Most classrooms at Nashville’s Warner Enhanced Option Elementary School feature a small tent in the corner — but it’s not for fun and games.
Although the school sits on an East Nashville street lined with Victorian houses of ever-increasing value, more than half of Warner’s students come from the James A. Cayce public housing complex, half a mile away. Many Warner students are frequently witness violence, on the street or within their own homes. Some have experienced bouts of homelessness.
When Marianna Merritt first began working at Warner two years ago, she commonly had to deal with students who would not get out from underneath teachers’ desks. Students need a place to feel safe, she explains. Thus, the tents.
Merritt is the Communities in Schools site coordinator at Warner Elementary. She assesses the needs of students and figures out how to meet them, through creative measures like the tents, more traditional services like counseling, and by recruiting help from local non-profits.
Communities in Schools is a national organization currently operating in five schools in Nashville and, for the first time this year, two schools in the Achievement School District: MLK Prep and Westside Achievement Middle School in Memphis.
It is part of a larger movement for “community schools,” based on the idea that school buildings should serve as a community hub, providing not only academic services, but through partnerships with local organizations, health and social services as well.
Not all community schools follow the same model. What makes Communities in Schools different from other community schools models, according to its proponents, are site coordinators like Merritt, who identify students’ needs and work with people within the school and from the community to meet them.
At any given time, Merritt works with up to 10 percent of the student body directly, meeting with kids and their parents to discuss anything from immediate crises — an illness or death in the family — to ongoing behavioral problems. Students are usually referred to her because of grades, attendance or behavior, but sometimes they refer themselves.
“I can just walk into the cafeteria and someone will say, ‘My friend told me he talks to you when he’s sad,” she said.
Community schools are as old as education reform itself, and like any reform, have had mixed results. Jane Addams operated Hull House, a kind of full-service school in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, but the idea has gained momentum in the past ten years. The Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, perhaps the most ambitious and comprehensive program of this type, has been lifted up as an example of education and community reform by the Obama administration.
Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he was committing $150 million to the establishment of more community schools in the city.
Some people argue that to raise the academic achievement of poor students, society must first attack poverty. Others counter that poverty shouldn’t be used as an excuse for failing schools. In reality of course, it’s not that black and white. Few educators truly fall into one camp or another. Community schools, too, straddle the line: They address poverty’s multifaceted symptoms, rather than just low test scores, while also focusing on academic goals.
Nashville has community schools that predate the higher-profile school reforms like charter school expansion. In the late 1990s, hoping to prevent the widening of achievement gaps following the end of desegregation efforts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools established Enhanced Option schools in its poorest neighborhoods.
Today, all of those schools have smaller classes than the other schools in the district, as well as extra guidance counselors and social workers. Many also have Family Resource Centers to connect parents with health and social services.
In 2004, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce formed an organization called Alignment Nashville to funnel existing direct service programs into the city’s public schools. Since 2008, Alignment Nashville has helped connect the school system with non-profits. Alignment Nashville also helps operate school-level teams at 14 schools through an initiative called Community Achieves, which is in its second year. School-based services provided through Community Achieves range from health care to coat closets where students without the resources to buy a winter coat can pick one up.
Community school advocates say the Nashville programs have been successful, and point to several examples. When Nashville’s Glencliff High School adopted a community schools model in 2007, the graduation rate was 66 percent; now, it’s 76 percent. Warner Enhanced Option became one of the fastest improving schools in the state following the addition of Merritt to its staff two years ago. (Some Community Achieves schools have seen academic gains, but district officials say it is too early to attribute them to the community schools model.)
Communities in Schools has also had shown positive results at sites across the country, and studies show that it reduces drop-out rates when implemented fully. However, it’s difficult to tell how dramatic its impact is from Communities in Schools’ self-reported numbers. The organization only collects data like test scores and post-college plans from the students it case manages, making meaningful comparisons between those students and those at schools without case managers impossible.
And yet, despite the extra resources, students attending enhanced option schools still have some of the lowest test scores in Tennessee. Despite the financial backing of Wall Street’s wealthiest, schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone have regularly scored in the bottom half of charter schools in New York City.
To some backers of community schools, the test scores are, if not beside the point, a small part of the point. After all, they say, the goals of community schools go beyond academics.
Ansel Sanders works for the Achievement School District, and helped bring Communities in Schools site coordinators to some of the district’s schools this year. He says that while ASD officials are well-aware of the pressure to raise scores, test scores are ultimately not why they want to help students be healthy and safe.
“Whether or not it raises reading scores, […] it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Merritt said that, although it possible to have a community school without a site coordinator, it’s helpful for students and teachers to know that connecting them with help is her number one priority.
“The ability to be present is really powerful,” she said. “When [someone] needs something [they] know that […] we’re going to figure it out, as opposed to, you’re going to call a case manager, you’re going to leave a voicemail, they’re going to say they’ll return the call in 24 hours, and then I’ll schedule something two weeks out.”
Merritt said that it can be hard to measure her work in numbers — “this work is kind of the work of the heart,” she said — but it’s part of the Communities in Schools model to try, so that the organization can track progress and make data-informed decisions.
She sets individual goals for each student she works with, sometimes about their grades and test scores, sometimes using another measure, like attendance or stints in in-school suspension. She evaluates goals quarterly with the students and families. Merritt said parents are almost willing to work with her.
“People are really open to someone championing their child,” she said.
Although her work is to champion students, they often see her as a friend. Merritt keeps extra belts in her office in case a student forgets to wear one (they are part of Warner’s dress code.) On the Monday Chalkbeat visited Warner, a student came into the office for a belt, and started to explain how hectic her morning was: Mom was running late for work; her brother kept hiding things. She mentioned that she was cold.
Merritt gave the student the cardigan off of her back, and the girl’s face broke into a smile.
“Now I look just like you,” she said.