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Solving the puzzle in the storm: A look at the community schools model

Musings - published on

Growing up in Pensacola, I enjoyed the suspense of many hurricane days as a kid. My family would typically have to evacuate to a spot further inland from the coast, usually to my grandparents’ house. We would have books, radios, games, and puzzles splayed out to keep us all occupied while we waited out the storm.

Puzzles were my favorite pastime during those storms, especially those with lots of pieces. The best part of assembling a large puzzle was the moment when I shifted my focus from the detail of a small section to the full image that was forming: perspective.

It’s easy to get lost on details, to not see the forest for the trees.

While we humans are great at building systems or solutions that focus on highly specific problems or tasks, we sometimes struggle as communities or teams to connect those systems or pieces together in a holistic manner.

Some Florida communities are connecting the dots as they step up to promote community schools. A series of community schools have been established in Central Florida, and most recently Tallahassee has built tremendous momentum to launch a pilot at a site in South City.

Community schools aim to improve outcomes for kids and their communities by integrating partnerships and resources. They are built around a strategic concept: It isn’t just a facility or place, but a hub of partnerships that sees and treats the end-user as a whole. It’s a bold shift from the traditional binary focus of schools and programming to which we are accustomed, where multiple challenges or needs of one client are addressed with numerous distinct programs and interventions in separate silos, often without coordination.

I like to think of it this way: The phone I would have used as a kid during one of my hurricane stays had one main function: make and receive calls. Today, it will not only place and receive calls, but take and send photos, texts, and emails; crunch numbers; play videos and movies; and offer me challenging puzzles and games to play. All the many services I would have sought through separate means have now been brought into one channel: I’m treated as a whole. Since I’m not forced to hunt for a calculator, video camera, puzzle box, and DVD player… I have slack — extra time and flexibility — that can be used to be more productive and write this column.

In community schools, strategic alignment is key to designing operational infrastructure, establishing and integrating partnerships and resources, and serving the end-user. A community school coordinator may work alongside a supportive principal, and serve on the school’s leadership team. Internal partnerships among school staff are critical, as well as throughout partner organizations in the community. Considerations are often made in the community school that traditional models aren’t focusing on: college and career readiness, citizenship, health and wellness, social services support, work-based and experiential learning or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programming, early childhood development, and family engagement.

The decision to develop Tallahassee’s inaugural community school was made following a recent panel meeting of officials and experts across government, education, nonprofit and healthcare agencies, law enforcement, and community leadership. City Commissioner Gil Ziffer had toured Maynard Evans High School, a community school site in Orlando. Evans had jumped in ranking from a D to a B school, and Ziffer shared the model with the Tallahassee panel. When services are integrated in a strategic manner, the social and emotional needs are met and the focus for kids can stay on learning, exploring, and growing.

Along with consideration of the impact the community school model can have for residents and kids, an additional consideration is efficiency. Services that already exist in a splintered manner across various sites and locations are strategically integrated. Efficiency is created for the programs and providers, as well as for the kids and surrounding community. This means greater impact without greater cost.

The community schools model speaks to a form of intelligent program deployment and strategic alignment that can inform other areas of civic life. What are the possibilities for our communities and systems if we take a step back, look across the room at our partners who are working on different parts of the same puzzles, and think about how we can collaborate on shared goals?

Teresa Barber is a consultant with Tallahassee-based Thinkspot Inc. and strategic adviser for STEMflorida, Inc. She specializes in strategic planning, structural economic development, and STEM systems. She can be reached at teresa@thinkspot.co.