Just five years ago, in the spring of 2013, United Way took on a team of Americorps interns to begin supporting Enka Middle School with after-school programming opportunities, drawing in community partners to offer students stimulating activities, like knitting, yoga and sign language. The idea at the time was to increase the quality and quantity of after school programing for middle school youth, which quickly evolved as school faculty, students and the community shared their needs (and as we learned about the Community School strategy from fellow United Ways around the U.S.)
Our current Resource Coordinator Ginny Spencer Eudy joined the Enka Jets crew in 2016 and is excited to welcome the 2018-2019 school year, building on the support systems co-created with community partners as well as connections and resources that have been put into place over the years for students, parents and families in the community. In helping to bridge the gaps in how all of these systems work together, we’re slowly (and deliberately) forming the building blocks of that larger Community School Strategy.
Here’s how Ginny breaks it down: “Really what we’re trying to do is create the middle school as a place that can closest resemble a center for the community--having all those resources there, being that hub of service to provide needs the students and families are asking for, and having support systems and opportunities for parents to participate as well.” We sat down with Ginny to hear an update on the ins-and-outs of the community school strategy in action at Enka as we enter our fourth school year there. Here’s what she had to say...
Homework Diners Offer Support to Students, Teachers and Families
One of the most well known and successful programs is the Homework Diner, which we piloted in the fall of 2016 at Enka. Fast forward one year to Enka hosting one of the most highly attended diners, with more than 200 students, parents and community members in attendance. During the 2017-2018 school year, 25 Homework Diners were held at Enka Middle with 591 unique participants, including 265 adults, 119 students from Enka Middle, and 207 students from other area schools. When I ask Ginny what has made the Homework Diners so successful, she shares, “We have a lot of buy-in from the teachers and administration. They saw it as a really great opportunity to bring in community partners that can support families. They loved the chance to have the weekly meal provided by Green Opportunities for the whole family, but we also have teachers that we stipend to be there.” Enka teachers appreciate the weekly opportunity to connect with students outside of the classroom and also enjoy spending time with the families and parents they don’t normally get to see throughout the school year, who perhaps haven't been able to attend the parent / teacher conferences, award ceremonies, or sporting events.
“Last year, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper came to a Homework Diner at Enka,” shares Eudy. “That was huge and really gave some legitimacy and credibility to what we’re doing. He saw it as a great model and said he’d love to see it replicated throughout the state.”
More than Homework Diners--Co-Creating Support Systems for Students, Faculty & Family
Outside of the Homework Diner program, there is a more robust system of mentorship, monitoring and support happening at Enka. The Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) is one component of our Middle School Success Initiative operating in seven county schools, including Enka Middle. This digital dashboard we developed just over one year ago connects city and county schools, out-of-school providers, and volunteers, using student attendance, behavior and grading data to identify when a student is starting to fall off track, which will alert a professional network of supportive and caring adults to intervene early on.
In addition to the EWRS, a Needs Assessment is conducted by Eudy, where she spends time talking with teachers and school staff, parents and students, conducting surveys and focus groups, to determine what the needs are in the community from the community members themselves. Mental health was one of the overwhelming needs identified. Many rural areas, like the Enka Candler community, are mental health deserts. Working with school administrators, and accessing funding from United Way, Eudy helped form a partnership with Access Family Services, a behavioral health agency providing accessible, quality mental health services. “They’re now serving any student in the school that doesn’t qualify for medicaid and either can’t afford their private insurance deductible or they’re potentially undocumented and don’t have any kind of coverage,” shares Eudy. “We really don’t ask any questions. If you’re not able to afford mental health services, Access will provide that paid for with the contract that we have with them.”
At the beginning of each year students meet one on one with school counselors. This past year, 140 students identified as needing support from a group, with the reasons varying widely from anxiety and trauma to social skills, or handling difficult situations like divorced or incarcerated parents and family members. We’ve had a lot of success at Enka with support groups for middle schools. We can reach a large number of students using group counseling and we found a lot of success with it. Our teachers are used to it now, so we’ve been utilizing Access to help run some of those support groups.
“I always say this but whenever I’ve asked someone about their experience in middle school, not a single person says it was great and they had a wonderful time and felt super confident, comfortable and supported. No one understands. Your body is going through so many changes in that developmental stage. Add onto that something like not having enough food or substance abuse in your house or something like that. So that was what we worked on last year and we really built a successful infrastructure with Access and the really strong student services team with our two counselors and social worker at the school.”
Enka also has a fantastic faith-based group, Francis Asbury United Methodist Church, who adopted Enka Middle as their school and have been diligent in working with the students and teachers, providing support through volunteerism as well as a Teacher Appreciation Committee. During the 2017-18 school year, they organized 10 teacher appreciation events. Another church provides take-home food bags to students in need, supporting 30 students during the last school year. Enka Middle also has a strong student services team and the school social worker already had a community closet set up for students as well as a food pantry, so those were things that already existed at the school.
“Really what I think we’ve helped do through United Way is provide a level of management and connections to community resources so that our teachers aren’t having to try to do all of this in addition to teaching,” says Eudy. “That’s really what the community school strategy tries to do is free up everybody to do the role that they went to school for and that they were trained for so that teachers aren’t also having to be a counselor or make sure their students are being fed. Someone else is responsible for that.”
Looking Ahead: Parent Leadership Program
The next focus area for Eudy is creating what she’s calling the Parent Leadership Program, where parents will spend a certain amount of hours volunteering in the classrooms helping teachers with in-classroom activities. Ideally, this type of working program helps the teachers interact with the parents better and allows the parents to see the teachers and the school in a different light. In addition, parents would also receive training and support they needed, for things like resume-building, job interview training, GED classes, and other needs as they arise.
“Obviously there are a lot of adults in this community that care about the student’s education,” says Eudy, “so how do we bridge that gap and make sure that communication is happening.”
Altogether, the community school strategy is not this cookie cutter approach where we arrive with a pre-planned agenda for the school. It’s about working with the students, the staff and the families of those students in Enka to determine what their specific community needs are, whether that’s extra to-go food for people to take home, homework help or opportunities to feel more comfortable talking with one another. Eudy works alongside school counselors, teachers and staff, community partners as well as a Resource Team, made of community members, school staff, parents and students. “Really it’s an opportunity to look at the data, look at the problems and say, 'This is the problem. This is what we know about it.' So then we say okay, well who do we need to be a part of this conversation that’s not here. That’s the part that I really like. We verify the data that we’re getting. We’re not just a bunch of people sitting around the table guessing at solutions and what the story is. We do our best to be inclusive of all the stories in the school and in the community.”
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