The introduction of COVID-19 into our society forced a 183-year-old public education system to change in a matter of days. And, change we did. School districts across Minnesota quickly looked at the needs of students, the resources available, and went into action. Fortunately for some of us, we have been pushing the public education system to morph and change for a number of years. The model we are using to foster this change is the community schools model. This nationally recognized model is a strategy for equity that aligns school and community resources for student success. The model highlights the assets of our students and families, specifically their voices, and creates opportunities for partnership and collaboration.
In Rochester Public Schools, we have implemented the community schools model at four of our sites: Gage Elementary, Riverside Central Elementary, the Rochester Alternative Learning Center and John Marshall High School. Each site has worked with stakeholders to identify needs and focus areas that are specific to their school, students, and families. The sites work throughout the year to address these needs. When the COVID-19 virus arrived in our community, these needs did not go away. In some instances, they intensified. This intensity was not only felt at our community school sites, rather it was felt across our community.
With our understanding and implementation of the community schools model, we went to work to support our students and families across the district. We worked with our Student Nutrition Services Department to provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner to students at 22 locations throughout our community. We turned our familiar yellow school buses into “mobile resource centers,” working with many community partners to outfit them with not only meals but grocery and hygiene/cleaning items for families, books, and internet access.
Our teachers, administrators, and other key staff did home visits, staying socially distanced but connecting with families and providing reassurance in front yards and doorsteps across the community. We regularly met with community partners to address needs, and because of our established relationships, partners who had agreed to support our community school sites specifically broadened their support to students throughout the district. We participated in town hall meetings, listening sessions, and focus groups to both listen to the needs of our community and provide information on our responses. Without this strategy and these established partnerships, our response would not have been so quick and smooth.
Nearly 100 miles away in the Twin Cities, three Minneapolis Public Schools — Bethune Community School, Cityview Community School and Green Central Community School — are responding in a similar way, utilizing its full-service model to meet the needs of its school site families and its local community through coordination of food and basic support needs, partnering with the families to support technology requests and access via donated refurbished equipment, hosting virtual parent social groups, and organizing transportation to donation sites and clinics specifically since the killing of George Floyd and the uprising responses. The team is now working across its partnerships to support in-person summer activities, at the request of families, for young people through pop-up parks via its collaborative practice, a tenet of the model, with Minneapolis Parks and Recreation and the Minneapolis Beacons Network.
Responding to the needs of our students and families is the responsibility of our entire community; as the late Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better, when we all do better.” This statement is a sentiment of the community schools efforts as there becomes a vested interest not just by amazing school staff but by community leaders, for-profit and nonprofit partners, government officials, and volunteers — all committed to supporting students, families and one another.
In addition to Rochester and Minneapolis, other communities across the state are also using this model and finding success and benefits in its implementation. We are grateful for this ongoing support, both at the local and state level. Our commissioner of education continues to champion this work and has identified staff at the department to work with our Community Schools State Network to deepen and broaden the impacts of community schools implementation. We ask for her continued support as we move forward into planning for the 2020-2021 school year, knowing that there are many unknowns.
One known thing, however, is the power of collaborating with one another to listen and better understand the needs and desires of our community. All of our students deserve no less.
Julie Ruzek is the family and community partnerships coordinator and district community schools coordinator for Rochester Public Schools. Patrice Howard is the director of community education at St. Louis Park Schools and former director of community education at Minneapolis Public Schools.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)