The first ‘community school’ is coming to Manatee County. Here’s what that means

With laptops, worksheets and glue sticks in hand, the students at Manatee Elementary School worked toward a well-deserved lunch of pizza and chicken on Thursday morning. In one year, many of the same students will attend a “community partnership school,” the first in Manatee County.

Manatee Elementary, 1609 Sixth Ave. E., recently began its transition to a community schools model, which requires a long-term agreement with local universities, nonprofits and health care providers. The program, created by the University of Central Florida, is meant to address a student’s basic needs, both inside and outside of the classroom.

It can be especially helpful at high-poverty schools, where unmet needs can distract from the students’ education. As a Title I school, all of the students at Manatee Elementary were considered “economically disadvantaged” last year, according to the Florida Department of Education.

“I think it’s mostly put in Title I schools because of the challenges families face on a daily basis,” Principal Tami VanOverbeke said. “It’s the community coming together to provide services.”

With an $80,000 grant from UCF and a $25,000 contribution from the school district, Manatee Elementary hopes to immediately start preparations and launch the program in August. The agreement is for 25 years, a standard length for community partnership schools, and the long-term costs won’t be known until planning is finished.

“State leaders allocated $7.1 million in this year’s budget — more than four times the funding available in previous years — to bolster Florida’s existing community partnership schools and create new ones across the state,” the school district said in a news release.

An outside agency was hired to survey the community and identify pressing needs, and the results will inform what programs are offered in the future. Parents have expressed interest in financial literacy, art and sports, VanOverbeke said.

As one of the new partners, the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee will help Manatee Elementary in its transition to a visual and performing arts school, a separate initiative.

Manatee Elementary will also host teaching interns from USF, creating a pipeline for new teachers at the school.

“We will have an opportunity to choose the best if we have any openings,” VanOverbeke said. “They’ll get to know our community and kids. Our teachers will train them.”

The Children’s Home Society of Florida will serve as the school’s nonprofit partner, hiring a director to coordinate with the other organizations, and providing mental health services.

Manatee County Rural Health will offer its services to students, families and the community at large. Through an on-campus facility, the organization will provide dental and vision services, along with mental health care and other assistance, VanOverbeke said.

“I think it just brings everyone together to benefit the children and the community,” she said of the program. “Bottom line, it’s good for all of us.”

In the area surrounding Manatee Elementary, the median household income was less than $30,000 in 2013, according to the most recent neighborhood-level data from the U.S. Census.

Of the area residents who were 25 years or older, 60.5 percent — about 1,640 residents — graduated from high school.

A family’s resources often influence a student’s ability to learn, said Mike Rio, executive director of elementary education for the school district. If a student is ailing mentally or physically, it can be nearly impossible to concentrate in class.

Unfortunately, some families don’t have the ability to address costly health concerns, he said. And while some parents and guardians are working long hours to support their children, the students may benefit from after-school programs, a cornerstone of the community schools model.

“A lot of times they come home to an empty home,” Rio said. “No one is there to help with homework or to participate in extracurricular activities. This has the potential to level the playing field for them.”