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Hartford Schools Embracing 'Community'


February 09, 2009

Imagine a public school where parents gather in the mornings to eat breakfast with their children. In the afternoons, they come to take adult education classes, learn English or attend a workshop on keeping track of spending.

Or imagine students getting braces at the school's orthodontics clinic, receiving annual checkups at the clinic in the student wellness center, and, when they're older, gathering in the evenings to study or play basketball in the school's gym.

Services like these are available at established community schools around the country and Hartford educators have taken notice.

Three groups in Hartford are developing their own community schools which serve as hubs of activity in the neighborhood and provide expanded services for students and their families.

"If you ignore community, a whole half of the equation is missing," said Robert Travaglini, the principal at Naylor School in the South End, which, in 2004, became the first in the city to launch a community school program.

Now, the Hartford Board of Education is working to set up programs at five other schools, and the Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition for Equity and Justice has set its sights on Noah Webster MicroSociety Magnet School in the West End.

A Movement

Nationwide, despite the recession, the community school movement is growing.

There are as many as 5,000 such schools around the country, said Martin Blank, director of the Coalition of Community Schools. The advocacy group is based at the Institution for Educational Leadership in Washington, D.C.

"Intriguingly, it's grown in the No Child Left Behind era, even as some have focused only on test scores," Blank said. "Bold leaders with a broader vision of what's needed to help educate our kids have moved forward to help create community schools."

Community school advocates hope that the recent appointment of Arne Duncan as U.S. secretary of education will help propel the trend. As chief of Chicago's public schools, Duncan oversaw the development of more than 100 community schools. Since his appointment by President Barack Obama, Duncan has continued to express support for the model.

Significant Benefits

To be clear, many services such as after-school programs, volunteer mentors or sometimes a medical clinic already exist in traditional schools.

But community schools are a cohesive, planned effort to bring those services together on a broader and more intense level.

The goal is to raise student achievement, but the result is often an infusion of services for people living around the school as well.

The two go hand-in-hand, said Jane Quinn, the assistant executive director for community schools at the Children's Aid Society in New York, which runs a training program for districts looking to develop their own programs. The Children's Aid Society is working with the Hartford Board of Education on its initiative.

"We find that community schools, compared to traditional schools, have higher rates of academic gains, better student and teacher attendance. They have greater levels of parent involvement, and they have better climates," Quinn said.

"The kids feel more connected to the school, and the graffiti and violence in the neighborhood are less."

Developing, With Help

Naylor, on busy Franklin Avenue, can provide an example of where Hartford's developing programs might go.

On a recent afternoon after school was dismissed, a handful of Bosnian parents sat in tiny chairs around a table in Susana Villalobos' second-grade classroom. Grasping flimsy workbooks and hopes of employment, they worked through lesson after lesson of basic English as Villalobos encouraged them.

The English class is one of several services already set up at Naylor, whose partner is Central Connecticut State University.

Two mornings each week, parents can join students for yoga before school starts. Other days, there are workshops to help mothers return to school or to teach parents about finances.

The effort involves businesses in the South End, Central students and nonprofit organizations such as the Charter Oak Cultural Center. Community schools usually pair with a lead community organization and recruit other groups to help with workshops and services.

After nearly five years, Travaglini said, each parent is involved in at least one aspect of the community school, although Naylor seeks to empower parents even more.

Travaglini stressed that the community school model has to be able to survive on its own by getting the staff and community to take ownership of the development.

"It's embedding all of this into the climate and culture of the community," he said. "It's not dependent on any single entity."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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