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The ‘full-service community schools’ model is getting high-profile political support in Minnesota. So what is it?

By reducing barriers for students and their families — addressing basic needs like stable housing, job training and mental and physical health care — such schools aim to better equip at-risk students to succeed.

Gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz
Gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz has listed expanding the “full-service community school” model across the state as a hallmark of his education platform.
MinnPost file photo by Annabelle Marcovici

Some high-profile Minnesotan political figures have been publicly endorsing a K-12 public school model that seeks to bring an array of social services into the school to help not just students, but their families as well.

It’s called the “full-service community school” model — a longstanding concept that has been proven to increase enrollment, improve attendance and academic outcomes and more. Yet it’s only taken root in a handful of districts in Minnesota in the last couple of decades.

Gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz has listed expanding this model across the state as a hallmark of his education platform. And on the campaign trail earlier this month, he talked about how students aren’t going to learn if they come to school hungry, or in need of a dentist visit, or “out of a home of trauma.” These are the sorts of things that “need to be there,” he said of the social services that full-service community schools often offer on-site.

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In the Twin Cities, the St. Paul Public Schools district has more than 20 years of experience operating full-service community schools. With a recent expansion, the district’s count is up to seven schools — six elementary sites and one middle school. The effort is anchored in a partnership that the district has with a local nonprofit, the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Public Schools district has struggled to gain traction on this front. One of its elementary schools — Richard R. Green Central Park School — was considered a full-service community school a few years ago. But when state funding used to build out the model dried up, the school lost its on-site coordinator, a linchpin of the full-service community school model.

As district staff wait to hear back on a federal grant they’ve applied for, to revive the program at Green Central and expand it to one more site at Cityview Community School (a north side school that reopened two years ago), the city and its Park and Recreation Board are also taking a stab at leading the effort.

At a recent press conference held outside of the Minneapolis City Hall, Mayor Jacob Frey endorsed the full-service community school model. Inside, the city’s Board of Estimate and Taxation was about to review a levy proposal that includes more than $150,000 in ongoing funding for full-service community schools. The city’s Park and Recreation Board had passed that request earlier this month.  

“Investments in our schools are investments in our future, our workforce, our future economy, the future overall health of our city. Every single jurisdiction has skin in the game when it comes to the success of our students,” Frey said. “The park and school boards, they are our partners. Where we can support them, we should. And working together should not be the exception to the rule. It should be the absolute standard.”

Mayor Jacob Frey
MinnPost file photo by Tony Nelson
Mayor Jacob Frey: "Working together should not be the exception to the rule. It should be the absolute standard."
On Wednesday afternoon, the Board of Estimate and Taxation is expected to decide on a levy amount to be approved, which will include the Park and Recreation Board’s funding request for full-service community schools.

“We have about 18 parks that are hooked up next to schools — we share a same building. I figure we can use our rec centers as kind of a spearhead in trying to nudge [Minneapolis Public Schools]  to pick up the banner with us,” said Londel French, a newcomer to the Park and Recreation Board who’s been advocating for this school model. “I think if you take care of the whole family, as well as the student, that student has an easier time learning.”

A budding initiative in Minnesota

Full-service community schools serve as a hub for academic, social and health services, through partnerships between schools, local nonprofits and other community-based organizations. By reducing barriers for students and their families — to addressing basic needs like stable housing, job training and mental and physical health care — these sites aim to better equip at-risk students to focus and succeed in school.

According to José Muñoz, director of the Coalition for Community Schools in Washington, D.C., full-service community schools follow more of an approach than any one specific model.

“It’s not so much what goes into them, but it’s how you go about it,” he said. “The approach is very hyper-local, which increases the success.”

This entails conducting a community needs assessment, at the outset of establishing a full-service community school, he said. It should include input from the broader school community — especially students and parents — to ensure that the services that are brought on board through partnerships align with the needs and hopes of those being served.

This work is often facilitated by a site coordinator, who’s brought in to act as the official bridge between the school and the local community. This person serves a vital role in building and maintaining relationships with local partners, engaging families and streamlining services offered on-site at their school.

Back in 2015, Gov. Mark Dayton and the state Legislature first funded full-service community schools, allocating a total of $500,000 million in one-time funding over the span of two years — an amount that grew to $1.5 million with an additional appropriation in 2016 — to fund a handful of grantees. The school sites that received funding spanned seven districts: Brooklyn Center, Duluth, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, Deer River and Faribault.

In Minneapolis, those grant dollars helped Green Central become a full-service community school. But when the state funding dried up, the school lost its site coordinator, along with the ability to maintain the full scope of services and programming it had built up.

District staff are waiting to hear back on a federal grant that would provide funding to sustain the full-service community school model at Green for up to five years. In the meantime, the school’s principal, Matthew Arnold, says that while resource alignment may not be what it once was, the school has been able to maintain a number of wrap-around services — many of which exist at other schools in the district as well.

“A number of schools have clinics co-located. And a number of our schools have full-time therapists that we host in our schools,” he said. “So there’s a lot of community partnership in Minneapolis Public Schools.”

To ensure that these partnerships are efficient and sustained, however, Minneapolis leaders have decided to get involved in championing the full-service community school model, which includes funding for an on-site coordinator.

A new burst of momentum in Minneapolis

Robin Wonsley Worlobah, a community organizer for the statewide teachers union, Education Minnesota, has been laying the groundwork for this new wave of full-service community school momentum for the past few years. Interest in the model has long existed in Minneapolis — especially among the local teachers union, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, which unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate funding for this school approach in its latest round of contract negotiations — but now, she says, the conditions seem ripe.

“Really, the starting point was, in 2016, there was a radical shift amongst the board membership with Park and Recreation, where you had progressive labor leaders taking space within that committee,” she said. “And two or several of those folks, like Londel French and Brad Bourn, had an interest in figuring out how to cultivate a stronger partnership with with their Minneapolis Public Schools.”

Bringing Frey on board, she says, has been key as well. She says there seems to be an opening with him, “unlike with R.T. Rybak, who was very much open to market-based reforms, very supportive of the charter school collaborative that was taking shape.”

“We’re seeing that the market doesn’t resolve issues or crises within our education system. We need to look at the real issues — the lack of community leadership and voice, the lack of funding and resourcing of our schools, how inequities — especially racially — are manifesting in our resourcing decisions across different schools,” she said. “I think now is  a really great opportunity where a lot of folks are taking that seriously — especially the question of: How do we maintain a quality public education in Minneapolis, which is supposed to be this glowing national progressive utopia?”

While it’s unusual to see Minneapolis city officials advocating for such a specific initiative within the Minneapolis Public Schools system, it’s not the first time a governing entity other than a public school board has played a crucial role in establishing full-service community schools.

For instance, in Brooklyn Center, all three of the district’s public schools operate under the full-service community school model. This is reflected in the district’s name: Brooklyn Center Community Schools. There, Wonsley Worlobah says, former and current mayors have been champions of this work.

Outside of Minnesota, it’s a bit more common to see city, and even county, governing bodies spearhead the full-service community school model. Muñoz says this was the case when he worked in New Mexico, prior to coming on board with the national coalition. And he’s seen the same “strong city involvement” help launch full-service community school initiatives in places like Austin, Houston and Newark.

It’s growing to become more common,” he said of city-led initiatives. “On Oct. 2, the National League of Cities has asked to sit down with us and partner — to come up with a strategy to better prepare mayors for it and city elected officials.”

Precedent set in St. Paul

The St. Paul Public Schools district has a longstanding history of supporting full-service community schools. The district’s hallmark model, called the Achievement Plus program, is run in partnership with the Wilder Foundation, which fully funds site-coordinators at all three elementary school sites: Dayton’s Bluff, John A. Johnson and Saint Paul Music Academy.

The district also counts its three elementary schools that fall within the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood — also overseen by the Wilder Foundation — as full-service community schools. And just this year the district added Humboldt Middle School to the mix, using the national Communities in Schools model as its anchor, with hopes of expanding into a high school later this year.

“It’s something that there’s a lot of shared energy around, and a willingness to work together,” says Heather Kilgore, director of the district’s office of family engagement and partnership.

The effort benefits from strong support from the local teachers union, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, along with support from district leaders, she says. But she also points to the support of the Wilder Foundation, in sustaining the on-site coordinator positions, as a key to the district’s success in maintaining this particular school model.  

“It’s pretty expensive to do it well,” she said. “There’s an additional staff member — for us, funded by a partner. But a lot of times, the coordination of it is a pretty heavy lift.”

A tutor on-boarding session
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
A tutor on-boarding session inside the Learning Center at Saint Paul Music Academy, which is funded and staffed by one of the school's partners, the East Side Learning Center.
In terms of evaluating success of the Achievement Plus program, Chuayi Thao, the program’s director at Wilder, echoed a dilemma shared by many who track these school models. It’s easy to track how many students and family members are utilizing the various services offered, she said. But it’s not so easy to translate these touch points into measurable outcomes.

Cindy Torguson, who’s been working as the Achievement Plus coordinator at Dayton’s Bluff since 1999, perhaps has the best grasp on measuring outcomes. She’s been building out a data dashboard to track which services individual students are utilizing and how this coincides with their attendance, suspension and academic records. Regardless, she says it’s pretty obvious that the full-service community school model is providing essential resources for many families that, no doubt, impact a student’s ability to succeed in school.  

We have a food program here. Everyone’s going to do better when they’re fed,” she said. “But it’s really hard to isolate it down and say it’s because of us that this happened. You have to have a little bit of everything, and everybody. ”

At Saint Paul Music Academy, a preK-grade 5 music magnet school, more than 90 percent of students qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch. More than half — 57 percent — are English language learners, with Karen, Hmong and Spanish being the three most common foreign languages spoken by students and their families. There’s also a growing population of Oromo and Somali speakers. The need for wrap-around services is great.

We know it isn’t  just school that affects a child’s life — it’s everything,” said the school’s principal, Barbara Evangelist. “So if we can help ease the burden, whether it’s transportation to the dentist or food, I think everybody wins in that situation. It’s  a holistic type of approach to educating children.”

Craig Sweet has been working as the school’s site coordinator for the past seven years. On a recent tour of the building’s full-service community school offerings, he pointed out a number of spaces that had been repurposed  to house community partners that had been brought in to address needs that typically fall outside the purview of the school day.

For instance, the school has a full-time therapist, Anne Thao, who works on-site. She’s funded and managed by a separate division in the Wilder Foundation. Her student caseload is 100 percent focused on mental health therapy — everything from helping a student process and communicate the anxieties and frustrations they’re experiencing to their teachers, to helping a student struggling with homelessness find a way to focus in school.

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Craig Sweet, the Achievement Plus coordinator at Saint Paul Music Academy, looking through the printed handouts showcasing the school's resources.
Unlike the other school-employed student support staff who also counsel students, Thao has a very specific specialization and she’s employed to work year-round. Having an office at the school allows her to meet with students for a 30- to 40-minute session once a week that briefly interrupts their school day, as opposed to having a parent pull them out for half a day to make an appointment located outside of school.

On Tuesday morning, the school’s dental clinic was up and running as well. Children’s Dental Services staffs and funds this clinic, rotating into the school four times each month to perform routine cleanings and fill cavities for nearly a third of the school’s students, Sweet said.

Additionally, the school provides space for the East Side Learning Center to host a learning center inside the school building. Here, tutors — some paid by the nonprofit partner and some community volunteers — do their onboard training and pull students out of the classroom for one-on-one tutoring sessions on the specific skill  sets they’re struggling with most.

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
A dental hygienist cleaning a student's teeth at Saint Paul Music Academy's on-site clinic on Tuesday morning.
Ending the tour with a stop by the school’s Family Center, Sweet said this resource is the “base of the pyramid.” The room is equipped with a community computer station; toys for children to play with while their parents connect with housing, job training and financial resources; and an entire closet filled with totes of cleaning supplies for families moving into a new home, with baby supplies for expectant parents and clothes of all sizes.

These resources are collected and managed by a full-time staff member at the center who’s funded by the Neighborhood House, a St. Paul-based social service agency.

What I look at is stabilizing, in tone and feel. So when families come in here, when they realize these services are here, it becomes more of a home,” Sweet said. “It’s going back to those relationships that students then forge more strongly with their teachers, us, their parents, or that they make within themselves. That’s fundamentally the business we’re in.”