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Federal Grants to Transform Schools Into Community Hubs

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Nine school and community partnerships in six states are sharing $4.7 million in federal education grants under the Full-Service Community Schools (FSCS) program created to improve educational, social and health services for low-income students and their families.

Each grantee will receive about half-a million dollars from the U.S. Department of Education to expand the spheres of their schools by turning them into thriving community centers providing an array of programs including adult education and job-skills training, after-school academic and enrichment classes for students, professional development for teachers, and on-site counselors to coordinate all the local health and welfare services available for families .  

"Our vision of a community school is that the school becomes the community hub. For so long, schools have been walled off, fenced, inaccessible," said Dixon Slingerland, the executive director of the Los Angeles-based Youth Policy Institute (YPI), which just received its third Full-Service Community Schools grant. 

Slingerland said they're using the money to develop programs at four schools located within the city's Promise Zone, a multi-agency federal initiative, administered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, that supports schools and job creation in economically depressed communities.        

The first five Promise Zones were announced last January at a White House ceremony.  One benefit of being selected is receiving preference when applying for other community-assistance grants. Three of this year's Full-Service Community Schools grant recipients are also designated Promise Zones. 

Another is located in rural Knox County, Ky., where the decline of the coal industry has created high unemployment and nearly a third of the families lives below the federal poverty level of $23,850 for a family of four.  

Extended learning will be a key component of the Full-Service Community Schools grant at two rural schools in the county, said Dreama Gentry, the executive director of Partners for Education based at Berea College, which is overseeing the program.

Gentry said they're in the process of surveying students to find out what they want. Some ideas under discussion are internships, service learning and leadership activities and extracurricular activities. 

They're also developing family-engagement programs at both schools to help parents become educational advocates for their children, and to help connect adults in the community with local agencies for job retraining.

"The school district is the guts of the program," said Gentry, starting with an academic specialist who will monitor the progress of students in danger of failing or dropping out to make sure they get the academic interventions and wraparound services they need to succeed.

The San Antonio Independent School District is making a big push to get community input for its grant.  More than 800 people turned out for a series of meetings held this past summer, said Darnell McLaurin, who oversees the Eastside Promise Neighborhood for the district.

Promise Neighborhoods is another U.S. Department of Education initiative launched in 2010 that also focuses on improving schools as a step toward transforming distressed communities.

In addition to school year programs for students and their parents, San Antonio schools are also considering bringing back children next summer a few weeks before the school year begins to teach them skills to improve school success.  The dropout rate for the high school in the Eastside Promise Neighborhood is 19.6 percent.  

McLaurin said the district plans to try "out of the box" ideas to improve academics and the overall quality of life in the community. 

"We're not experts in this, we're trying something new. We have the wherewithal and the initiative and the insight to try something new," he explained. "This is kind of like flying the airplane and building it,too, because public schools don't necessarily go this route."

The Full-Service Community Schools program started in 2008 and has so far provided more than $50 million to schools and communities in 13 states that serve about 150,000 students.  This year recipients were selected from a pool of 147 applicants.

"Great schools require the entire community to work together," said U.S. Secretary of  Education Arne Duncan, in a written statement announcing the grants.

Slingerland agrees. There's no one or even two programs that by themselves will generate significant, lasting improvement. 

"It's about doing everything, everything that's necessary to support the kids and families, and everything that's necessary to support the folks who work at the school site," he said.

The programs are all expected to roll out in January. 

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