Final Notes from David's Desk: The Evolution of Community Schools

Final Notes from David: The Evolution of Community Schools

This is the second blog in a three-part series, crafted from interviews with United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County CEO David Bailey in his final weeks with the organization. These are meant to share memories of his time serving the community while highlighting milestones of the organization through the years. The first interview and blog highlighted the history of our nationally accredited resource and referral center NC 2-1-1, as well as David’s thoughts on looking ahead utilizing this resource as a community. Our second conversation and the blog below highlights our focus on middle schools since 2010 and how the evolution of this work shaped our focus on Community Schools. 

Choosing Middle School As a Focus Area

We decided to establish the Middle School Success initiative in 2010 after a deep dive into our strategic plan and shift to the core areas of education, income, and health as an organization. We didn’t make the decision to focus on middle school students in an afternoon. It was a process. I remember Ann Von Brock, our Vice President of planning at the time, meeting with Dana Stonestreet, a longtime donor and a great leader. We knew he’d be thorough in helping us to sort through research and data we had already collected. I remember sitting in his office and him saying, “This is a lot of work. This is going to take a lot of time.” By the end of our conversation though, he said, “This is definitely something I want to take on with all of you.” 
We then recruited others, like long-time donor and businessman Joe Brumit, Mayor Bellamy, nonprofit leaders like Allison Jordan, Jim Barrett and Tracy Buchannan as well as staff from the city of Asheville and Buncombe County, as well as several other strategic partners to help us dig through community statistics and research that related to our focus on education, income and health. I was convinced that everyone around this table was going to want to build a focused initiative around financial stability but after months of research, they determined education (and more specifically middle school) was the area we should hone in on. 
Taking a long-term view, supporting middle school students so that they can be prepared for and graduate from high school, college and career ready aligns perfectly with financial stability and tackling generational poverty. So we really did come up with financial stability as the focus area; we were simply approaching it by addressing a root of inequity in education.

Moving Forward Using the Community School Strategy 

We hired Gina Gallo to get our work to improve the quality and quantity of after-school opportunities for middle school youth off the ground. She did a tremendous job identifying and developing partnerships with local service providers focused on middle school youth. For example, In Real Life, a model program for after-school engagement, both academic and enrichment, became an early partner. Gina led a thorough assessment to capture the strengths and opportunities for improvement in area programs and then provide support as they worked to meet best practices.

After Gina left, we hired Laura Elliot, our Director of Community Schools Leadership and Strategy Development. She and our Volunteer Engagement Director, Michelle Bennett, went to a conference where they learned about the community school strategy. We knew that increasing the quality and quantity of afterschool problems would never let us change outcomes for students long term. So this new strategy gave us a powerful way to move forward, allowing us to work with our community partners in a deeper way and through a shared goal of addressing the needs of students, families and communities using schools as hubs of support.
In the early days, we had the help of Americorps members, who were wonderful and enthusiastic and helped us establish a presence at our first location, Enka Middle School. We soon realized that full-time staff would be needed in order to invest in the relationship building amongst the principal and teachers, parents, and the school community from year to year. We brought on our first Community School Coordinator Kyle Garrett, now our School Partnerships Manager, who had been working in that community supporting mental health initiatives for families and had quite a bit of experience using the Community School strategy in Chicago. 
I remember all of us looking at research from Dr. Robert Balfanz at Johns Hopkins, which talked about the three indicators for a student’s performance and wellbeing - Attendance, Behavior and Core Subjects. Not long after we were all watching a program ‘Middle School Magic’ on PBS that featured Dr. Balfanz’ work and how other communities were starting to see progress after they concentrated their efforts using these three indicators. 
Seeing the principal in the video meet with colleagues and educators, going through pages of student data and being able to discern where a student was academically and behaviorally was powerful. Flash forward and we have not only established an Early Warning and Response System that monitors these same indicators, but we are also now actively training our partners in how to use this data and work with it. Our own Community Schools Learning and Evaluation Manager, Zack Goldman, is able to help principals, teachers, and after-school program leaders find better ways to identify and serve hundreds of students before they slip through the cracks, at just the push of a button.

Looking Ahead: David Envisioning Community Schools in Five Years…

I’m proud of our community - the partners around the table really are rallying around the idea that “all of our kids are all of our kids” and that we all are collectively responsible for their success. I believe…in five years, all of school districts will have the support of Community Schools. We will also begin to see current middle school students graduating, so we’ll have one-two years of longitudinal and annual data. This will show us how well students advanced from year to year and we’ll be able to see what supports were most successful in helping students become college, career and community ready.  

I know that the Asheville Buncombe Middle Grades Network will continue its impressive work and grow stronger and more committed, while an executive leadership team will get established to help address systems-level policies that can improve opportunities for all. Each community (school district) will continue to find out what its needs are and continue to develop its culture of support, lead by parents who are engaged, supported, trained and know that they have a way to positively impact their child’s education beyond just education. 
I remember being at Erwin Middle serving food at a Homework Diner one afternoon and a father and daughter were eating dinner. They finished eating and the father came up and started talking to me. He said “I don’t even live here and I come each week. My daughter’s mother lives here in Erwin and I live in Madison County. I have my daughter on Monday and Wednesday nights and she’s at Madison Elementary School, but my daughter’s mother said, “I know she needs some help in school so why don’t you bring her and both of you can eat dinner the way you already are together and she can get homework help at the same time.” 

He continued and said, “so I bring her every Monday and her grades have gone up.” So whatever barrier a family is dealing with, these are the reasons we want to keep these doors open, these support systems in place and entire families feeling welcome and able to come in, ask questions, enjoy a meal, and be better connected overall. Nobody checked them at the door. There’s no eligibility or license check. What a great sense of community we’re co-creating while helping to improve our students' ability to move forward in being better educated and therefore healthier, and with a better chance at being financially stable in the future. It’s just full circle.



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