A tale of two community schools

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In the Rochester City School District, Edison is one of 17 locations listed as a community school.(Photo by Travis LaCoss)

As Bridgitte Griffin gets on the elevator at Edison Career and Technology High School, a student recognizes her and waves hello. She gives him an encouraging pat on the shoulder as he exits.

Later in the day, Alex Williams unlocks his office to a group of students, explaining he was doing an interview and that’s why the door was locked.

A mixture of confusion and worry travels through the group of a half-dozen young men and women: “Is he going to move schools? Is he leaving for a different job?”

Williams chuckles and assures them that he is not leaving Edison and will still be there to help them achieve career and life readiness. Relieved, they rush inside.

These brief moments illustrate an openness and a trust between staff and students that can be difficult to quantify.

Notably, neither of the adults are classroom teachers, but instead are part of Edison’s community school strategy: Griffin as the community site coordinator and Williams as associate director of SUNY Brockport’s Educational Talent Search program. 

In the Rochester City School District, Edison is one of 17 locations listed as a community school, an approach used to help students who are challenged by barriers like food or clothing insecurity, or a lack of physical and mental health services, enrichment programs and career opportunities.

On the other side of the city, in the southwest, Dr. Charles T. Lunsford School No. 19 also falls into that category. Both schools were added to the state’s receivership list the same school year, 2018-2019.

The rise of community schooling 

While the current era of community schooling philosophy has existed since the 1990s, the concept was popularized in New York as a solution for struggling schools as part of the receivership model, begun in 2015. The COVID-19 pandemic further emphasized the need for services as it brought those disparities into even sharper focus.

Since that time, both Rochester schools have made headway on their receivership goals. Edison has improved receivership metrics, including graduation and suspension rates, since adopting community school strategies. School No. 19’s progress has been so successful that it is slated to exit receivership status in the upcoming school year.

“(Community schools) are taking care of their health—physical health, mental health, intellectual health, the education part of it, their personalities, their behaviors. All of that is being taken care of through this work,” Griffin says. “That’s what we mean when we say we have a ‘whole child’ approach.”

School No. 19 is an “Arts4all” school focused on arts education. (Photo by Travis LaCoss)

The School No. 19’s K-8 graders are younger than Edison’s high school students, so programs, such as ones that emphasize learning and therapy through play, look drastically different. School No. 19 is also an “Arts4all” school, focused on arts education, another contrast with Edison’s focus on careers and technology.

“This is the heart of community school strategies. They allow individuality of each school to shine through because each one has a different school body, different goals, different challenges,” says Lieselle Taylor, director of community schools for the Rochester City School District.

Even with those differences, the process of constructing a successful program is grounded in the four formative pillars of community schools: expanded and enriched learning time and opportunities; collaborative leadership and practices; active family and community engagement; and integrated student supports.

Partnerships require the proper alignment and understanding of goals to create a culture of trust and openness like those found at both Edison and School No. 19.

“Hands down, I will say, over and over again, being a community school directly aided in us being removed from receivership,” says Moniek Silas-Lee, principal of School No. 19.

Moniek Silas-Lee, principal at School No. 19 was honored at a recent school board meeting for her school’s removal from receivership. 

In fact, based on that success, Silas-Lee says she wants to incorporate a community schools approach at her new position next year, as principal just up the road at Loretta Johnson Middle School. How to do so without the same resources schools have while under receivership remains a question mark, though; adopting the model remains a possibility rather than a certainty.

That question also is an important one in the district’s near future. By 2028, all schools will “implement the community school model with fidelity,” reads one of the top priority goals for RCSD’s 2024-2029 Strategic Plan.

“Moving forward, I think that all schools should be community schools,” affirms Yaritza Delgado, School No. 19’s community site coordinator. “Everyone—staff, students, families, the community—can benefit.”

Making the model work

When School No. 19 went into receivership, Silas-Lee recalls, the climate and culture were far from where they needed to be.

“Parents were combative with school staff. School staff were combative with parents, families and students,” says Silas-Lee. “So, we knew a community school model was something we needed to do.”

This situation was not caused by a lack of community partnerships. She recalls there were upwards of 60 organizations that provided donations or programming of some kind. What the school really needed was someone who could coordinate with all the partners, ensure they fit correctly with the school’s mission, and track progress throughout the year.

Yaritza Delgado, extreme left, ensures that School No. 19’s partners are the right fit. (Photos of School No.19 courtesy of the school)

Silas-Lee credits Delgado, an educator with over 20 years of experience at RCSD, with doing just that. After completing a needs assessment and creating a Community Engagement Team—steps required by all community schools—School No. 19 built strong relationships with several partners including the Hochstein School, Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester Broadway Theater League, Common Ground Health, Center For Youth, Imagination Library, Junior Achievement, Foodlink, Lollypop Farm, and the Willie Walker Lightfoot Recreation Center (which is directly attached to the school).

Thanks to those relationships, students have had unique opportunities, such as studying the violin with the school’s group Strings for Success, which most recently performed in February for the mayor. Every Wednesday is an arts-focused day of classes for students who can learn a variety of activities including ballet, martial arts, African drumming, dance and voice. Those days of the week have the best attendance, Delgado says.

“You do have to be open and flexible to what people bring. Being creative with what is already in your community goes a long way,” she says.

For example, a free haircut event during the winter concert that Delgado held the first year has now grown to incorporate 16 local barbers, hairstylists and braiders. A math-tutoring option has a volunteer from the community.

Depending on the timing, everyone in the building pitches in to help with the food pantry. The pantry serves students and families, but also people experiencing homelessness who were, at first, hesitant to accept food from the location.

“Throughout this process, we wanted to make a welcoming culture,” Silas-Lee says. “Our community school is here for the entire community. You don’t need to be a part of our school community to be a part of our community school. If you’re a neighbor, if you live in the area, we are here to service the greater community.”

Partnering for success

Some of Edison’s primary partners include the Center for Youth, Hillside, Brockport Educational Talent Search, Rochester Regional Health, Restore and YWCA: Comprehensive Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention.

Bridgitte Griffin

Griffin has learned that finding the right fit in a partner is one of the most important indicators of long-term success. In looking for that fit, she usually pays attention to how they interact with students, since, in order to help them, students need to trust these people first.

Maurice Brooks, who describes himself as a “fair but firm” individual, is part of a conflict resolution and mediation team through the Center for Youth. Trust is important in his work and necessary to break through to some tough students.

“You can take the roughest kid, who nobody wanted to deal with, and you talk to them, you get them to open up a little. OK, that’s year one,” he recalls of a particular student. “Year two, they’re still warming up, but by year three, they’ve turned it around. They’re sharing with you, being proactive about things, being open.

“It can take that much time, it is a process,” Brooks adds. “But if they don’t trust me, (my services don’t) mean anything to them. Once they know and say, ‘Nah, Brooks is always consistent,’ pretty soon, the word’s going to go out. They say it to their friends and now you’ve built that trust but on a larger scale.”

“They won’t let you in otherwise without that trust,” agrees Emory Beale, who works in a variety of career readiness and enrichment programs through Hillside.

He recalls a physical confrontation between students where deescalation was achieved because one of them believed in Beale and trusted his support.

An Edison event with community partners for a parent-teacher conference.

Griffin knows she’s been blessed with her team at Edison. She’s not surprised by the story of Williams’ worried student group or the comments from Brooks, Beale and the rest of her team. Her team says Griffin’s 25 years of experience at various levels of the educational system means she can identify systematic fits well, while she says there’s an eagerness and proactivity among the partners.

There is an unselfishness to the Edison team as well, with members stating they work together to find solutions for students. Their familiarity with the school, students and each other makes it that much easier for collaboration.

“It takes the right person because, yes, Edison is not an easy school with easy problems,” Griffin says. “It is not easy to find that group who (are) selfless and such a good fit. So, I am very fortunate for that.”

Being in the building

Transportation is often cited as a huge challenge for students who need to access services; it’s a problem that community schools are designed to address.

Ninety-two percent of students at Edison are economically disadvantaged, meaning it can be difficult for a caregiver to take time off for an appointment, Griffin’s team observes. Families sometimes only have one car or students have to take city buses instead.

“If you have to call in for work to take your kid to the doctor, and you’re already behind on rent, what are the odds you’re just going to tell that kid to suck it up and take some cold medicine?” Williams says. “By having services available at their school, during the school day, they’re able to actually access them.”

For example, students do not need to travel out for a physical or mental wellness check; Edison’s partnership with Rochester Regional Health offers a clinic on site for specific services.

Additionally, being in the building provides opportunities to create rapport and establish trust.

“I’ll go down to the cafeteria for lunch because I think it’s important to meet students where they’re at,” Williams says, meaning it both figuratively and literally. “If you’re hiding in your office, it’s harder for them to connect. But if I’m out there in your space where you’re going for food, I’m talking to people, you see your friends talking to me, it makes it that much more likely to happen.”

School No. 19’s “Links for Kids” program has retired teachers from the neighborhood who engage in learning and therapy through play with young children. The programming also takes place in the building, where school staff can be directly updated.

“You see them and it looks like they’re just making noise and yelling, but when you go in there, you can tell there’s meaningful conversations, meaningful learning going on. There’s healing going on, he’s shining now,” Delgado says, recalling one young student in the program.

“You can see that clear difference,” agrees Silas-Lee  “At first I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know if I want them pulled out of content (classes) right now. They need the phonics, they need the academics.’ But after doing the research and seeing it in action, it makes sense now.”

Answering skeptics

Her comment acknowledges a possible skeptics’ concern with community school strategies: the arts, mental health, or haircuts are not academic outcomes. Every practitioner of the strategies counters with a similar truth: Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs must be met before effective learning can take place.

“You can’t expect students to effectively learn if they are hungry, if they are in mental distress. Whether or not schools are supposed to deal with these issues, they are left dealing with them at the end of the day,” says Taylor.

Quantifiable academic improvements have occurred at these two schools. At School No. 19, rates of students scoring “proficient” (level 3 or 4) on state English Language Arts and Math assessments never were higher than 10 percent from 2013 to 2018. Since then, proficient scorers’ rates have jumped to double digits, most recently reaching 25 and 26 percent in 2023 for ELA and Math, respectively.

Similarly, since falling to 36 percent in 2015, Edison’s graduation rate projection is 65 percent this year, on par with the district average.

School staff knows there is still a far way to go. But these results are noted as significant improvement in receivership annual reports to the state.

When asked about academic outcomes, Beale recalls a ninth grader who began associating with a gang member and falling into bad behaviors. He remained in the program, but was kept from “the fun stuff.” By summer, he apologized for his actions.

“He told me, ‘Mr. Beale, I didn’t know what was wrong with me,’” he says. “That student came to our summer camp; now he has a job, now he’s focused and doing well.

“If we had that approach,” Beale continues, referring to a focus solely on academic outcomes, “that kid would have been lost. A lot of kids start off rough, especially in ninth grade. But then when you see them graduate, you get tears in your eyes.”

When receivership ends

Community schools face questions about sustaining progress. Being in receivership brings additional resources to a school to improve its performance.

While Williams says his program does not bring additional costs to Edison and grants for services are available, many agencies require contributions from the district. Losing any kind of funding stream could therefore limit the effectiveness of community school strategies.

Instead, he believes there should be a grace period for schools exiting receivership to make sure that progress continues.

“With a culture change of receivership, you’re in the midst of going from underperforming to performing on par,” Williams explains. “Performing on par will give you great results, it’ll boost your self-esteem, but for the culture of success to really take root, success has to become a habit.

“If you hit the target one time, you’ll tell yourself it’s a fluke. If you hit it a couple times, you might say now, ‘OK, I know a little something,’” he continues. “If you are consistently hitting that target and hitting the bullseye, then that becomes your standard definition of success.”

Knowing the final year of receivership for their school was approaching, Silas-Lee and Delgado were once again deliberate about the partnerships they chose. They opted for programs that were low- or no-cost, ones that could be done with in-kind payment, such as a physical space in the building, and diversifying community partners.

For example, Delgado says she is considering local churches, ones that already provide food bank services, to carry some additional load with School No. 19’s food pantry.

“Once again, it comes down to picking the right fit, having the courage to reach out and ask,” Delgado reiterates.

Silas-Lee admits she worries about School No. 19 losing momentum and wonders if it is possible to accomplish something similar at her new school. If there is no site coordinator like Delgado, she says, combining principal duties with coordinating services will make for less-effective programming and fewer opportunities for students.

Even though Edison is still in receivership, Griffin is also aware of the potential loss of services.

“Just think about that. If we’re growing, growing, growing and these individuals and these partnerships are helping, then you unplug all that, there’s going to be leaks somewhere,” she puts it.

“I don’t want people to think that community schools are just a fad, that they’re just here and not doing anything. No, they’re purposeful, they’re strategic, they’re useful,” Griffin says. “Community schools truly do build community and influence the work of the school. It allows students to grow.”

This Community Chronicles article was made possible by a grant from the ESL Charitable Foundation. 

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

6 thoughts on “A tale of two community schools

  1. Let me begin with a brief explanation or mission of the Edison Technical and Industrial High School I graduated from in 1966. Edison Tech was a pure vocational high school. It was the CROWN JEWEL of the RCSD, period. It was one that required an exam that required a passing grade. One’s accepted you attended the 9th grade journey, which consisted of an exploratory program. That journey consisted of a number of weeks spent in each of the vocational areas. Auto mechanics, drafting, textiles, foundry, electronics and the like. You were then allowed to select your specialty. Fout the next three years you received education, four periods a day, in your chosen field and the other four periods consisted of English, Mathematics, Science and social studies. Upon graduation the employer snapped up the graduated for very good positions and additional post high education. You brought a lunch or bought a lunch. Edison was a real contender in sports and yes…the arts. But moving on we now have a community school. By the description of some of the problem students being turned around toward graduation, the K-8 journey failed them. Edison now becomes everything to them, healthcare, meals, transportation, etc. The article written about the community school concept is even paid for. Where is vocational education in the RCSD? Where can a kid learn a trade, a career, a profession? You know “righty tighty, lefty lousy” and the like. In addition what does the post high school success journey look like? I’ll ask again, where is the vocational education track? Oh, by the way my/our transportation was by public bus transportation with school tokens as opposed to door to door transportation. Community school appear to provide the items that were, at one time, provided by the family structure. Obviously it is necessary and for that reason one needs to say thank you to the tax payer, the multitude of support groups and the church community to include the reporting of this community school effort. All that said, I would support a school name change from Edison to a local name that has been contributary to the community, such as Golisano. Semper Fi.

  2. I am so impressed with the journalism here. Thank you for telling these stories and providing the background and context. Without a better public understanding of what works and what doesn’t, we’ll continue to repeat mistakes and reinvent wheels.

    And speaking from personal experience as the founder of the Rochester Imagination Library, one of School 19’s community partners, I can testify to the extraordinary job the have done. Our community is lucky to have educators like Dr. Silas-Lee and Ms. Delgado.

  3. Great article about how good organizational design, implementation, and evaluation produces good outcomes.

    It is interesting to observe that often in our society we know what works but fail to provide the resources needed for good outcomes. The community school model works, gets good outcomes, and yet there is a concern about being able to sustain the model and expand it to other schools. This observation might lead to questions about the leadership at higher levels in the district and beyond the district and the support from the broader community.

    Thank you to Jacob Schermerhorn for a great article!

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