students are freer to learn because the school’s many services and supports work together to remove obstacles to their education; teachers can better focus on the curriculum because their students are healthier, have improved attendance and the supports they need to succeed in school and in life. Their success is bolstered by the involvement of the community in the schools, the sharing of knowledge,resources, time and energy, which fosters connection, growth and support forthe families in our community.
DONATE to support the Middle School Success initiative and you’re making an investment in our students, schools and families, in our community as a whole. Not able to donate OR would you like to share your time as a volunteer or student mentor? Learn more about our Who Got You Through Mentor program here. And check out the work we’re doing to make Enka Middle the first full-fledged community school.