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More Than Just Schools

Friday, January 17, 2003 at 3:07 PM

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In Cleveland, it could be said, a rebirth is going on. Last year the state awarded more than $800 million to rebuild the school system - that's on top of another $350 million by a local levy. 58 brand new schools will be built, another 50-some completely renovated over the next decade. Such an opportunity comes along only once in a lifetime, local leaders say, and they're envisioning not just a rebuilding of education in the city, but a transformation. ideastream's Bill Rice takes a futuristic look at how schools here might become... more than just schools.

On a cold Thursday afternoon, these elementary school children have just arrived at University Settlement, a non-profit neighborhood center that provides multiple services to the working poor on Cleveland’s east side. Rhonda Harmon is a Day Care teacher there.

Rhonda Harmon: We go and we pick them up in vans, and then we bring ‘em here and the parent that leaves work or leaves from school comes here to pick up their children.

After school day-care programs are just one example of services that might well be housed in a local school. So says Stanley Miller, Executive Director of the Neighborhood Centers Association in Cleveland. There are others - health and dental care, adult programs such as GED and foreign language classes, library services, physical fitness programs. Stanley says gearing urban schools to accommodate broader community needs is a growing trend - one that Cleveland should follow.

Stanley Miller: There are models in Chicago and New York and such places where this is being done very well. I’ve been using the term it’s a sea change, it’s significant. It really takes a pretty old model of how schools operate, how neighborhoods operate, and blending them into a setting where everyone’s going to win.

To that end, the Cleveland School District is looking to establish formal partnerships with community service groups, and is offering up its school-buildings as places for those partnerships to thrive. Stanley says it’s a great way to optimize neighborhood assets.

Stanley Miller: We clearly believe that neighborhood centers are the experts in the delivery of health and human services in the neighborhood. And we think that out expertise blended with the facilities the schools are going to make available and their vision, that we can have a great partnership.

It’s a concept promoted by the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership as “community schools” - not to be confused with Ohio’s legal term for charter schools. Marty Blank is Director of School, Family and Community Connections at the institute. Community schools, he says, are schools whose primary function is children’s education, but that also provide any number of other community services. He says community schools not only make wise use of a neighborhood resource. They can help bring fractured families closer together.

Marty Blank: If the library’s in the school, then the adults are likely to show up there and they will see students, they will interact with students in ways that they don’t typically. If there’s opportunities in the schools for community space, then adults will be in there in problem-solving modes and young people will come and they’ll see their parents in the school. They’ll be building the kinds of relationships that we think can be terribly important to them.

Blank was a featured speaker at a conference on the “community school” concept held recently in Cleveland. He says now is a perfect time to adopt the strategy here - on the cusp of a complete redesign of the city’s schools. And the political climate is right, too, he says - many have rejected the once-popular idea that schools are not social service agencies and should focus exclusively on academics.

Marty Blank: There was a concern about non-academic barriers to learning. Kids were sick, kids were hungry, kids came from difficult families. We’ve seen a growing recognition, especially for poor children, but we would argue for all children, that there are multiple issues, there are multiple challeges that schools face, and that we have to solve those problems in order for children to learn.

As for proof that these ideas will improve education and the lives of families, Blank offers little in the way of hard scientific evidence - mostly just general observations about students in different school settings. But Cleveland Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is convinced, and sees the “neighborhood center” concept as a cornerstone of the school rebuilding project.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett: We hope that these buildings will provide constructive before and after learning centers, medical, dental, mental health services that can be readily accessed. They can host cultural education and social and religious and recreational services and functions. They can be open during weekends and after schools and on holidays. Done right, this work is clearly not just about schools, but it’s about community.

Of course, there are some community programs that aren’t appropriate for a school setting - drug and alcohol support groups, for instance, or services for the homeless. And, says the Neighborhood Centers Association’s Stanley Miller, while the overall philosophy is sound, there are many practical details yet to be worked out.

Stanley Miller: I think the big question is always funding. I think what we’ll see is not an influx of new funding, but a redistribution of existing funds that are in neighborhoods right now. And there is some concern about how that pie’s going to be cut up long term.

But discussions are underway, and will likely continue over the next several years, as school administrators plan and design educational facilities to serve Clevelanders for decades to come. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3.

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