The Vermont House has passed a bill that would use almost $3.4 million of the stimulus money to explore the idea of “community schools” a model that integrates a community’s social services into the classroom. The objective is to remove the educational obstacles encountered by those at the low end of the socioeconomic scale.

The legislation would make the money available to 10 supervisory unions. To apply schools would have to meet the necessary criterion [40 percent of the student body would need to quality for reduced-price lunch, for example.] Each successful school would receive up to $110,000 each year for three years.

Basically, the legislation points out the need to offer better care to the children who attend our schools. It acknowledges the challenges of hunger, abuse, lack of stable housing, trauma, medical and dental care. We have 38 percent of our children going to school in Vermont who qualify for the federally-subsidized lunch program. By definition this same cohort has difficulty getting to the doctor, or the dentist, or to counseling of any sort.

The intent of the legislation is to bring these services into the school. We’ve done this to a limited degree locally with RiseVt and Northwestern Counseling and Support Services [NCSS.] Before Covid struck both services had staff within the schools; RiseVt dealt with nutrition and health, NCSS with counseling and the attendant issues.

It makes complete sense.

But it has to be done correctly and that begins by picking the schools that have the best chance of showing the best results, which is not as easy as it sounds.

When a school applies it should be able to show, in advance, who their community partners are and how they would fit the school’s needs. It’s not enough to qualify, to show the need. A fair number of our schools will qualify. What the Agency of Education [AOE] should consider utmost is the potential for success, to find that school and that community most committed to the end goal.

If the AOE selects those 10 schools based on need alone, the chances are good the end result will be unsatisfactory. If that happens, the story becomes harder to sell. It would be shame to see something worthwhile die because of poor choices from the outset.

All communities are not the same. Even in tiny Vermont. Some have developed strong leadership teams, others have not. Some have dynamic organizations with leaders who are energetic and willing to take chances. Others don’t.

Putting together a “community school” isn’t something that is put together in isolation, or from a place of weakness. It’s not something that is created hoping it invites new growth or strength. Not from the outset.

That can come about, however, through example. That’s why the AOE’s most critical task is to select well, to pick 10 schools, and, hence, 10 communities, that have the best chance of being the models the rest of the state can emulate.

If this is done correctly, the end result, long term, could be one of the most beneficial things we have accomplished not only with our students, but socially and economically. If problems are allowed to fester, they multiply. All the way up society’s ladder.

Most of our schools have empty classrooms, and almost all of them have periods of the day the rooms are vacant. Bringing a community and its services into the school makes complete sense, at almost every level, and not only for the young, but for all age groups. What we lack is the push to make it happen, to show us the potential.

In almost every Vermont community the school sits at the center. It’s about time we make it the asset it needs to be.

by Emerson Lynn

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