When the new South Portland High School opens next year, it will be the city’s first designated community school.
The Community School model of education relies on a coordinated approach by families, educators, and social service organizations to provide resources to overcome barriers, such as homelessness, food insecurity, and lack of health care, that stand in the way of student success. . Partners for Thriving Youth, an initiative of the Opportunity Alliance’s public health program, will use $664,000 in American City Rescue Plan Act funds to implement the model at the high school over a four-year period.
“It’s not a program add-on,” said Jean Cousins, a consultant for the Partners for Thriving Youth initiative. “It’s an approach to schooling in response to an urgent level of need that we’re seeing across the board.”
Community Schools’ offerings include after-school programs, school health services, and additional academic support. Programs evolve as student needs change.
The model, endorsed by the National Education Association, has become increasingly popular nationwide, according to KTA. Cousins helped implement Community Schools in New York City, securing funding and developing new school partnerships.
“Community schools are for everyone,” she said. “It’s also a really important capital strategy. We really put those youth and families furthest from opportunity at the center of our focus.”
South Portland schools have seen an increase in housing-vulnerable students, those without a fixed, regular, and convenient overnight residence.
According to the school department, approximately 10% of South Portland’s 3,099 students are eligible for services under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. South Portland schools serve approximately 20% of the state’s eligible McKinney-Vento students, but serve only 1.6% of the state’s total student population.
“We’ve had a huge increase in McKinney-Vento students,” said Rebecca Stern, principal of Memorial High School in South Portland. “We’re really looking broadly at what the barriers are to students doing well in school and reducing those barriers.”
The ARPA funds, awarded in June, will cover the four-year duration of the project and pay for a full-time community school director and a full-time family partnerships coordinator, along with other costs.
“The director’s role is to support the implementation of a four-pillar model and lead an initial needs assessment,” said Bridget O’Connor, public health program director at The Opportunity Alliance. “The family partnerships coordinator is really that level of staff that directly supports families and also has the ability to identify ways to systematically support families through city or school policies.”
The four “pillars” of a community school are integrated student support; expanded and enriched learning opportunities; active engagement in family and community; and leadership and collaborative practices. The goal is to provide students with essential, long-term resources and services, and collaboration is key to making a Community School successful.
“It’s tapping into the wide web of organizations that are within the community to foster the school community,” O’Connor said.
“There are a lot of really great things happening in the city of South Portland that support youth and families,” Cousins added. “It’s really about bringing all those people together — aligned goals, sharing resources, sharing ideas.”
The model has been implemented in other municipalities in Maine, including Biddeford and Portland. The Maine Department of Education hopes to provide seed funding for 10 additional schools in the last half of the decade.
Gerald E. Talbot Community School in Portland is in its second year of implementing the model and has seen measured success in providing after-school programs to 150, or a third of its students in grades 2-5, according to the community school coordinator.
“Pre- and post-survey data from one of the programs showed that students involved reported greater connectedness with peers and adults, an increased sense of belonging at school, and improved confidence,” Kristin Rogers said in an email to The Forecaster. “This year, we will continue to build on this success by expanding these offerings and also shift our focus slightly to another goal: promoting family and community involvement.”
Talbot Community School, formerly Riverton Elementary, will host a variety of events throughout the school year, including resource fairs and “homework lunches,” with each focused on a different academic topic, Rogers said.
“These events are designed to bring students, families and staff together to promote student learning outside of school,” she said. “Each event is a great opportunity to build family-school relationships, provide a free, healthy meal, and provide academic support and connections.”
An advisory board will be formed at the new South Portland school, made up of parents, students, educators and social workers, among others.
“This really ensures that all the people affected by the schools are at the table in terms of decision-making,” O’Connor said.
The new middle school, to be located on Wescott Road, will replace Mahoney and Memorial middle schools and combine grades 5-8 into one building. It is expected to be ready for students in the next school year.
Stern believes the Community School Model will help create equal opportunities for all South Portland students.
“When we partner together, the goal is to make sure all students can reach their highest potential in whatever they want to do with their lives,” she said. “They can dream big when they have the resources they need.”
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