BY LAUREN KEATING
Many schools offer more than just academics. But at a “community school,” like the Salomé Ureña de Henríquez campus schools in Washington Heights, students who are feeling sick, who need to get tested for glasses or need some personal counseling have a place to go. Their parents also find a welcome since the schools offer ESL, GED and citizenship classes as well as support groups on parenting issues. The school, with the help of the non-profit Children’s Aid Society, has become a hub for a variety of services for students and their families, under one roof.
“A community school organizes resources from the community with open relationships and extended services in order to bring results for student success,” said Hersilia Méndez, director of external affairs and communications for the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), the over 150 year-old non-profit which has been partnering with the Department of Education on the community schools model since 1992.
Community schools provide a multiplicity of support services to students and their families. Obviously they include strong instructional programs to assure students meet academic standards, while expanding learning opportunities for both the student and their families, as well as offering health and social services. The idea is that with integrated resources, student learning is improved and strong families and healthier communities are developed.
Recently, the community schools model has garnered a lot of attention in the New York City mayor’s race. Several of the Democratic candidates traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, where its 55 schools have been working with nonprofits and businesses to offer a variety of services for students and their families. School buildings are open until late at night and on weekends and offer childhood centers, adult education, tutoring and food banks. Each school contains a health clinic offering medical, mental health, dental and vision services. This “full-service” approach to education has had an impact. Cincinnati was named the “highest performing urban district in Ohio.”
The Salomé Ureña campus, which contains three middle schools, I.S. 218 (grades 6-11), M.S. 293 City College Academy of the Arts (grades 6-8), and M.S. 322 (grades 6-8), was the first community school the Community Service Society opened in conjunction with the Department of Education. Since then, it has taken the community schools model to 24 schools; however, only 19 are open now due to lack of funding. The locations of the schools include: Harlem, the South Bronx and Staten Island.
At Salomé Ureña, students can take advantage of after-school, Saturday, holiday and summer programs; medical, dental, mental health and preventive services. For their parents, there is a family resource room, vocational and educational training, adult education, and advocacy and leadership opportunities.
If a student feels sick, instead of being pulled from the classroom and having to wait in a hospital, he or she can get medical attention right at the school. If a student cannot read the blackboard, they can get tested for glasses. If they have suffering from personal problems and need someone to talk to, they just have to walk into the clinic and discuss their issues.
“Teachers don’t have to worry. They can focus on educating,” stated Maria Astudillo, the Deputy Director of Mental Health for The Children’s Aid Society. In addition, emergency room visits reduce classroom hours, while can be financially straining. “It doesn’t produce anything positive.”
With a grant from New York State, the mental health clinic at the Salomé Ureña de Henríquez Campus was able to hire social workers that screen patients for suicide, depression and other issues. Many of the parents seek help as well. The CAS also receives money for family planning services to combat high rates of teen pregnancy. The clinic also focuses on trauma treatment for students while preparing parents for discussing sensitive topics. Because 90% of the Campus’ population is of Dominican descent, the Campus has hired staff with similar background that can connect to parents culturally.
Poor families often have a prejudice about against being treated for mental issues.
“Mental health is a necessity, but we don’t focus on it. As a society, we focus more on physical and spiritual health,” stated Astudillo. It is in the “Family Room” where workshops are provided on topics such as anxiety. At the Salomé Ureña de Henríquez Campus this year, 222 students were serviced in mental health, while 126 of those went on to long-term counseling.
While support services are important in a community school model, expanded learning opportunities are equally essential. Most community schools are open all day and well into the evening, six days per week, year-round.
There are holiday and summer programs offered in order to prevent loss of learning time. “Research shows during the summer, students lose one month of reading and math. This in particular affects poor children,” said Méndez. “Usually for poor kids don’t have the opportunities,” she added.
Only 300 of the 1400 middle school kids in Washington Heights attend after school programs because of lack of funding. However, the CAS makes sure that those students in need of the programs the most are the ones who seek the resources. “We have a habit of thinking of universal targeting; we think that all children need to have everything. In reality, there are some children who need more than others and also there are limited resources. We really need to target those who need it the most,” Méndez stated.
However, every student that goes to the school “has access to the medical services, dental services, and the parental engagement program,” she stated.
But the community schools model doesn’t only serve its students, but their families as well. “We believe that if the parents are not engaged than nothing will happen. One of our main objectives is to work and develop the leadership of parents both in the school and in their own homes…. Their children are English speakers so the child becomes the parent,” stated Méndez.
Among the resources for parents are: a family resource room, vocational and educational trainings, adult education, and advocacy and leadership opportunities.
Isaac Smith is one of those people who took advantage of the opportunity to be a leader. Smith has been the PTA president for two years. This will be his last year because he wants to give other people a chance to have the leadership opportunity. Under Smith, the PTA holds meetings with the administration and parents, which allows parents can have a say in the school.
Being an education advocate comes out of Smith’s twelve-year experience as an educator. As a special education teacher and also as a parent, he noticed that children need participation from both parents and teachers so that they will be able to have a positive and successful school experience.
“Parent involvement is the most important thing because that child knows that their mother and father are there for him one hundred percent and there is nothing he or she can’t do,” Smith stated.
Across from the “Student Wellness Center” is the Campus’ “Family Room,” that is hard to miss with its fluorescent neon sign. This family center is the home of the Fathers Club, a unique place where fathers can lean on each other for support. Events and workshops are often held such as a discussion about raising young ladies through the workshop “How to Understand Women.”
“When we are in there we talk about so many things that time flies,” Smith said about the club. The fathers are taught skills such as computer and language. “Believe if or not, they do chess. That’s a big thing. Chess is the game of kings.”
Smith believes the Center is a wonderful resource. “We come from diverse backgrounds. Some of us are educators, some of us are laborers, and some of us are migrant workers.” Smith thinks the experience of having a diverse community and for that community to come together in a positive way is a wonderful thing.
“It doesn’t matter with whom you sit with, but the fact of the matter is you can sit with somebody, talk about your concerns, agree to disagree at times, and come out with a smile on your face,” said Smith.
“We have a responsibility to our children, and not only fathers but mothers too, need to step up for our children because they are the ones that will be holding the candle of the future. We have to step it up now as much as we can to be able to pave a decent way for them for the future,” he added.
“Public education is the backbone of democracy. We have an obligation to change it for the better; it’s a cause. For immigrants and colored people, community schools are the best option,” stated Mendez.