Tying Community to Schools: Holistic Support Helps Students and Families Find Success
When a mother from El Salvador arrived in the United States with her young son a few years ago, she knew they would face many challenges. Her seventh grader struggled to adjust at Walt Whitman Middle School in Alexandria and his grades began to slip. That’s when Community Schools Coordinator Delia Montecinos, of United Community, stepped in to offer support and things began to turn around.
“Thanks to Mrs. Montecinos, my son has someone to go to at school. I've seen a huge change since he started connecting with her. His grades have improved a lot and he is more motivated. She also has helped me with all my needs, especially now that I am expecting a baby.”
At nearby Mount Vernon Woods Elementary, Community Schools Coordinator Marcia St. John-Cunning helps organize dental screenings and cleanings for students who may otherwise not receive care.
“The student is not going to succeed academically if he is sitting in a classroom and his tooth is throbbing because he has a cavity,” said St. John-Cunning. “If his family doesn’t have the money for it, or they don’t have transportation, they can't do it. So that’s where we come in.”
At Glasgow Middle School in Alexandria, the organization Communities in Schools worked with partners to establish the Panther Palace, a community resource room stocked with food, clothing and basic items for students and their families.
These three schools are the first in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) to implement a Community Schools model, meaning they benefit from partnerships with local organizations to provide well-rounded support and resources. The goal is to improve student learning, create stronger families, and form healthier communities. The school buildings become centers of the community and are open to all, even outside of standard school hours.
Each Community School has a site coordinator who helps identify students and families that need focused support, increase parent engagement, establish mentoring programs, and more. The programs offered are reflective of each individual school and community needs. There are also parent workshops, family markets, and sneaker distributions.
“The services that students need in communities like ours are often difficult to access for a number of reasons,” said St. John-Cunning. “But local schools are more easily accessible for these families. So we can have some of those services here.”
She continued, “If you provide these wraparound services, these kids are capable of learning and they are capable of succeeding, We just have to help them overcome these barriers.”
FCPS is currently reviewing guidance and framework for possibly implementing future community schools and establishing a site selection process. The draft plan says the site selection process should be driven by data reflecting school and community needs. This includes, but is not limited to, rates of free/reduced price meals, current building capacity status, and renovation status. Funding opportunities will also be a factor in deciding which schools are a good fit for the initiative.
United Way of the National Capital Area provides funding to United Community to support Walt Whitman MS. Fairfax County Neighborhood & Community Services is incorporating the community school model into Opportunity Neighborhood contracts and will provide ongoing funding to support Mount Vernon Woods ES. The Coalition for Community Schools provides technical support for all partners.