The Ledger Reports on Community School Initiative in Polk County

 In News

By Madison Fantozzi, The Ledger

Imagine schools where students can go to the clinic and get their cavities filled, can grab snacks from a food pantry, where their parents can receive public assistance, and get physical and mental health services.

The community school model idea — making schools the hub for education, health and social services in their communities — is being explored by the Polk County School District, Polk Vision and community partners.

Led by co-chairs Ed Shoemaker, a state committeeman who ran unsuccessfully for School Board in November, and Deputy Superintendent John Small, about 30 members Thursday split into four committees to focus on selecting a pilot school, figuring out the roles of community partners, the district’s job and prioritizing the process.

“If you could corral all of those social services and health services for children concentrated in a high-need area to help them become successful … if you were able to provide that at a school site for not only the community but also the kids at school and after the school day, remarkable things can happen for them,” Small said in opening the meeting at the Jim Miles Professional Development Center

There are about 5,000 community schools operating in 44 states serving about 5.1 million students, according to the University of Central Florida.

In 2010, UCF, the Children’s Home Society of Florida and Orange County School District signed a 25-year memorandum of understanding to establish a partnership to start a community school at Evans High — once referred to as a double F dropout factory. Central Florida Family Health Center signed on later as the fourth key part of the partnership. Evans is now a C school.

Polk’s initiative has partnered with UCF, too, Shoemaker said.

“What’s so great about this is that a lot of times we get caught up in a program for a year or two and it’s gone because we don’t think it works,” Shoemaker told The Ledger. “The community school model involves a 25-year MOU between the key partners.

“It’s a marriage, it just doesn’t go away after two or three years,” he added. “It’s my understanding through UCF that a partner has never pulled out and I feel pretty good about the key partners involved.”

The key partners of the community school model are a school district, lead nonprofit organization, a university and a healthcare entity.

Community partners involved in Polk include Polk State College, United Way of Central Florida, Heartland for Children and Central Florida Health Clinic — just to name a few.

Funding for the community school will come from community and business partners, Shoemaker said, and grants are available through UCF’s program.

Shoemaker visited Evans High for the first time in 2012. In November he led a field trip of stakeholders to the school and, recently, they visited Mort Elementary in Tampa.

“I’m passionate about this program for one reason and one reason only,” he said. “It’s because each of those schools that I walked into, we saw happy kids, happy parents and happy teachers.”

The big question: what school will become Polk’s first community school?

“Everyone wants to do it at the high school they’re familiar with,” said Small, but he’d like to see it in an elementary school.

“If we can help children, the younger we can do that, the better off we are,” Small said. “It’s almost like triage at the middle school and at the high school, it is triage.”

And although the concept is to fix problems at schools, Small said advice he received was not to pick the neediest school.

“If you pick a school that needs all the heavy lifting… it’s going to be hard to get it off the ground,” he said. “It can stunt replication and progress.

“We need to be conscious of a picking school where we can really pull this off.”

The committees formed Thursday will meet over the next month to review and discuss factors including location, transportation, free-and-reduced lunch, teacher turnover, retention rates, among other things, and meet altogether again in June.

“There’s going to be 16 municipalities disappointed that the school selected is not in their municipality,” said Katie Worthington, president and CEO of Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, who signed up for the steering committee. “From a strategic planning perspective … we should narrow it down to three or four schools and say we have a priority list for the next three or four years.

 “As our demographics change, our communities grow and we see the definite success of the program, this will be ongoing to see which schools are folded in.”

Shoemaker hopes to get the community school model implemented by 2018.

“We have a tremendous amount of support,” he said.

Note: This article was originally published at www.theledger.com/news/20170504/community-school-initiative-moving-ahead-in-polk.

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