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Madison School District looking to sustain 'community schools' before possible expansion

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Mendota Elementary School

Mendota Elementary School students rehearse last year their roles for a production of the Disney musical "The Aristocats." The school is one of four using the "community school" model, which the district could possibly expand in the 2021-22 school year.

The Madison School District is hoping to sustain and strengthen a holistic, wraparound approach to supporting students and their families now in place at four elementary schools before possibly expanding it to other schools.

District staff on Monday briefed the Madison School Board about what has been happening at the four elementaries using the “community schools” model, what metrics the district is using to track their progress and when an expansion could be sought.

“I really want to see MMSD get this right,” said board member Cris Carusi. “There’s so much opportunity for us to change kids’ lives through this kind of a model.”

Nichelle Nichols, the district’s executive director of equity, partnerships and engagement, said the initial thinking was to expand the model next school year.

But staff are now recommending any expansion not come until the 2021-22 school year to give them more time to explore student outcomes as the model is still in a “validating” stage, she said.

In 2016-17, Leopold and Mendota elementary schools became the district’s first community schools, followed by Hawthorne and Lake View elementary schools in 2018-19.

The approach, which started to gain popularity nationally about 20 years ago, is meant to provide various supports and services for students and their families not traditionally available at a school.

Those could include food pantries, job training opportunities or health checkups. Each school has a dedicated resource coordinator to guide the work.

In determining whether the community schools are producing positive outcomes, the district is prioritizing student attendance and behavior, family and community engagement, and the way resources are allocated.

Nichols said this information can be captured through attendance and chronic absenteeism data, an annual climate survey parents, students and staff can fill out, data about student participation in out-of-school activities, and evaluations of the model by UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Evaluation Collaborative.

Despite academics not being one of the district’s “indicators of success,” Nichols said the district isn’t shying away from improving academic performance.

But at this point, she said, there’s no clear trend on reading and math scores among the first four schools. Nichols added it can take five to 10 years to fully implement the model at a school.

Aronn Peterson, the community schools manager, said outside of the Measures of Academic Progress assessment, or MAP, it’s difficult to determine academic progress at the elementary level because students aren’t graded on a letter-based system.

Ultimately, Nichols said, the district believes the approach is already having a positive effect.

Board member Savion Castro said some of the benefits of community schools are “inherently academic.”

He said other impacts, such as the way children at Lake View can benefit emotionally from a support group for students who have an incarcerated parent, might not be as easy to put into a data point but could lead to valuable outcomes.

Peterson said the resources at each school are largely driven by what community members identify as needs.

As an example, he said, Mendota Elementary is doing a lot of work around job security and homelessness, while Leopold Elementary is focused on engaging parents and families of color.

If an expansion is eventually sought, Carusi suggested implementing the model at the middle schools that the students in the four elementary schools would eventually attend, extending the access to resources through eighth grade instead of ending that access at fifth grade.

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Logan Wroge is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has been with the newspaper since 2015.

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