TALKING COMMUNITY SCHOOLS WITH ALISON McARTHUR

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Over the last several years in public education, we’ve seen the pendulum start to swing away from an over reliance on assessment data as we enter the beginning stages of recognizing the depth of challenges faced by children in poverty. This recognition has fueled a push back to the over reliance on standardized testing and assessment data being used an indicator of school success and a community school movement has begun to take root. Community schools do more than just provide wraparound services for children. They reclaim the role public schools previously played as centers of the community. Each one of these community schools differs in that each one is responsive to the community they serve. It is early in the process of data collection, but so far the results look promising. Metro Nashville Public Schools has been growing its number of community schools for a while now.

I sat down at Istanbul Café and over a couple of gyros, Community Achieves  program coordinator Alison McArthur and I discussed community schools and their potential.

Dad Gone Wild: Alison, thanks for joining me today and filling me in on community schools.

Alison McArthur: You are welcome. We always welcome the chance to talk about our schools.

DGW: Before we get rolling on community schools, I’ve always been interested in how people came to where they are in life. You were a high school teacher, right?

AM: I was a high school teacher at Glencliff. Right around the corner from here.

DGW: Very cool. For how many years?

AM: I taught for 13 years, and I was an Academy Coach for 5. So 18 years all together.

DGW: How’d you like high school?

AM: I can’t imagine any other grade. Elementary kids scare me.

DGW: It’s funny how teachers gravitate to the grades they teach. My wife went from middle school to elementary school, and she actually misses middle school, whereas other people would run screaming from middle school. But she’s found things to love about elementary school as well.

AM: (smiling) Yeah, I think middle school would send me running and screaming as well.

DGW: What was your area of instruction at Glencliff?

AM: I taught career technical education (CTE) courses. So I was a business education teacher, and I taught economics, accounting, keyboarding, spreadsheet, software type programs. We actually started an academy at Glencliff in the mid-90s, kind of the predecessor to the academies that are in all of our high schools now. We had a business academy at Glencliff High School.

DGW: The demographics at Glencliff have changed dramatically over the years. What were they like when you were there?

AM: Well, it has changed over time. In my 18 years there, it just grew to be more and more diverse, and at one point we were the most diverse school in the state. I don’t think they still hold that title. But while I was there they did.

DGW: Eakin Elementary School likes to argue with me that they are.

AM: I’ve heard them say that as well.

DGW: I think the reason that they say that they’re the most diverse is because they have a diverse economic demographic as well as ethnic diversity. They have that socioeconomic element, whereas some of our other diverse schools don’t. They are made up almost exclusively of poor kids. I’ve watched the Glencliff neighborhood over the last 10 years change firsthand. I’m from the neighborhood, and it’s had a large Hispanic population, but now it’s starting to gentrify a little bit too.

AM: Before we got really diverse at Glencliff, we had a really high Asian population that lived right in this area.

DGW: I forgot all about that. That was right when I moved into this area. The Asian gangs were all over the place, and I would hear all the horror stories. You’d see groups of kids walking down the street wearing red gang colors.

AM: Lutie Street.

DGW: Yep, that’s right, Lutie Street. I lived on Valeria Street, about 3 blocks away from Lutie Street, and on occasion you’d hear gunshots.  Sometimes you forget how much things change. Even in a short time period. Seems like a natural environment for a community school to take root. Tell me how that transition began.

AM: At Glencliff, I was part of the Academies of Nashville from the very beginning. There were eight schools, and I was one of the original academy coaches. So I was on the front end of that system change and while we were implementing academies at Glencliff, the district was about to be taken over by the state. We had a terrible graduation rate. Dr. Tony Majors, who is now the Executive Officer of Student Supports in MNPS, was the principal, and he started looking at the graduation rate and searching for possible reasons why it was so low. He saw there was a large percentage of pregnant teens and teen parents.

And so he said, “I have no idea how to help these kids stay in school.” So he reached out to the community and that was really the start of us involving the community and bringing them in for some of the wraparound supports. It was a community school, but we didn’t do it because were trying to create a community school per se, it was just us trying to solve some of the challenges our students were facing. We did it because it was what our students and families needed.

When people came to us and said, “I want to work at a community school.” We said, “What’s that?” And they would say, “It’s Glencliff. It’s what you’re doing.” Dr. Majors eventually got transferred to the central office, and he wanted to take that model and help a lot of schools try to replicate it on their own. It’s really hard to research how the work should be done and do the work at the same time. Dr. Majors wanted to create the resources so it could be a systems change kind of thing. I was interested in it. I wanted the challenge of implementing something new and helping it grow. And grow it has.

DGW: And what year was that?

AM: It was in the spring of 2012. Race to the Top funds were available for us to use to pay my position.

DGW: Oh wow, I did not realize that. So this was under Dr. Register, who was Director of Schools at the time. Did he embrace the change?

AM: He did. He was familiar with the work that Dr. Majors had done at Glencliff and liked what he saw. At the same time Glencliff was doing the work, Dr. Register had formed a (TLG) Transformational Leadership Group that brought district administrators and representatives from community organizations to explore implementation of the community school strategy. MNPS also sent a team of school-level representatives to the Coalition for Community Schools conference in 2010 to learn about the strategy. Alignment Nashville also brought the Children’s Aid Society from New York to discuss the community school strategy and research.

I recently learned about this history that was taking place in Nashville and MNPS at the same time we were doing the work at Glencliff when we (Community Achieves) were asked to write a chapter in a book. The book is The Community School Book Series: A Strategy for Connecting Minds and Hearts. Our Chapter is The Role of the School District. Writing that chapter and looking at the history of community schools, I realized while we were doing this work at Glencliff, Alignment Nashville had brought some people from New York, and other people in the community were looking at the community school model and how they could make it happen. So while we didn’t realize it at the time, a lot of things were happening at once.

DGW: And now how many schools in MNPS do we have now working as community schools?

AM: This year we have 23. We had 20 last year. And they are all over the city in ten of 12 clusters. Currently, we’re not in the Hillsboro or Hillwood clusters.

DGW: We probably need to pause here a second and step back. Dr. Majors and I had a conversation earlier in the week about this. So often when we pursue these policies, we get so excited by getting to the work that we never really spend any time defining our terms. We end up with people out there doing their own thing based on their interpretation of it. This is true whether we are talking about restorative justice, community schools, or grading for learning – people think they are practicing that concept with fidelity, and the reality is what they’re doing is some kind of variation, so the success is mixed.

AM: Correct.

DGW: We probably ought to stop and define what exactly we consider a community school in MNPS.

AM: A community school is a place with a set of partnerships. The school and these partners address academics, youth development, and health and wellness, and they incorporate the community and families. Schools are open for extended hours. There are programs for people other than just the school members; we include community members. Some of our schools have GED classes and parenting classes that communities can come to. It’s all dependent on the individual school’s needs.

DGW: And how do you decide which services go to which school? Is there a model that lays out a strict set of guidelines that says, “Here’s what we do and this is your community school”?

AM: So Community Achieves hired people, and we’ve developed a framework. Immediately after i was hired we hired an external program evaluator to help develop a results focused framework. We brought leaders from MNPS, non profits, and Metro government together to look at outcomes and determine what could be measured. We built a framework with what we might call standards; we call them principles. Principles of what a community school should look like. We really wanted to build that strong foundation.

As part of that process, our evaluator pulls a data report together. We focus on four areas: health and wellness, college and career readiness, family engagement, and social services. We look at data in those areas. School teams consisting of various members – site managers, administrators, teachers, counselors, social workers, come together in the summer and they conduct a needs assessment. They use assessment data but the data report also contains non-academic data.

We look at all the data, we develop a strategic plan around what we need the community partnerships to help us with. We really want people to work from that strategic plan. So the partner comes to the table and they say, “How can I help?”

The kind of conversations we see all the time, and are trying to avoid, are the ones that go back and forth between the partners and the school, with each asking how they can help. What we’re really trying to train our schools to do is utilize the needs assessment. We are saying to the schools, “We’ve walked you through a strategic plan, now hand that to your partners and say, ‘Here’s my data. This is what I need. Where do you fit in?’”

Some of them are doing that better than others. When you start something new, there are challenges. This is just our second year of having site managers funded in all our community schools. Before we did that, schools might identify someone to do this work, but they would have other jobs in the building. They may have been an assistant principal, a teacher, the Title I coordinator, or the family resource center manager, and they had other jobs competing for their time. Once we designated specific people to focus on the community school, they could really sit in with those administrative teams and see the needs first hand. And if something changed, they could add that to their strategic plan. We became better at really managing those partnerships and programs.

DG: All of this makes complete sense to me because it reminds me, and I’m a little older than you are, but when I went to schools, schools were a big part of the community. You were in the schools quite a bit, after hours, before school, and on weekends. Schools were considered a central focus of the community, and this seems to tie right back into that. Instead of just focusing on reading, writing, and arithmetic, this makes citizenship, community, and a lot of other things come into play too.

AM: Also, one thing that we’ve seen in our schools is the increased participation of the community. Maybe they don’t have kids in the school, but they become invested in the school and in the students in their community. They see the value, and they’re really giving back.

DGW: This makes me think of Glencliff High School and their alumni, most of whom graduated in ’68 and ‘69 when the school looked a whole lot different. They’ve got an alumni room over there, and they actually funded uniforms for the boys and girls basketball team the last several years. They take a great deal of pride in the school and have been extremely generous because it’s a touchstone of the community.

AM: Right. Another example is over in Germantown, where the area is changing. One of the apartment complexes there holds regular neighborhood meetings, and the community school’s site manager goes to all them and updates the community on what is happening at the school. They are able to communicate what they need, where their students are coming from, and the progress being made. This has resulted in bringing a lot of those residents to the table. They just had a big fundraiser for the school at one of the apartment complexes, and all of these young professionals who have moved in have become invested in Buena Vista Elementary School, a truly high needs school, as a result.

DGW: That’s incredible. I’m reading a book called Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putman. One of the things that Putman talks about is how we all went to school with kids from each economic stratosphere and so it was harder for these kids to disappear between the cracks. That’s no longer true as our society has become more insular. We know what’s going on in our silo, but not in others.

It seems like with community schools, by going into the community like you describe and actually finding out what’s going on in the community and what the needs are, we could start to break down some of the silos and seal up some of those cracks.

AM: Yes. Another thing that Community Achieves is going to focus on next year is getting parents more deeply invested in their community school. A lot of times we don’t have many parents at the table. Having programs, services, and events where they feel welcome is vital, and as a result, we are starting to see our numbers increase. We’ve done some surveys for parents in the past – we’ve done that as a district – but we’re developing more for our schools because we want to know what is it that you need? What is it that you would like to see? We really want that voice and investment.

DGW: That’s the other thing – people tend to default to PTAs as the be-all and end-all for parent involvement. My kids go to a school that has no PTA for a variety of reasons. We have a lot of refugee families who are new to the country, a lot of people working two or three jobs, and a lot of people who don’t know how to navigate the system. So it’s not as easy as people always think it is, and just because they are not joining a PTA doesn’t mean they don’t care about the school.

AM: Right. One thing that we’ve added in a lot of our schools that’s been really successful is a program called Parents as Partners. It is offered through Conexion Americas, and it’s been wildly successful.  It has taught parents to advocate for their children, like showing them what a report card is and how to read it, and that you can talk to the principal. Whitsitt ES presented to the school board this week, and they had two parents who actually got up and spoke. That’s a big deal. They had gone through Parents as Partners. So they had that confidence that comes from graduating from a program. A lot of times they need things like that before they’re going to be in PTA.

DGW: So where do you envision all of this going? Is there a three-year, a five-year, a ten-year plan?

AM: Our plan originally was to not have more than 32 schools across the district. We feel like we do need to expand in the clusters where we don’t have a presence. But we are very strategic in how we are aligned. So while you can have a community school that lives on its own, we like to think that we have a system of community schools and we’ve got some vertical alignment.

When looking at areas to expand this year, we decided to add three middle schools. That’s because we had some elementary schools that were community schools, and the families had become used to the culture of the wraparound services. When they got to middle school, it wasn’t a community school, and therefore there weren’t as many supports. Kids would struggle because of this. Our families struggled.

So we pulled a lot of people together in central office and had those conversations about where we should expand. Moving into middle schools seemed a natural progression. We just need to continue to be strategic. Look at the demographics, look at discipline data, and look at attendance data because there’s usually something that needs to be fixed.

DGW: Now for the elephant that always lives in the room. We now live in a culture that if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. So I’m sure you have data that backs up and tells the story of your successes.

AM: Again, we’ve been very strategic. The first thing we did was to identify 10 desired outcomes, or Key Performance Indicators (KPI), as they are commonly referred to. We’re starting to see some of those indicators move up and there are pockets of success, but we’ve spent a lot of time laying the foundation so that we can build and expand. An area of measure that is often not considered is in the area of implementation. We expect to see outcomes when the fidelity of using the framework is not there. We have a rubric to measure the level of implementation. One of the challenges is stability and the potential negative impacts from a lack of stability. If there’s a principal turnover, if there’s a site manager turnover, these things can have adverse affects, but we’ve got things in place to help with that sustainability. It takes a while to gather meaningful data.

We’ve added some new things this year. Deep diving in to make sure we are serving families but always being good financial stewards. We want to make sure that we’re not paying the salary for a site manager and they’re only serving ten families for the whole year. It could look like we’re giving out lots of food or clothing or we’ve got all these programs that were only serving ten kids. So we’re really trying to look and be intentional about the numbers that we’re serving.

We’re also going to focus next year on being intentional about getting the word out to all stakeholders about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how. A lot of times in schools you have the manager, but people don’t know exactly what is it that they do and how they can help. Community members and businesses want to just jump in and do something to help these schools, but does it meet the needs spelled out in the strategic plan? We really need to always ensure that we are getting the most of our partnerships.

For example, recently one of our site managers held a meeting for all partners. Soles4Souls is one of our partners, and they’ve been fantastic. But at the partner meeting, they heard the principal say we want to do some experiential learning. Our teachers want to do something to go deeper with the standards that they’ve been teaching.

Soles4Souls was in the room, and they said, “We can totally do that.” So they started at Gra-Mar Middle Prep, and they created an experiential program that includes, decision making, writing, speaking, a field-trip and a service learning component. Now S4s has taken that program to three or four middle schools and they are deeply invested.

I think our community really wants to help us in the schools. But we have to let them know this is what our goal is, and a lot of times the best ideas don’t come from the school. If we say, “This is our data and this is where we need to be,” sometimes our partners will come up with some great ideas.

DGW: It’s been my experience that communities want to take pride in their schools. It’s always been frustrating to me that people will rate schools across the country as terrible except the one they go to, the one with their kid. I think you change that narrative when you get communities invested in schools. Nationally, there’s a movement towards community schools as well. Are you closely aligned with that’s going on nationally, or is there a lot of difference in what we’re doing here in Nashville?

AM: Every model looks different. The Coalition For Community Schools, convenes people from across the nation. They’re in Washington, DC. We started working with them from the very beginning. We can lean on them for support. But we’ve looked everywhere; we’ve been to Oakland, we’ve been to Rhode Island, we’ve been to DC, we’ve been to Austin, we’ve been to Cincinnati – they have a popular and successful community school movement. We look at what their models are like and then look at what we have in place here in Nashville. And so we’re trying to create a model that works best for Nashville.

DGW: Now, how about the state? Are they being supportive?

AM: The state is just now starting to look at the model.There is a community school in Knoxville that has been in place for a while, Pond Gap Elementary School. They also have a system of 14 schools through Great Schools Partnership. We are going to visit them this month. Our school board has been very supportive, especially board members Jill Speering and Amy Frogge, who’ve joined us on several visits.

DGW: Sounds like things are exciting, and we’re on a good track with this.

AM: It is exciting. We have laid a strong foundation, and I think we are ready to go to the next level.

We finish up our gyros, and I thank Alison for taking the time with me. I’m excited about the possibilities community schools present. In reality, they are not that different from the schools I grew up with, and I’m happy to seeing us get back to our roots. Somehow in our pursuit of increased rigor, we’ve lost sight of the breadth of roles a quality school can play in a community. It’s time to reclaim those roles.

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One comment on “TALKING COMMUNITY SCHOOLS WITH ALISON McARTHUR

  1. Mrs_O'Shea says:

    So, so refreshing!! Thanks for posting.

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