Common-sense approach for common good

Pat Arnow

At a community school information fair, held at PS 30 in Manhattan last fall, parents, students and community members had a chance to learn about this innovative approach to education, which focuses on meeting the needs of the whole child — and the community — with wraparound social services that address health, nutrition and other needs. PS 30 is one of the six schools piloting the model this year. Rina Dorley-Amos (left), the school’s resource coordinator, strategizes on sustainable partnerships for her school with UFT Vice President Karen Alford, who is heading the union’s Community Learning Schools initiative.

If you build it, they will come.

At PS 18 in the South Bronx, community partner Harlem RBI is building a baseball field behind the school and has signed up 300 students for the school’s first summer enrichment program. The seven-week program, which is free, will combine baseball and literacy.

The community schools model, which we learned about from our colleagues in Cincinnati, Ohio, is up and running in six pilot schools in New York City. More will be coming on board in September.

Each school in the program has a resource coordinator who identifies and prioritizes the needs of students and the community. Then, he or she makes connections to facilitate private–public partnerships as well as partnerships between government agencies that help meet those needs in a sustainable manner at their school.

A partnership with the Helen Keller International’s ChildSight program has enabled 4th- and 5th-graders at PS 18 to have their vision screened and to receive free eyeglasses — just in time for these Bronx students to take their citywide exams.

In one class, 50 percent of the students needed glasses. Sophy Aponte, a 5th-grade special education teacher and the acting resource coordinator, told me that just hearing students say, “I can see everything now,” after receiving their eyeglasses, was moving.

“You have to have a passion to do this work,” Aponte said, describing how she wakes up at 3 a.m. making checklists of school needs. “It’s a lot of work, but seeing the joy on the children’s faces makes it all worth it,” she said.

At PS 188 in Coney Island, where Superstorm Sandy upended lives, a partnership with financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald brought $1,000 to every student’s family, kindergarten teacher Scott Krivitsky told me.

He first learned about the community learning school model at a UFT Meet the President event and raised his hand to ask how to get his school involved.

Krivitsky calls the community learning school model “the best thing that ever happened to our school,” and says that every school could benefit from the approach.

Both PS 18 and PS 188 have partnered with the Food Bank for New York City, which delivers a bag of food for each student’s family once a month. The bag contains enough cereal, milk, pasta, tomato sauce, fruits, vegetables, tuna and other canned foods to get families through the weekends when school is out of session.

Both schools are also about to add a health clinic to their buildings. In the Bronx, Montefiore Medical Center will be partnering with the OneSight program to bring everything from pediatric care, urgent care, mental health services and vision care to PS 18 students and the community.

In Brooklyn, Lutheran Medical Center will be bringing a clinic into PS 188 “so that our students don’t have to miss a day of school going to the doctor, they’ll have their own clinic right here,” Krivitsky said.

I think of this as Phase 1 of our initiative, in which schools are learning how to choose partnerships that will not only be of the greatest value to their students, but will also be sustainable for the long haul. We are also looking for ways to align students’ academic growth with the services being delivered so we can target more precisely each child’s individual learning needs.

We have businesses, elected officials, health organizations and the faith-based community all coming to us to participate because they see this as an opportunity to do things differently — and better.

It’s a common-sense approach for the common good, and one that I firmly believe will reduce the barriers to education.

If children’s health needs are taken care of, if they are properly fed and getting physical exercise, we will see more teachers able to teach and principals able to lead their schools more effectively.

“I envision the school at the heart of the community,” Aponte told me, tearing up as she said it.

That is our shared vision, and this is an exciting time to be an educator in New York City.

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