Transforming Asheville Middle School into a Community School

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10 Questions with Asheville Middle Resource Coordinator Bruce Waller on Transforming Asheville Middle School into a Community School

Not long ago I sat down with Bruce Waller, our Resource Coordinator at Asheville Middle School, to talk about the work being done there going into our third school year. Bruce joined our staff after working with local nonprofit Green Opportunities, which provides workforce training and development opportunities for people living in marginalized communities.
 
Before we get into the formal questions, tell us a little bit about your work there and the transition into your role with us here at United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County.
Bruce: Yes, I am coming from Green Opportunities where I was a Ready-To-Work Case Manager. I was working one-on-one with individuals needing assistance finding a job, helping them with their resumes, talking with them to help manage what was going on in their life and helping them find work and then continue to be successful at that work.

Question 1: So, United Way began making an impact at Asheville Middle School in 2016 with Shari Smith as our first AMS Resource Coordinator. You’re the school’s second Resource Coordinator going into your second school year so our presence is still fairly new to the school and our implementation of the community school strategy is still very much in progress. Can you talk a bit about that?

Bruce: Yes, that is how I was able to excel so quickly. The work that was done before me at Asheville Middle was great. Shari gave me a place where I could stand on her shoulders and continue. A lot of times work can be lost with transition when it is built solely on personal relationships versus a system. The infrastructure and relationships she and the United Way team created really gave me a foundation and structure to further the work this year.

Question 2: Can you share, in your own words, what the community school strategy is all about, for folks that aren’t as familiar?

Bruce: Absolutely. I think that’s a great place to start. Without the long textbook definition, I would say that the community school strategy is all about rallying the community around supporting the school and allowing the school to serve as a hub to support our community. It’s all about supporting student and family success--so using the school as a lighthouse. I like to use the metaphor of a lighthouse. It’s a place where people who are far and long, those ships that are way out there and looking to come into harbor, can settle down and establish themselves. I think Asheville Middle School is becoming a lighthouse in the Asheville City School district. By doing that, you have to bring in the right organizations and community partners so everyone is working together to address all the needs of students and families.

Question 3: You’re not necessarily creating programs or starting from scratch. A lot of the services needed exist in the community. You’re acting as project manager (i.e. resource coordinator) where you’re helping to create that hub, draw in outside organizations, and make them feel comfortable coming into school to find ways to develop relationships with the students and families as well as school administrators and educators. 

Bruce: Absolutely. Just to put it simply, my job as Resource Coordinator is to coordinate resources and support everyone. That can take many different forms. I coordinate communication between United Way and the school and the school to the district and the district to the students and parents. I find the barriers to understanding what’s taking place and find pathways to coordinate the resources with families and the community organizations supporting those families. I’m always juggling four to five different plates to make sure they all work in synergy together.
 
One way we do that effectively is our with monthly Resource Team meetings. There’s a cross-section of individuals--teachers, police officers, parents, fire department, pastors, after school providers, mentors, etc. all at the table. Because what really matters to the academic success of our students is being able to reach the whole child and look at their social/emotional dynamics at home and in the community. We always hear the saying that it takes a village to raise a child. You’ve got to apply the same concept to this work and rally together as a community because we’re all working with and for these same students and families. Why not work together? 

Question 4: One of the most well known facets of this work right now is the Homework Diner program. These are weekly family engagement events with students, teachers, parents, volunteer mentors and community partners gathering over a free meal prepared by Green Opportunities. What has the Homework Diner experience been like at Asheville Middle this year?

Bruce: Last year, we had great success and held 27 Homework Diners with nearly 300 individuals in attendance throughout the school year. Homework Diners are designed to bring K-12 students and families in throughout the entire district to come together in one place. The focus is the homework of course, yet it’s also to connect with the teachers and learn more about what’s taking place in the school outside of the classroom over that meal from Green Opportunities. Community partners are also in attendance tabling and offering information and services, so we really set the stage for students, families, teachers, school administrators and community organizations to have a conversation and build those needed relationships. 

Question 5: Can you share a success story from a Homework Diners this year?

Bruce: I have so many success stories that have taken place with students attending Homework Diners. One individual had C’s and D’s and after attending several Homework Diners, her grades went up to A’s and B’s. She utilized the bonus point system, where every time a child participates in a Homework Diner, they receive 5 bonus points in the classroom. You can do the math. Those points can go a long way in supporting these students. So far this fall we’ve had over 400 unique participants at Asheville Middle Homework Diners. That includes students and families from all grade levels in the ACS district, ACS staff and community volunteers. 

Question 6: Bruce, remind everyone who can attend and why please.

Bruce: It’s open. We ask that students always attend with an adult family member so we don’t lose the integrity of what we’re trying to accomplish by just letting the kids come alone. We want this to be a very positive experience for the whole family. We know that trust issues for parents can exist. Some parents may have had a negative experience in middle school or they may feel intimidated or out of place in a school setting. So, having this time where parents and kids can come together and have a casual and positive conversations with the teacher and other parents is so important. 

Question 7: The focus isn’t simply on students either. The community school strategy is focused on the health of the families and entire community around that school district. You recently shared a great story about a mother who attended Homework Diners last school year and she started to explore some of the services being shared while her kids were doing homework. Can you tell us a little bit about that story?

Bruce: Yes. We held a college night last school year and invited Warren Wilson, UNC Asheville, and AB Tech to come out and table at Homework Diners. A parent talked to the representative from AB Tech that night and came up to me afterward and said, “I’m going back to school!” She is a single mother of four boys and is just always trying to keep those boys active and engaged. She decided to pursue her dreams, start inquiring about college courses and looking into the enrollment process. She took that momentum and began writing a mission statement and ideas for mentoring programs for girls at Homework Diners. She started going to OnTrack Financial classes and working with other community partners that were here to table and really utilizing every resource around her. Just to watch that in action was amazing. We now have parent volunteer nights at Homework Diners. The parents really take ownership of those nights. It just keeps growing!

Question 8: So we’ve mentioned community partners and how we’re working with Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County Schools, and community organizations like Green Opportunities, In Real Life (IRL) and Delta House as well as additional community partners like MANNA, Access Family Services, and more who attend the Resource Meetings, table at Homework Diners and altogether work in tandem with our organization, the school and the families in so many different capacities. Can you talk to me a bit more about that?

Bruce: Yes, this work truly cannot be done alone. IRL does a phenomenal job in working with our kids at Asheville Middle. They’re so integrated that they have an office in the school. They had 293 students enrolled in IRL last year and 196 of those students demonstrated social/emotional growth while 100 showed academic growth. We also have many community partner programs integrated into our student support, like Wildlife who does tutoring and mentoring, the Delta House Jazz Band, and Junior Girl Boss Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters of WNC, L.I.N.K.S who work to empower our students as part of enrichment training. The list goes on for community support organizations. We have New Mount Olive Church, YWCA, Parent U, and just so many more partners at the table who are all hands-on-deck. 

Question 9: And these partner organizations aren’t just randomly thrown into the mix here. You compile a Community School (assets and needs) Assessment each year. So, you’re talking with parents, students, teachers and community members to really find out what’s going on, determine what the needs are, how folks are feeling and then compile all of that data to determine how needs are and are not being met. 

Bruce: There is an extensive assessment that is updated regularly. That assessment captures qualitative and quantitative data--from conversations to meetings and surveys. We also have the Early Warning Response System that captures the quantitative data, the numbers and graphs based on student’s attendance, behavior and core course grades and the interventions in place to support them. When we combine that with community wisdom, we start to see something different. These assessments go into great detail about what’s taking place in our community based on surveys and conversations with students, parents, teachers and community members. All of that data is compiled over the course of a year, then used to determine what supports may be needed for the students and families we are serving. It’s critical that student and parent voice lead the way.
 
 
In addition to that, our work is guided by The Four Pillars of Community Schools
  • Collaborative Leadership and Practice
  • Integrated Student Supports
  • Active Family and Community Engagement
  • Expanded Learning Time and Opportunities
Many years of research have gone into creating this, which defines the community school strategy, and is being implemented by community schools across the country. In those four pillars, they break down what each one means. So, for instance, Expanded Learning Time and Opportunities pretty much consists of enrichment activities that emphasize real-world learning and community problem-solving. A perfect example of that is IRL. AVID is another great example, which works to start preparing students for college during middle school. Middle School Magic is a summer program that works on building social/emotional learning and takes the students on inspiring and culturally relevant field trips. Of course we also have wonderful partner organizations who work to serve this need, like My Daddy Taught Me That and My Sistah Taught Me That, UNC Asheville, YWCA Swim Club, YTL...we have so many partners here I could go on. 

Question 10: What are new strategies you’re implementing for the 2018-2019 school year?

Bruce: This year, I’m revamping the Resource Team. We have key players, vital to this work, that will help move the needle and make an impact in our school. I’ve been helping to build those relationships this year and am very excited about that. I’m working with the ACS district to help build pathways to success. A key initiative is supporting transitions from elementary to middle school, then from middle to high school. It can feel like a cycle of culture shock. The social/emotional dynamic is just super-charged in that process. So why not build those bridges and get the people at 5th grade and 6th grade talking and those 8th and 9th grade talking and everything in-between from 5th grade to 9th grade? These are big transitions so I want to support principals, counselors, folks at Children First/Communities in Schools, and other key community partners to all come together and talk about how we support students and one another. 
 

Next Steps...

If you want to get involved as a before-school Breakfast Buddy, Lunch Buddy, join the Resource Team, mentor at weekly Homework Diner or if your company wants to volunteer as a team at Homework Diner, we would love to have you. Explore and sign up for opportunities here. 
 
If you have specific questions as a parent, community partner or volunteer, feel free to email Bruce at bruce.waller@unitedwayabc.org.