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How a School Made Parents Central to Its Turnaround

It was the middle of the day, and not one seat in Adlai E. Stevenson Elementary School’s auditorium remained empty.

Parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles filtered into the room, hugging their neighbors and chatting with teachers. They waved to their children, who lined the bleachers dressed in their finest outfits for the school’s Black History Month program, one of several musical productions the elementary school puts on throughout the year.

Outside, other parents manned booths lining the school’s halls selling their artisan wares, including bedazzled jackets, Crocs, and cups; self-published books; and jewelry. Principal Tonya Hickman greeted parents in the school’s foyer, wearing bedazzled Crocs she had bought from one of the booths. The principal could barely make it three feet without a student pulling her in for a hug and a parent asking a question, telling a story, or thanking her.

Hickman wasn’t surprised to see the hundreds of parents taking time off from work and other obligations to attend. Since Stevenson reopened from its pandemic shutdown in the 2021-22 school year, there hasn’t been a day without parents coming through the school’s doors. It’s the result of a deliberate effort to involve families and make the school the center of a community.

It wasn’t always this way.

Three years ago, Stevenson was the lowest-performing elementary school in the nearly 5,000-student Southfield school district. Enrollment was dwindling, hovering around 390 students. Parents didn’t regularly visit the school and had limited understanding of what their students needed to stay on track academically. Today, enrollment at the K-5 school has grown to nearly 500 with a waitlist of students from outside the attendance zone hoping to enroll. Its parent-teacher conference participation rate is 98 percent, and Stevenson students showed the highest growth in reading scores in the 13-school district from 2022 to 2023.

The turnaround started with the district’s decision to turn Stevenson into a “community school”—a model that brings into the school a range of non-academic services to meet students’ and families’ basic needs. At Stevenson, those services include an onsite full-service health clinic run by Detroit-based Authority Health Clinic, a parent resource room, and a therapy dog named Stevie.

It’s more than the model that is transforming Stevenson. Its success really comes from an overall shift in mindset in which families have become central to everything educators do, parents and staff say.

“At my first opening meeting with parents, I told them, ‘We cannot do this alone,’” said Hickman, who started at the school in fall 2020. “We cannot change the face of the school if I don’t have parents buying into it.”

But while the model has worked for Stevenson, it’s future isn’t assured, highlighting a major challenge keeping more schools from becoming community schools. Stevenson is in the third year of a five-year grant funding the community resources. Without that money, many of the programs that have helped Stevenson win over parents could go away.

Hickman is determined to not let that happen.

Becoming a community school

To understand the community school model, you first have to ask yourself what you want from a school. A focus on academic excellence? A safe environment? Medical and therapeutic services? A community gathering space? Access to food, clothes, and other necessities?

If you ask community school advocates, the answer should be all of the above. But most public schools can’t deliver on all those.

“Particularly for kids and families and communities with a lot of economic and other challenges, schools are not really equipped to handle all of those issues by themselves,” said Kwesi Rollins, interim director of the Coalition for Community Schools, a network of community schools and nonprofits that support the model. “They need deeper partnerships. They need folks to come together, and they need to figure out how to blend and braid funding to address a lot of the complexities that keep kids from being fully able to participate in school.”

The idea is that when schools can provide more resources, such as health care and counseling services, students experience fewer barriers to learning and have more reasons to attend. When students can go to school and get medical care onsite, they don’t have to miss important lessons in math, science, and reading to travel to an off-site doctor’s appointment. When parents have access to free groceries and healthy recipes through food drives and food banks, their kids are less likely to feel hungry and distracted in class.

It’s a strategy that, if implemented well, can lead to major benefits for students, particularly for low-achieving students in high-poverty schools. Students who receive counseling, medical care, dental services, and transportation assistance as part of a community school often show significant improvement in attendance, behavior, social functioning, and academic achievement, according to a 2017 Learning Policy Institute report that reviewed more than 140 related research studies as well as evaluations of community schools.

The strategy is also effective in improving parents’ and caregivers’ trust in schools, which contributes to positive student outcomes, the report’s authors found.

A three-year RAND study of New York City’s community schools initiative found that the strategy led to improved attendance, more students progressing to the next grade on time, higher graduation rates, and reduced disciplinary incidents among elementary and middle-school students though not high school students.

Eighty-one percent of principals surveyed in the 2020 study said parents were more present in school as a result of the strategy.

“Community school initiatives are all about engaging parents, and most of their partners are playing some kind of role in actively” engaging families, Rollins said.

But there’s a sustainability risk, Rollins said. It’s easy for schools to fall into the trap of trying to start big with the community schools model without the long-term funding to back it up. Community schools provide services that students and families come to rely on. If they go away when a grant or community partnership ends, students and families are left without something they relied on, and the school risks losing the trust it’s built up with the community.

At Stevenson, sustainability is a top concern, and has been since the beginning, school and district leaders said.

The initiative at Stevenson began in 2019 when Southfield Superintendent Jennifer Martin-Green decided the school needed a shakeup. Around the same time, the United Way of Southeastern Michigan started looking into the community schools model as a way to meet needs it addresses through its philanthropy.

The nonprofit developed a five-year grant to support Detroit-area districts with high proportions of disadvantaged students in transitioning to the community school model. Martin-Green saw it as the perfect opportunity to get more resources for Stevenson, where 68 percent of students come from low-income families. It was one of four schools to be awarded the grant, receiving around $225,000 in the 2020-21 school year. The United Way has raised another around $275,000 to help Stevenson.

The other schools—United Oaks Elementary in Hazel Park, Mich., Ann Visger Elementary in River Rouge, Mich., and Herrington Elementary School in Pontiac, Mich.—can all point to benefits, too, including greater numbers of students reaching math and reading proficiency and decreases in chronic absenteeism.

The goal, ultimately, is to help families escape poverty, said Ellen Gilchrist, the local United Way’s senior director of education.

“When we can eliminate barriers to learning, we know that students achieve better academically, and when they achieve better academically, their earned income potential long term is significantly higher,” she said.

Starting in the parking lot

Martin-Green handpicked Hickman, who had been leading a Southfield school for students with disabilities where she had emphasized parent engagement, to lead the transition at Stevenson.

“You cannot be successful in any program without having the right people in place,” Martin-Green said.

Hickman arrived for the 2020-21 academic year as students alternated between in-person and virtual learning, and the doors were closed to parents and community members.

Early on, Hickman gathered staff in a meeting and asked them to list all the reasons why it might not be possible to transform Stevenson.

There’s no money, they said. Parents can’t be involved, or don’t want to. Poverty, housing challenges, and unemployment pose major obstacles.

Hickman listened and agreed. Afterward, she told staff, none of those excuses would apply any longer, even in a pandemic that made bringing parents into the school building too challenging.

That didn’t mean all staff immediately bought in. Hickman was proposing a shift in mentality that meant a lot more time and energy focused on families. But, teachers said, they watched Hickman do the work herself, which motivated them to commit to the community schools strategy.

“Because you see your administrators do it, you just do it,” said Carlis Gaddis, a literacy coach. “You just give the extra time. And it’s exhausting, it really is. I go home and I sit in my chair and fall asleep immediately from my day’s work, but it’s so rewarding in the end.”

Every morning and afternoon, Hickman made sure that she and the staff were in the parking lot, greeting parents, asking them about their lives, informing them about resources, and talking about their students’ growth in school.

“We just started to develop these relationships in the parking lot, opening the [car] doors in the morning, greeting parents,” Hickman said.

Parking lot chats soon morphed into weekly walks around the school’s track with parents and educators. They set up virtual math and reading sessions, giving parents lessons and tools to help their children study. Soon, parents were coming to school with encouraging signs to hold up in classroom windows during testing and at other high-pressure times.

As soon as pandemic restrictions loosened, Hickman and the Stevenson staff implemented an open-door policy, sectioning off a portion of the library to create a parent resource room, which has a computer, free Wi-Fi, coffee, and snacks for parents to use whenever they need it. Family members who pass background checks can move freely throughout the school while others are restricted to areas where they won’t have open access to students.

With the United Way’s help, Hickman and her assistant principal reached out to local banks, nonprofits, hospitals, and even local corporate titans General Motors and Ford to host webinars, workshops, and events for families, covering everything from the legal complexities of divorce to job interview strategies. Last year, the school promoted Melanie Land, a kindergarten teacher, to be its community schools coordinator. Her role now is to find more partners, schedule webinars and resources, survey families, and ensure the community schools strategy is working overall.

In the past year, Stevenson has hosted members of the Tuskegee Airmen and students from Howard University to talk with students about college and career options.

“Mrs. Hickman is always so willing to do the extra,” Gaddis said. “If I say, ‘Tonya, I heard about this great program, I think we really need to take a look at this.’ She’s like, ‘OK, call a meeting.’ She takes the extra step.”

When parents said they were struggling to find child care before and after school, Hickman and her staff searched for partners to offer it. Stevenson has gone from two partners running after-school programs in 2019-20 to 17 this year with programs five days a week that take place at the school, all funded by the United Way grant. Students learn how to crochet, play basketball, do engineering projects, and more.

It’s all part of an effort to build trust with students’ families, Hickman said. Stevenson is a Title I school, where many parents struggle with with poverty and related challenges like housing insecurity. Many of them have lived in Southfield all their lives and attended schools in the district.

“It all starts with relationships and being accessible to parents,” Hickman said. “Oftentimes, many parents have had negative experiences in school, so [we’re] breaking down those barriers. And we’ve had some challenges with those parents, but I bring them in my office and say, ‘OK, if you want your child to be successful, if you want to break those generational curses, if you will, we have to have an open-door policy and work together in the best interests of kids.’”

Helping parents help themselves

For Victoria Greene, Stevenson isn’t just a building where she leaves her three kids in the morning. Sometimes, it’s a health clinic where she squeezes in an appointment for her son. Other times, it’s a quiet space where she uses Wi-Fi. It’s also home to the local Girl Scout troop that she helps lead.

When she moved from Jackson, Mich., to Southfield last year, the school became a necessary respite for her children who struggled with the life change. Greene reached out to Stevenson’s social worker, Juanita Williams, and let her know she was worried about her oldest son, a 5th grader.

Williams started working with him in one-on-one sessions.

At first, “he would just sit in her office and not say anything,” Greene said. “Now he’s coming to her office 50 times a day just to check on her and see how she’s doing. I believe they truly make a connection with the kids.”

Greene isn’t the only parent to get some extra support.

Working with the United Way, Stevenson staff regularly help parents find lawyers, housing, employment, and other resources to navigate challenges like eviction, food insecurity, and lost jobs.

In early January, Williams, Hickman, and Land, the school’s community schools coordinator, raised money to help cover the cost of a hotel room for a mother who couldn’t get into a shelter. School staff regularly meet with divorced or separated parents to help them work through the hardships of co-parenting.

The support is meant to “help parents help themselves,” Hickman said.

One of the results is that parents become comfortable coming to Stevenson and talking with staff, whether they’re angry, stressed, or just in need of a chat.

“I feel as though when I drop her off it’s an extension of myself or her mother,” said Todd Grafton, referring to his daughter, a kindergartener. “They’ve gained my trust to the level of, I don’t even think about it anymore.”

The impact on academics

Earlier this year, Grafton saw his daughter’s first report card. She was performing well in every subject, and teachers noted that she was a pleasure to have in class, but there was a note that said she was quiet and not as engaged during group activities.

Grafton quickly sought out her teachers, asking for more information and how he could help her improve. He came back with strategies he could use at home to make his daughter more comfortable in groups.

“That as a parent was something that I could take back and use,” Grafton said.

That kind of feedback loop has become the norm at Stevenson, and it’s a major part of the school’s academic improvement effort, Hickman said.

The early results of the school’s embrace of parent involvement and the community schools model are promising.

From 2022 to 2023, Stevenson saw a 14-percentage-point increase in the portion of 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students scoring proficient or better in reading on Michigan’s standardized test, state data show. In math, the school saw a 5-percentage-point jump in proficiency.

More students also tested proficient in reading and math in 2022-23 than in 2018-19, the last full year prior to the pandemic and before the start of the community schools model.

But most of the school’s students still fall below state proficiency standards. In 2022-23, 42.3 percent of the school’s 3rd grade students were advanced or proficient in reading on Michigan’s standardized tests while 20.5 percent were in math, according to the state education department. Stevenson students slightly outperformed their peers statewide in reading, with 40.9 percent of Michigan 3rd graders proficient or advanced, but fell well short of statewide scores in math, in which 42.9 percent of 3rd graders were proficient or advanced.

The school has brought on tutors—volunteers from the adjacent Young Israel of Southfield synagogue come to the school three times a week to tutor students in reading—and invested in after-school activities to help students catch up. Staff have also hosted meetings and webinars for parents on the importance of strong attendance and avoiding tardiness.

It’s been especially helpful to have the parent resource room and the United Way’s support, as being able to provide resources to families eases the conversations school staff have with parents about student performance, said Gaddis, the literacy coach.

“We’re able to say, what do you need? And then, how can we help you with your child? What can we do to encourage you to read with your child?” she said.

In some cases, parents themselves struggle with reading comprehension, Gaddis said, and the school can connect them with literacy classes.

Teachers use platforms like ClassDojo, Clever, and Remind to message parents throughout the day with pictures of class lessons, information about projects, and tools to help parents practice with students at home.

Stevenson teachers are quick to admit that it’s a lot of work. Often they come home exhausted from the day, and it’s difficult to keep up with all parents. But they’ve found the strategy rewarding, many said. Students are performing better, and parents are engaged.

“When you are teaching a student, it doesn’t just happen in these four walls,” said Catherine Hamilton, a 5th grade science teacher. “It happens at home. The closer that connection is between the parents as well as the teacher, that student is going to benefit from that.”

The challenge of sustainability

Land, the community schools coordinator, is deeply connected to Stevenson. The Ira Land Health Center that serves students is named for her son, a pharmacist who died in a car crash in 2022. She says Hickman and her colleagues were integral to her grieving process. Now, when she sees his name on the clinic’s door, she feels proud.

“Most people don’t get that every day to come to work and see your son’s name and to know that the work is being done,” Land said.

But Land isn’t entirely sure that she’ll be able to keep working in her current position. Stevenson’s United Way grant expires in 2025, and that money pays for a third of Land’s salary.

Hickman and Land are reaching out to potential donors for grants and other partnership opportunities to ensure the community schools work continues after the United Way grant ends.

“When people are at home on breaks, we’re working,” Hickman said. “We’re trying to stay ahead of this thing.”

Sustainability is a key challenge for community schools like Stevenson, Rollins said. Funding comes and goes, and school leaders have to figure out how to keep things running.

President Joe Biden’s administration has tried to shore up more federal funding for community schools. In 2022, Biden proposed increasing funding for community schools grants—which provide startup and operational funding—from $25 million to $438 million. That budget didn’t pass, but the administration has managed to add about $125 million since 2021.

Biden proposed a $50 million bump for the program, bringing the total to $200 million, in his 2025 budget proposal that’s pending in Congress.

In Southfield, Martin-Green, the superintendent, hopes to build off Stevenson’s experience and transform each of the district’s 13 schools into a community school. The district is committed to finding the resources for that work, she said.

Even if funding goes away, Stevenson’s commitment to parent and family engagement won’t, Hickman said. Now, it’s built into the school’s culture, from pickups and dropoffs to field trips and after-school programs.

“If you don’t build relationships with parents, how could you ever do this work?” Hickman said. “There’s no way.”

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