What does it take to build a movement of everyday people and community decision-makers who are ready to dedicate themselves to ensuring that every young person in Asheville and Buncombe County graduates ready and fully prepared to pursue their goals and dreams?
In the early hours of November 18, more than 150 representatives from city and county governments and school boards, Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools, nonprofits, neighborhood groups, and businesses gathered at The Collider to learn more about how our community is tapping into the power and promise of the national Community Schools movement, and to hear from local partners about the prominent role they are playing in implementing this work locally. They also learned more about United for Youth, a network of partners dedicated to creating systemic change that supports youth and families.
Hosting the event was United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County which currently serves as a backbone organization for seven Community Schools in ACS and BCS, as well as for the broader United for Youth network. The organization had also supported the Institute for Educational Leadership as Asheville served as the host city for a week-long Community Schools Leadership Retreat that drew representatives from 30 different states to collaborate and see the work that local partners are doing here.
Good Work Is Already Underway
United Way began supporting local schools in 2010, with the adoption of a focused initiative around education and the help of the federal Americorps/VISTA program. As time went on the group began to expand and deepen the work, providing full-time staff in each school and investing in parent leadership, mental health programs, and family engagement activities like Community Nights/Homework Diners among other things.
Prior to the pandemic, United Way took a look at student performance in the first four local schools that had adopted the community school strategy. In those schools, there was a 10 percent improvement in overall student performance and attendance. And for BIPOC students there was a 15 percent increase. But the pandemic has wiped away many of those gains.
“We know this strategy works. As a community, we’re going to dig in even deeper to not only make up for those pandemic losses but surpass the progress our students were experiencing before. You can be a part of this,” said Laura Elliot, Senior Director of Community Schools and Network Development at United Way as she addressed the crowd.
Sharing their own perspectives on the strategy were panelists Valene Fagan, Asheville City Schools parent; Keynon Lake, Founder of My Daddy Taught Me That; Josh Wells, United Way of ABC’s Community School Coordinator at Owen Middle School, and Travis Collins, Erwin Middle School Principal. Each panelist shares the importance of building strong community relationships to support youth and families.
“I’ve served as principal in small and large schools but this is my first Community School and I have to say, the more I learn, the more excited I get,” said Erwin Middle Principal, Travis Collins. “It is absolutely critical that we bring our local community partners and neighbors into our school but it is just as important for us to meet our community where they gather. We need to leave our school walls and join them where they are too.”
Across the United States, 150 communities have implemented the community school strategy which is built upon the idea that each school becomes a hub for student support, expanded and enriched learning time opportunities, family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership practices.
Locally, United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County has placed a full-time Community School Coordinator at seven schools; Asheville, Enka, Erwin, Owen, Reynolds, and North Buncombe Middle Schools and Asheville High School/SILSA. The group has also helped to establish School-Based Health Centers at Asheville Middle School and Erwin Middle School and in the coming years expects to add a third Health Center in the Enka community as well as expand to a total of nine community schools.
United for Youth Gains Momentum
In order to take this work to scale, more groups need to join the effort. To date, 22 partners have officially signed on as United for Youth partners making unique commitments to the bold community goal of ensuring that by 2035, ALL Asheville and Buncombe County students graduate ready to pursue their goals and dreams. These partners include:
AB Tech · Asheville City Schools · ACS Foundation · Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce · Big Brothers Big Sisters · Buncombe County · Buncombe County Schools · Buncombe Partnership for Children · Buncombe Partnership for Substance Free Youth · City of Asheville · Children First / Communities in Schools · Creative Peace Makers · Helpmate · Literacy Together · Mission Health · My Daddy Taught Me That · P20 Council · Racial Justice Coalition · Read to Succeed · YWCA · United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County · UNC Asheville
Those looking for information about how to join should visit unitedwayabc.org/u4y.