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State money will expand community schools in Buffalo

Poverty has a dire effect on how well students do in schools, experts say.

Many urban schools are not equipped to meet the needs of all of their students and families, and often services and benefits for low-income children and families are not well coordinated and connected to the school system, said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes.

Combined, that leaves schools struggling to provide students with a quality education, she said.

But schools across the state now have a pot of money to develop community schools that are designed to increase the potential for success for the impoverished students while building stronger families and healthier neighborhoods where the schools are located.

In the new state budget, $175 million is earmarked for expansion of the community schools model in low-performing schools located in high-needs districts. Gov. Andrew Cuomo kicked in $100 million. The rest comes from the Legislature, said Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat who pushed the effort.

With the money, the Buffalo school district plans to replicate programs similar to the ones already at South Park High School. The “high-risk urban school” has a variety of supports, including a licensed clinical social worker, who is available for nine hours one day each week to counsel students and families, said Principal Theresa Schuta.

In addition, the Buffalo Urban League provides tutoring and mentoring Monday through Friday. And six youth advocates from the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection work with students on-site to help them enter college or the workforce after graduation.

And last January, the School Board expanded the community school concept when it approved contracts with Child and Adolescent Treatment Services, Buffalo FATHERS and Project Lee to provide some schools with services ranging from parent outreach and training to group mentoring and intervention for students with behavioral problems. The partnerships aim to reduce suspensions, improve students’ social skills and increase attendance.

The state money allows districts to implement the community school model by engaging students, parents, teachers, school leaders and communities in developing a strategy that meets their students’ needs and improves educational outcomes.

Community schools are not education-only centers. Instead, they are community hubs that link with organizations and bring in outside services to help support students through the schools as well as eliminate obstacles that prevent kids from learning. Beyond classroom instruction, community schools partner with local businesses and companies, neighborhood groups, faith-based organizations, nonprofit agencies and government service agencies to offer a lineup of services for students and family members. The help they offer includes legal aid, social workers and mental health counselors as well as nutrition, cultural and recreation services.

“Any social service you need to make for a better life for you and your children,” Peoples-Stokes said.

The community schools should be open longer, she said, offering additional help. “They should provide wraparound services beneficial to students and parents,” Peoples-Stokes said. “There should be access to the school building after hours, and some type of restorative justice training should be provided to students and parents.”

The level of services depends on the needs of the particular neighborhood. Supporters say the integration of academics, services and supports help students learn better.

“I’m particularly grateful for the significant investment to improve outcomes for boys and young men of color and expand community schools. Since I took office last summer, I’ve been travelling the state, and I’ve seen firsthand the opportunities these programs can provide for students and their families,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a written statement.

Buffalo Public Schools is set to receive $12.5 million and will use the funding to help launch 18 community schools in September in four different community zones in the city. The money would help pay for staff costs associated with keeping buildings open longer and personnel to help coordinate the different levels of services.

A grateful Kriner Cash, superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools, said the money will help the district improve schools in the neediest areas and for the neediest families.

“That’s what I see this community schools set-aside is all about, to make sure resources get to communities in Buffalo where the families and children need the most services,” he said.

“That’s the difference, in essence, in that the school itself does quite a bit more than just be a center of teaching and learning for children. It also provides a wide array of services for those families that live in that community.”