Quevette Terrell (Bottom row, fourth from right) and her F.O.R.C.E. dance crew performs throughout Austin.
Quevette Terrell frequently tells her students that “it doesn’t matter where you start in life, it matters where you finish.” Their own school serves as an ideal example. Once the lowest performing school in the district, and on the brink of closure, Walter P. Webb Middle School is now the highest performing Title 1 middle school in Austin, Texas.
Terrell, known at Webb as Coach Terrell, is the head of the Physical Education department and has taught and coached at Webb for 13 years. She’s been there during the hard times, like when the school faced closure in 2007. Test scores were at the bottom of the district. The graduation rate was just 48 percent, and students disappeared from classes during the middle of the year as their low- wage earning and non-English-speaking parents scrambled to find work in other parts of the state.
But Terrell was also there to see the community band together to support the school and keep it from closing. According to her, the members of the community are responsible for the school’s success and Webb Middle School is now officially a “Community School.”
“In a community school model like ours, different organizations come together to support the students and their families,” she says. “We have organizations like United Way, Safe Place, Boys and Girls Club, Breakthrough Austin, and others who collectively take an active role in helping our kids succeed, and that has made the biggest difference—all the difference.”
A Community Comes Together
In 2007, the superintendent of Austin public schools held a meeting to inform students, parents, teachers, and community members that Webb Middle School would close and students would be sent to two other middle schools in the district, both of which were also struggling academically. Hundreds of people packed the Webb cafeteria for the meeting, and a steady stream of parents, students, and teachers came forward to demand that the school remain open. Low test scores, they insisted, were a symptom of much bigger problems facing the school and its students. Closing the school and forcing students to other schools would only punish them, and allow the same societal problems to follow students into their new schools. Eventually, opponents of the plan argued, those schools would share the same fate.
The problems facing Webb mirror those facing many low-income urban schools—things like poverty, unstable home lives, lack of health care, transience, and language barriers.
Most Webb parents are native Spanish speakers and work as construction workers, day laborers, and housecleaners. Few attended high school and because many hold low-wage service industry jobs with little stability, the school had an extremely high mobility rate—before Webb became a community school, it was common for about 25 percent of students who began the school year to leave before the end of the year.
To address mobility, attendance, and other needs intrinsic to the students’ environment, community activists, teachers, and parents developed a plan to turn the school around using the community schools model. The model calls on local organizations to rally around a school and offer social services to students and their families.
“Whether it be mentoring, wraparound services for families, or direct counseling, someone is stepping in to fill that gap,” say Raul Sanchez, principal of Webb Middle School. “The partners and the services they provide then allow teachers to focus on what they do best. And that is to teach, to develop, and plan lessons that matter.”
What is a Community School?
Public schools traditionally serve as the hub of a neighborhood or community. And, according to the Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, schools are most successful when they’re aligned with the community’s “social capital.”
A community school is designed to tap into that social capital to better serve the entire community. According to the Coalition for Community Schools, it is both “a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families, and healthier communities. Community schools offer a personalized curriculum that emphasizes real-world learning and community problem-solving. Schools become centers of the community and are open to everyone—all day, every day, evenings and weekends.”
In a community school partners work to together to ensure:
- Children are ready to enter school
- Students attend school consistently
- Students are actively involved in learning and their community
- Families are increasingly involved with their children’s education
- Schools are engaged with families and communities
- Students succeed academically
- Students are healthy—physically, socially, and emotionally
- Students live and learn in a safe, supportive, and stable environment
- Communities are desirable places to live.
It’s a lot to accomplish, but when organizations work together to make schools and communities better places to learn and live, it also boosts the local economy by attracting businesses and creating jobs.
“And it’s extremely beneficial to the kids at the school,” says Terrell. “They’re excited to see that the community has taken an interest in them, that mentors want to come in and spend time with them. When they see everyone’s on deck for their success, they will do anything they can to succeed.”
Defining and Addressing Needs
When the Webb Community School plan was being developed, the team conducted a needs assessment and found that most Webb families didn’t have medical insurance and couldn’t access health care. Students were coming to school with toothaches, unable to see the blackboard, and with emotional trauma from difficult home situations. Students’ parents and relatives were victims of violence, others were being deported, and some were in jail. Now, thanks to Webb’s health partnerships, these conditions are diagnosed and treated.
After school activities like F.O.R.C.E. help kids focus less on struggles and more on possibilities.
Partners provide the school with mental health counselors who are available to treat trauma, a major impediment to healthy living, let alone learning. The counselors also provide training to the entire school on Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL has provided teachers and others at Webb with the skills they need to identify symptoms of distress, such as acting out, which allows teachers to connect students with counselors proactively.
Students and their families also receive free immunizations and physicals, thanks to a mobile clinic that visits the school, and a community school coordinator ensures all programs are coordinated, aligned with student and community needs, and sufficient to meet those needs.
Greater participation on the school’s athletic teams was an unexpected but welcome outcome of the mobile clinic. Before its existence, few students participated in afterschool sports at Webb because the district required students to receive physicals, which most couldn’t afford.
Now, participation rates on Webb’s athletic teams have soared, and their teams are winning.
Parents are also more aware of sports and other extra-curricular activities. The school now has English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes for parents three days a week. There is also a bilingual education organizer whose job is to perform home visits and boost family and community engagement and leadership.
“This takes away a boundary that was keeping a lot of parents from being involved and feeling they had a stake in the school,” says Coach Terrell.
Creating Opportunities to Contribute
Educators also feel they have more of a stake in the school and more opportunities to contribute, Terrell says. All of the teachers and support professionals had long been asking what they could do for the kids outside of the classroom. With the community school model, there are more opportunities to make change, she says. When educators are no longer burdened by making sure their students’ basic needs are met, they are free to enrich their lives in other ways.
Terrell also says she encourages them to focus on what they can do to help others through service projects.
“Even though you may not have money, you give of your time and service,” she tells them. “I want to give them a new role to be proud of, where they can serve and lead.”
The F.O.R.C.E. students go to elementary schools to talk to kids about being drug-free and about leadership. They visit with special needs kids who have physical and learning disabilities. Soon they’ll be visiting the Children’s Hospital to “dance and bring joy and tell their stories about what they’ve been through,” Terrell says.
“It’s not one person or one program that makes a Community School work,” she says. “It’s a collective goal. It’s about everybody coming together inside and outside of the school. That’s what makes a strong community.”
Find more information on the Community Schools model at NEA.