Madison Community Schools Look to Be An ‘Extension of Home’

April 14, 2019   |   By Chris Rickert

Wisconsin State Journal

More than two and a half years into the Madison School District’s launch of “community schools,” there are signs that students and parents are benefiting from the expanded array of services the schools provide.

Less clear is whether such a wrap-around pedagogical approach — which largely aims to boost student success by boosting family stability — will result in measurable academic improvements.

District officials and UW-Madison researchers say it will likely take several years to see the full effects of a model that some advocates see as being as much about social justice as improving student learning, and that so far has cost district taxpayers relatively little.

The district spent $169,195 in 2016-17 and $195,640 in 2017-18 implementing the first two community schools, at Leopold and Mendota elementaries. About 35% of the total spent over the two years came from donors.

“You wouldn’t expect academic metrics to change in the first five, six years probably,” said Nichelle Nichols, who oversees the district’s Family, Youth and Community Engagement Department.

An analysis of test scores at Mendota and Leopold show slight improvements in reading and math proficiency from the year before they were converted into community schools, or 2015-16, to last school year, although attendance rates fell slightly and chronic absenteeism rose.

During a meeting of the School Board’s Instruction Work Group on April 1, board president Mary Burke said she was “shocked” by the increase in chronic absenteeism and reiterated her skepticism about the community schools effort generally.

“We cannot be all things to all people,” she said. “We are working with families that have very, very high needs.”

Measures of how parents, students and staff perceived the climates of the schools — including their safety and how engaged they are with students and families — also didn’t move much from 2015-16 to 2017-18.

Evaluations of the schools’ first two years by UW-Madison researchers laud the schools’ work to include parents and community members in the lives of the schools, and to provide varied programming and develop partnerships with local organizations.

But they also found that parents of color were underrepresented on community schools committees, black parents were less likely to have positive interactions with staff and rank-and-file teachers didn’t always have a good understanding of what the community schools model means.

Overall, Mendota appeared to have a better handle on the model and buy-in from parents and community members. After the loss of its first community schools coordinator, Leopold is in the process of “rebooting” the model this year, according to district officials.

‘Feels like home’

In Madison, the community schools model has been applied at poorer, more diverse schools at a time when the district is attempting to reduce it’s longstanding achievement gap between white students and students of color, and as the district struggles with a disconnect between its mostly white, middle-class teaching force and the district’s students and parents, who tend to be more racially diverse and poorer than Madison’s overall population.

Among the programs offered at Mendota is a food pantry open on Tuesdays and Thursdays that brings about 60 families per week to the school’s community resource room, where parents can also get help with financial literacy and finding housing.

On a Thursday earlier this year, the pantry had closed for the day when Marcus Jordan, 26, Diamond Tribble, 25, and their son Dayton, 6, a kindergartner at the school, showed up.

Principal Carlettra Stanford and community schools resource coordinator Sonia Spencer nevertheless welcomed them in to peruse the refrigerator and storage closet stocked with dry goods. Dayton spent much of the time working on a puzzle.

The couple have no car, so it’s good to have a pantry within walking distance, said Tribble, who was able to get a better job as a certified nursing assistant with help offered at Mendota.

“It’s real helpful,” Jordan said of the pantry. “It’s just stuff you need. Everything counts.”

Spencer said she wants families to see the school as “an extension of their home,” and Stanford said school officials “want them to know that this is their school.”

Tribble, at least, appeared to be buying in to that notion.

“If I’m going to have my kid in this school, I need to know everything that’s going on,” she said. “It feels like home (at Mendota). They actually welcome you.”

Stanford said social services for parents can have positive effects on their children’s academic achievement.

If services can help a parent get a better job with better hours, for example, she said, maybe that will help get the child to school on time.

‘Chance to shine’

Elsewhere in the building, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders were rehearsing for the school’s performance of the Disney musical “The Aristocats.”

Mendota was one of four Madison elementary schools named in 2016 to the Disney Musicals in Schools program, which provides training and scripts and other materials for students and staff to do musical theater. Stanford believes the school’s status as a community school was key to winning the grant.

Fourth-grader Giselle Tlahuextl Toxqui, 10, said she wanted to be in the show “because I wanted to raise my spirits and not be afraid to sing.” Eleven-year-old fifth-grader Wilson Foueppe isn’t one for singing or performing in front of crowds but for three years running has been among the students who create props for the show.

“This is something for some kids where you have a chance to shine,” said first-grade teacher and show director Kathy Chamberlain. “For some kids, it’s just kind of that link we needed.”

“They’re definitely more focused,” fifth-grade teacher Rachel Mohrmann said of how participation in the show translates into work in the classroom. “It builds responsibility.”

Seeking other voices

Two of the UW-Madison researchers who evaluated the district’s community schools program, Gwen Baxley and Annalee Good, declined to say whether they thought the district was following best practices in community school creation, according to guidelines set by the national Coalition for Community Schools.

“It is important to note that there are mixed results with some schools,” Baxley said, but “research suggests that the schools that have been successful have been around a while.”

Community schools-like approaches have been around for decades, but the model itself started to gain in popularity about 20 years ago. The 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act encourages community schools-like initiatives.

Two aspects of the model — providing social services in school and, in part as a result, more time in school for children — are both important to the approach’s success, Baxley said, and “instruction needs to be high quality as well.”

“One of central tenets of community schools is around changing the power structures on whose voices are engaged,” Good said, as the structure of traditional schools “privileges white youth and families.”

Community schools require staff and administrators to reflect on racial bias in a school, Baxley said, and to take into account things such as who leads the school and the parent-teacher association, who has the most access to the principal and which children are getting into advanced courses.

Focused on priorities

Hawthorne and Lake View elementary schools are next on the district’s list for getting the community school treatment, and are spending this year determining what services they need and might be able to provide.

Needs will ultimately be narrowed down to three “priority areas,” said Lake View community schools resource coordinator Rachel Deterding. Hawthorne Principal Beth Lehman said that at Hawthorne, there will likely be one priority area each for students, families and staff.

The goal is to be a school that is a “hub of information and resources for students and their families,” Deterding said.

The Sun Prairie School District, in partnership with the city and community groups, has also been offering a variety of programs as part of its community school initiative, which got started at Westside Elementary and the district’s alternative high school, Prairie Phoenix Academy, in 2012 but stalled in 2014.

The program was renewed in 2016 when the district and city kicked in funding, and the district is seeing some associated, if preliminary, positive results. Math scores from spring 2018 were higher among community schools participants than non-participants, for example, and the percentage of Prairie students on track for on-time graduation increased from 42% in 2016 to 54% in 2018.

About $274,000 was spent on the program last school year.

Parental involvement

Among the other events held at Mendota has been a yearly block party that brings in some 1,500 people. Last year, the school focused on career development, with more than 70 employment organizations participating. Ten Mendota family members got on-site interviews and three people got full-time jobs, according to the school. Seven people also gained employment through Northside Planning Council’s Ready Set Go! job-training program.

A “beauty boutique” in December brought in 30 professional beauticians and barbers who cut or styled hair for more than 100 people.

Spencer said it often makes sense to pair something the school wants parents and children to do together, such as a parent-teacher conference, with something parents and children want or need, such as an activity or a flu shot clinic.

Chamberlain said that for the first time in 35 years of teaching last fall, she had 100% attendance at her parent-teacher conferences, and the school as a whole has seen conference attendance rise over the last three school years.

No classrooms reached the 100% mark in fall 2016, but two had by fall 2018, and the percentage of classrooms with at least 80% attendance had risen from 41% in the fall of 2016 to 72% two years later.

Ultimately, Stanford said the goal of community schools is not just improving academics or providing families with needed services.

She pointed to an effort run by Door Creek Church last year in which students helped put together care packages for people devastated by the 2016 earthquake in Haiti, and to a parent who gives carpentry lessons at the school once a month and whose classes are “always full.”

Then, she said, there were the two students who in January gave the money they earned shoveling snow to the school’s food pantry and the two students who in summer 2017 gave the $1,100 they earned from lemonade and ice cream stands to help fund new playground equipment.

“That’s how we know that students are really understanding what it means to be a community school,” Stanford said.