Jeff Bryant: How community schools are helping a hard-hit city dig out of tough times
Erie, Pennsylvania has had a rough decade, with a steady loss of major employers and a cropping tax base. The city school district has been bled dry by charter schools, so hard hit that in 2016, the su0perintednet seriously proposed closing all of the city’s public high schools. But in 2021, things are starting to look up. Jeff Bryant has the story.
“The biggest difference between Erie schools in 2016 and now is that there’s a greater sense of hope and a feeling that we’re having a more positive impact in the community,” says Joelyn Bush.
Bush is the director of marketing and communications at United Way of Erie County, a local nonprofit that teamed up with Erie’s Public Schools in 2016 to help implement the second innovation Badams proposed before he left—a pilot project at five Erie schools testing an approach called community schools that helps schools in a high-poverty district address the needs of students who have increasingly difficult lives.
“In 2016, we knew the biggest challenge Erie families faced was growing poverty,” Bush recalls. “Whatever we chose to do would have to address that.”
The model would also need to work within the district’s ongoing financial constraints.
The community schools approach matched the district’s criteria because, by design, it repositions schools as neighborhood hubs, not only for education, but also for integrated health, nutritional, and social services. And rather than requiring significant new outlays from local taxpayers, the funding model relies by and large on establishing a network of donor sources, primarily government grants and donations from local businesses and nonprofits with strong ties to the community.
In Erie’s case, seed money of $1.5 million for the pilot was provided by local and regional nonprofits, according to the Erie Reader, and each school implementing the approach was paired with corporations and nonprofits that pledged to cover ongoing costs of $100,000 per school, per year. The entire effort would be coordinated and managed by the county United Way.