Bringing School Home

“Ms. Clanton,” called a student as Michelle Clanton made her way down the hall of Camden Middle Community School in Newark, New Jersey. For Clanton, the community school project director, a short walk from one side of the school to the other took about 20 minutes, as she was stopped several times by students with questions or who just wanted to talk.

Though Clanton is an employee of Communities in Schools (CIS) (See sidebar) of Newark, rather than the Newark Public Schools, in the eight months since the community school project began, she has become part of the school’s culture. That’s exactly the goal of Clanton and other community school coordinators – to create a program integral to the life of the school, and a school integral to the life of the community in Newark’s central ward.

The community school project extends the school day, with classes and activities from 7:30 in the morning until 9 at night. The project seeks to enhance student learning and coordinate with other community organizations and institutions to bring community resources into the school. The activities provide a safe haven for students, particularly those whose parents work in the evening, explained Gwendolyn Corrin, executive director of CIS. The community school is also open to students’ parents and other students and adults who live in the neighborhood.

Funds from Newark’s $2.9 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Enterprise Community (EC) program launched the Camden Middle Community School project last November. The city’s $350,000 award to the 510-student school was the first expenditure of EC funds, according to the New York Times. The city asked Communities in Schools (CIS) of Newark/New Jersey to coordinate the project.

Community school activities for students focus not only on educational enhancement but athletics and recreation and personal development. In addition to a homework center and basic tutoring, classes and workshops include newsletter writing and production; double-Dutch jump rope, karate, aerobics, and dance; art and photography; and health education and self-esteem building.

The Sweet Little Sisters program, for example, teams Camden students up with area high school students who serve as mentors, working with the younger students on self-esteem, self-presentation, and looking toward college and the future. The experience is affirming for both the older and younger students, according to Clanton, who said she was even a little surprised by the strong bonds displayed between the middle school students and their mentors at a recent trophy ceremony.

Similarly, Camden eighth graders work with elementary school children through the Newark Literacy Campaign’s Kids Teaching Kids program, which not only helps the younger students who are just learning to read but reinforces the student instructors’ literacy skills. Some students also connect with the local library in their literacy work, volunteering to read during story hour or participating in library-based programs during the summer.

“This all adds more value to the afterschool program,” which before was a more traditional afterschool program mostly providing tutoring, said Corrin. “The adolescent group needs these types of programs.”

The community school project also attempts to strengthen the environment for children by providing enrichment activities for adults, such as computer training, aerobics, and a homebuyers workshop. Several parent volunteers, along with approximately 60 area organizations and companies, participated in or contributed to a recent health fair at the school. The school works with Essex County College’s continuing education program to offer courses in Psychology and English held at the Camden school. Newark police officers and area high school students also meet for “midnight” basketball on the school’s “adult nights,” held twice a week. The adult component emphasizes family support and child development, said Corrin. For example, the class “Parents Are People Too” encourages parents to nurture themselves in order to better nurture their children. And some activities, such as video editing projects and the school newsletter, bring together parents and kids  to work in the same classroom.

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Parent and community participation in program design are also encouraged, according to Corrin and Principal Josephine McDowell. A school improvement team, made up of parents, staff, and student council members, reviews the school’s community component and works to gather the ideas of parents and community residents. During one such meeting, parents requested that the school offer a GED program and computer training for parents, students, and staff, McDowell said. The school now provides these classes. The Camden Middle School Community Partnership Council also helps shape program offerings and includes parent representatives, staff from local colleges and community organizations, and Newark Public Schools administrators.

Besides bringing community resources into the school, the program tries to take students out into the community more often. Local libraries, the Newark Museum, and the newly inaugurated New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) are among the cultural institutions that students visit. Students have even performed in a jazz concert at NJPAC.

The idea that strong community connections will enhance the educational experience is not new but in practice has long been absent from many Newark schools. In a school system that the New Jersey Department of Education took over three years ago, the budding Camden Community Middle School offers a hint of what’s possible when educators, school administrators, community organizations, parents, and other concerned citizens work together. The community school’s opening last November marked a rare collaboration between the city and school administration, and is reminiscent of a program begun more than 30 years ago to build parent involvement and tailor the school’s curriculum to the needs of area residents, according to the November 4, 1997, New York Times. CIS of Newark hopes to make the current community school project a permanent and seamless part of the school’s fabric, and is continuing to work with the city to seek Enterprise Community funds, granted every two years, along with additional money to support and expand the project.

Altogether, 125 students have participated in the Camden Middle Community School project, along with about 65 adults, of whom 25 are active participants. Corrin said she hopes to expand adult participation, though she’s encouraged by the level of participation so far, considering that this year is the program’s first. For students, she hopes to expand bus transportation until 6 p.m., to make it possible for those without other means of transportation to stay longer, especially during winter months. Currently, the school only provides transportation until 4 p.m. on its regular late bus.

The school also plans to reach out more to let the community know about its classes and activities, said Corrin. The school relies partly on word-of-mouth from students and adult program participants. For example, Clanton said that one employee in the school cafeteria participated in the computer training and then recommended it to her sister, who also signed up for the class. The school does also sends mailings and its newsletter to residents, churches, and other community groups. Clanton hopes to strengthen the newsletter and turn it into a real voice for the community. Corrin said the school is also considered holding a “Walk and Talk Saturday,” during which teachers, students, and parents would walk around the neighborhood, knock on doors, and talk with community residents.

“We want the community to see the school as a place where they can meet and use programs,” Corrin said, “and see the school as a home.”

Communities In Schools NetworkCommunities in Schools (CIS) of Newark is a branch of CIS of New Jersey (CISNJ), which is part of the national CIS network active in nearly 300 communities in 28 states. The organization’s mission is to champion the connection of needed community resources with schools to help young people successfully learn, stay in school, and prepare for life. Founded in 1990, CISNJ has assisted over 2,000 students in 11 schools. Its programs aim to improve academic achievement, attendance, interpersonal skills and self-sufficiency, and improved health an human services. Local CIS programs in Newark and elsewhere stress partnerships that include public, private, nonprofit, and philanthropic organizations.

CIS of Newark points to recent successes such as its program at Newark’s Malcolm X Shabazz High School. Of the students participating in the program who took the High School Proficiency Test, 89 percent passed all three sections, compared to the school’s overall passing rate of 11.5 percent. CIS is also participating in a nationally recognized $15 million dollar school reform initiative sponsored by the Ford Foundation and Lucent Technologies at Malcolm X Shabazz and the seven elementary and junior high schools that feed into it. The Project Grad program, announced this past February, aims to cut the high school dropout rate and encourage students to go on to college. The program also engages parents and educators. In addition, two other CIS programs in Newark Public Schools are featured in the 1998 book Altered Destinies: Making Life Better for Schoolchildren in Need by Columbia University researcher Gene Maeroff.

For more information, contact CISNJ, 973-242-0706.

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Karen Ceraso was an editor at Shelterforce from 1995 to 1999.

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