Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Blog 8: Experiment with School Year Calendar Supported by Community Partners

Blog Series - Innovations in 
Expanded Learning Opportunities: 
The Community Schools Strategy

Blog 8: Experiment with School Year Calendar Supported by Community Partners
By:
Ruth Wright, Community Schools District Coordinator, Des Moines Public Schools
Jodi Miller, Intern at the Coalition for Community Schools

Typically we associate fall with many welcome changes: a respite from the summer heat and a fresh start for children in school. However, for students attending one of the four elementary schools on the Extended School Year schedule in Des Moines, Iowa, September is just another month spent immersed in academia. The Des Moines Public School District has begun to experiment with the calendar in order to provide an innovative classroom experience for children. With Moulton Extended Learning Center, River Woods Elementary, Capitol View Elementary, and Downtown Elementary Schools following an alternate schedule, administrators have seen the value of community partnerships in helping with the transition.

What does it mean to have an Extended School Year?
Each of the four schools utilizing the Extended School Year calendar have the same number of days as the other schools within the district, but operate on a different schedule. Instead of starting in September, these schools open in the middle of July. Classes remain in session until October, when students get a two-week break. School resumes again until Christmas and then continues until June, with at least one other intersession mixed in.

Many parents within the community initially rejected this irregular schedule. Their students would be operating on an unfamiliar schedule, which usually meant changing vacation and summer plans. However, other parents clamored for this change. They believed the new system would allow for increased enrichment opportunities and appreciated the assurance that children had consistent academic support.

The History
Over the past 20 years, Des Moines Public Schools have informally operated as community schools. Though not recognized as such, they received support from a program called SUCCESS, designed to reduce dropout rates. The SUCCESS program, supported by the district, serves student ages 3-21 in high schools, middle schools and half of the elementary schools within the district in order to increase graduation rates. Each of the 37 schools with a SUCCESS presence have case managers employed by the school through funding received from the state specifically to prevent students from dropping out. The case managers work onsite to refer students to the social, emotional, and academic services they need. Driven almost entirely by data, the case managers focus on individuals at risk receiving direct help rather than establishing school-wide programming.

Over time, this extra support proved to be insufficient to meet all the needs of the population. In order to address this issue, the district more formally adopted the community schools strategy four years ago. The district hired a Community Schools District Coordinator as well as five Community School Site coordinators, each housed in one of the comprehensive high schools. Community School Site coordinators serve their home school in addition to the feeder middle and elementary schools. They foster relationships with many local non-profit organizations in order to establish partnerships.  

Extended Year Schedule Example: Moulton Extended Learning Center
The community school strategy has proven to be invaluable to the schools operating on the Extended Year Schedule. For example, Moulton Extended Learning Center partners very closely with the Children and Family Urban Ministries (CFUM), coincidentally located across the street. Administrators have worked with CFUM to ensure that students have somewhere to go during their two-week breaks during the year. This close relationship reduces stress for parents who worry about child supervision during the vacations, and provides a safe place for students to go when not in school. Without this extra support, parents would be more reluctant to send children to schools operating on the extended year schedule.

Additionally, the community partners prove extremely helpful for parents and students who would otherwise not benefit from annual events like the back to school supply drive. Due to their earlier start, children at Moulton, or one of the other three extended year schools, would miss out on the opportunity to receive much needed services. CFUM also hosts its health fair in July for the Moulton population in order to ensure students are prepared to begin school.

The District Coordinator strives to ensure that every school has what it needs. Under her leadership, Community School Site Coordinators work to provide relevant referrals for each of their respective schools, which allow them to smoothly operate on the extended year schedule.

School district administrators credit community partners with the smooth transition of River Woods Elementary, the most recent school to follow an extended year schedule. Partners like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club already had a presence in the school, and were thus able to provide additional student services, like extra care during the two-week intersession breaks.

Challenges
One of the challenges associated with the extended year calendar is balancing the schedules of multiple children. Due to the irregular calendar, parents may have one child starting school in July, while the other begins in September. This requires extra planning by district coordinator as well as the parents themselves.

A challenge for administrators is managing and coordinating community partners across different schools. Though the schools on the regular and extended year schedules have misaligned calendars, administrators have worked to overcome this obstacle by maintaining open lines of communication with community partners. The strong relationship between the district coordinator and the school site coordinators helps facilitate this process. In some schools, like Moulton, the coordinator ensures that the partners receive the same information parents do to confirm everyone knows the schedule. This has proven to be effective in facilitating closer relationships. The initial uneasiness regarding the use of data has diminished among partners because of the frequent communication.

While the district coordinator suggests that schools with an extended year can exist without community partners, she credits assistance from the YMCA, the Boys and Girl Club, CFUM and other similar organizations with making the transition much smoother. 


To learn more about community schools and ELO, visit www.communityschools.org/elo 

The Wallace Foundation, which has sponsored this blog series, offers a library of free resources on expanded learning at www.wallacefoundation.org


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