By Mackenzie Mays, Staff writer Charleston Gazette
State education officials want to see more community schools implemented in West Virginia.
The community school model partners public schools with nonprofit organizations and local businesses to create a sort of hub that fosters student achievement by combating issues such as poverty and health care access.
State and national education officials met in Charleston on Tuesday at the KidStrong Conference alongside health officials to promote the use of community school programs.
A new state policy that provides the framework for schools that want to implement the comprehensive approach is expected to be approved by the state school board next month, and State Board of Education President Gayle Manchin hopes her project, Reconnecting McDowell, can lead by example.
“When we say it takes a village to raise a child, it certainly does, but in this case we have to raise the village to support our children and families and communities, and community schools are one way to build that village that continues to bring people together,” Manchin said on Tuesday. “We know that one of the main points of community schools is that it removes that isolation. No longer is the school a separate entity from economic devastation.”
In McDowell — the lowest-achieving school district in West Virginia that also leads the U.S. in prescription drug overdoses — more than 120 partners have signed on and implemented unique strategies most districts don’t see: Students have been given personal laptops and assigned mentors, families living in rural areas have been provided Internet access at discounted rates and new teacher housing has been built to reduce turnover.
Though most community school programs across the country have been implemented in cities such as Cincinnati and Boston, they can be especially important to rural districts, Manchin said.
“All children can learn. Now, across the state and this country we offer a lot of excuses sometimes about why children aren’t learning — why we’re not doing as well in our schools and on our achievement tests... we always have a lot of excuses to share with people, and poverty tends to be one of the big excuses that we tend to offer,” she said. “Well I believe, and I think we all should believe, that that can’t be an excuse. In education, our challenge is that we prepare all kids — not just some kids, but all kids. All children can learn. That’s the reality. Poverty doesn’t discriminate.”
But Shital Shah, assistant director of education issues for the American Federation of Teachers, said problems like poverty are out of the hands of teachers — that’s why community schools are so crucial.
“The impact that poverty has on students, it takes time to get rid of, and it won’t happen overnight. So these arguments of, ‘Well, we can’t have excuses for our children,’ well, they’re not excuses. The fact of the matter is: Unless we address poverty we’ll never be able to address education,” Shah said. “We want all of our students to succeed and we know a huge barrier to that are the issues that come to families and communities as a result of poverty, so instead of putting the burden entirely on the schools, how are we going to share the work?”
West Virginia was the first state in the U.S. to hire a Community Schools Coordinator at its Department of Education.
That coordinator, Paula Fields, said it’s less about how many partners you have and more about how they work together with each other.
“You take a deliberative initiative to look at how to best approach supporting our kids to be ready to learn,” Fields said Tuesday. “The difference at these schools is that those community partners know what your two or three main goals are for your kids. It takes us all as a team.”
The KidStrong Conference continues today at the Charleston Civic Center and features U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin as speaker.
For more information, visit www.wvde.state.wv.us/healthyschools.com