September 17, 2021

Laura Camera: ‘Community Schools’ See Revival in Time of Heightened Need

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Writing for US News, journalist Laura Camera takes a look at how community schools lead to success.

Gibsonton Elementary School, which serves 560 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade – nearly all of whom qualify for free lunch – is tucked away along the Alafia River, which spills into Hillsborough Bay just south of Tampa, Florida.

For years, an unusually large number of children arrived late to school every day, and no one knew why.

“We were asking families, ‘What’s one reason why your child is late or may not be coming to school,'” Catherine Gilmore, says of the conversations she had during the 2019-20 school year, the first year Gibsonton operated as a community school and hired her as its community school coordinator. “Our walkers said, ‘Well, it’s too dark, I wait until the sun comes up.’ Well why is it too dark? They said, ‘Well there are no streetlights and my kid walks on the road because there are no sidewalks.'”

“I thought, ‘Well that can’t be true,'” she says. “Then I got in my car and drove down the road and you realize that not only are there no street lights but there are also no sidewalks.”

“Kids were walking to school in the pitch black.”

Fifty-one street lights were installed last school year, along with a sidewalk that runs the length of the four-lane Gibsonton Drive and two additional streets that border the school. Students are hardly ever late.

“If we didn’t listen to the voices of the parents and asked the questions that needed to be asked, we wouldnt know,” says Gilmore, who had spent the decade prior as a teacher for students with disabilities and those with emotional behavior disorders. “We would continue to wonder why these students keep coming to school so late.”

Community schools are public schools that focus on the immediate needs of the communities they serve, from providing health and dental clinics to establishing food banks and clothing drives to providing stable housing or language and job attainment classes. Their purpose is to understand what the families of their students need and then find a way to provide that support – something that often happens naturally in communities with more economic, social and political capital but which is often left unchecked in low-income and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods.

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