A ‘community school’ might be coming to Manatee County. Here’s what that means

The four pillars of a successful community school

Amy Ellis outlined the cornerstones of a successful community school during a forum at South Manatee Branch Library on Thursday evening.
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Amy Ellis outlined the cornerstones of a successful community school during a forum at South Manatee Branch Library on Thursday evening.

A growing program hopes to bridge the gap between schools and the community at large, a concept that’s making its way to Manatee County.

“This is about the leveraging of what already happens in the community, and we bring it to the campus,” said Amy Ellis, director of the Center for Community Schools, at the University of Central Florida.

Community schools have existed in various forms over several decades, but UCF trademarked its own program, the Community Partnership Schools model. It encourages a 25-year agreement between local schools, health care providers, nonprofits and universities or colleges.

Each partner commits resources to ensure local schools provide more than a textbook education. The model stresses family engagement, after-school programs and the availability of health care — physical, mental and social — throughout the school day.

Ellis attended a forum at South Manatee Branch Library on Thursday evening, alongside Shawn Naugle, the regional executive director for Children’s Home Society of Florida.

The event was sponsored by Protect our Public Schools Manasota, the Manatee Democratic Progressive Caucus and Florida’s League of United Latin American Citizens.

About a dozen people attended the forum, including school board member Charlie Kennedy, along with Principal Tami VanOverbeke and Assistant Principal Samara Hemingway-Primous, of Manatee Elementary School.

Their school could be the first in Manatee County to follow UCF’s model. Ellis said she was encouraged by a meeting with Superintendent Cynthia Saunders about two weeks ago.

“From what I saw, there was absolute buy-in and understanding of the model,” Ellis said.

Manatee Elementary is a Title I school that serves economically disadvantaged students. The community schools model is particularly helpful to impoverished areas, where families often lack basic necessities, according to Thursday’s presentation.

It costs about $135,000 to form a plan, and about $235,000 to implement the model in a school’s first year. The cost rises to $325,000 or more by the third year, depending on the size of a school.

Sustained funding is possible through public sources, such as state appropriations, local grants and Medicaid, while private avenues include foundations, corporations and individual donors.

Naugle, a leader with Children’s Home Society of Florida, spoke on the importance of a nonprofit partner. Local organizations can expand a school’s offerings — gardening, dancing and tutoring, for example — and keep kids engaged outside of the normal school day.

They can provide mental health counseling, dental exams and vision screenings, or they could donate vital goods. Students can’t learn, he said, if they don’t have decent clothing, food and school supplies.

He expanded on the need for health care, painting the image of a student with vision problems, and a teacher who might grow frustrated with the child’s performance.

“Come to find out he can’t see.” Naugle said. “He can’t see the board. He can’t see his textbook. He just sees a big blurry mess.”

While two Florida schools are currently certified under UCF’s community schools model, 15 others are working toward the certification. Ellis referred to the program as a marriage, requiring the full commitment of schools and local organizations.

“It’s pulling everybody together, having those meetings, coming to a consensus,” she said. “And it really is that deep of a relationship that is developed between the partnerships.”