As kids head back to school, Flint moves forward with community education

Mott grants $1.3 million to expand initiative to three more schools

A woman sitting behind a desk talks to a young boy.
Increased connections between invested adults and children are critical to the success of Flint’s community school initiative. Photo: Adam Stoltman

As the school year begins, change is in the air for some students and staff in Flint, Michigan. The district is working with the Crim Fitness Foundation and other partners to expand its new community education initiative to three more elementary schools.

A school district with a long and celebrated history of using its public school buildings as neighborhood centers, the Flint Board of Education’s “new” model of community education celebrates that heritage, but this time around, is trying to set a more sustainable path. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation will provide financial support, granting the Crim $1.3 million to build upon last year’s pilot initiative at Brownell-Holmes STEM Academy, a two-school campus serving 800 elementary students.

Initiated at the request of then Interim Superintendent Larry Watkins, who approached the Mott Foundation in early 2013 to discuss the many challenges facing the district, the idea of “reimagining” Flint’s community education program became a reality in the 2014-2015 academic year. The Foundation supported the pilot effort with a grant of $330,000 to the Crim.

A Flint-based nonprofit created to encourage area residents to lead a healthy lifestyle by incorporating physical activity, healthy eating and mindfulness in their daily lives, the Crim was tapped as the lead partner because of its reputation for collaboration, its bottom-up and top-down approach to community challenges, and its focus on steady, long-term change.

“We recruited more than 30 public- and private-sector partners who were ready to get to work,” said Gerry Myers, chief executive officer for the Crim. “And together, we got our first community schools in Flint up and running.

“That’s what we set out to accomplish in our pilot year.”

Year two should be even more productive, says Myers, as the Crim and the district launch community schools at Durant-Tuuri-Mott, Eisenhower and Potter elementary schools.

Everyone agreed, however, that the pilot year was an eye-opener.

“I had a front-row seat as community education was introduced at the campus,” said Kerry Downs, a veteran science teacher at Brownell-Holmes who will serve as its community school director for the coming year.

“For us, the Crim staff was the help we prayed for, but when it arrived, we weren’t sure what to do with it. It’s incredibly valuable to have a team of people willing to work alongside you, to collaborate and problem-solve with you,” she continued. “But it takes a while to figure out how that will happen.”

“It takes a significant amount of time to set up a program,” said Lauren Holaly-Zembo, the Crim’s vice president/ community schools coordinator. “But it’s time spent well. We want this to be a true partnership — and that’s a delicate process. It takes a while to build trust. We’re learning together how to make this work.”

Change is always a challenge

In the pilot year at Brownell-Holmes, it took the Crim a few months just to get the lay of the land — getting to know the teachers, staff and parents, figuring out what agencies were already working there and understanding what the biggest challenges might be. One of the most important goals, said Myers, was demonstrating that the Crim was there to help.

The Brownell-Holmes STEM Expo and Open House offered family fun with a purpose — linking children and parents with activities that reduce learning loss over the summer months.
The Brownell-Holmes STEM Expo and Open House offered family fun with a purpose — linking children and parents with activities that reduce learning loss over the summer months.
Photo: Adam Stoltman

“Every single day, I walked into school greeted by the smiling faces of the Crim staff,” said Downs. “They were there, working with the children before class, doing yoga or leading walking clubs.

“Those connections, the relationships we were building — it all started to make sense to me. I think most classroom teachers are very knowledgeable about their students’ needs, but there’s just not enough time in the day to meet them.

“By stepping in to fill some of those gaps, the community school staff has given the teachers more time to focus on instruction — which makes it easier for the kids to learn.”

It was Principal Anna Johnson who helped set the tone for collaboration, said Downs.

“Anna looks at everyone in the buildings as family — a family with a common purpose. The before- and after-school services are powerful, but it’s the increased connection between invested adults and the children that is going to improve our chance of success.”

“The pilot was so valuable,” said Jennifer Burger, an AmeriCorps service member assigned to Brownell-Holmes through the Crim. “It was one of the most positive experiences of my life. We’ve been able to see how community education can be a transformational experience for a school. We’ve learned so much.”

Those lessons will be applied in year two — at Brownell-Holmes and the three other schools that will now take part in the program. More helping hands will be available as 30 new AmeriCorps service members — trained during the summer at the Crim’s community school “boot camp” — are assigned to one of the four sites.

The extra manpower will come in handy as the Crim conducts community needs assessments at each site and coordinates with staff to plan services and activities for the new school year.

In it for the long haul

As the community school model takes root and expands, the district and the Crim hope the additional resources available for children and families will begin to help reduce absenteeism, improve academic achievement and parent participation, improve students’ health, and boost graduation rates and college enrollment.

“Those are long-term goals,” said Myers. In the interim, the Crim is looking to measure progress through smaller, more immediate changes.

New AmeriCorps service members, trained during the summer at the Crim’s community school “boot camp,” are introduced to mindfulness techniques that help deepen self-awareness, reduce stress and increase well-being.
New AmeriCorps service members, trained during the summer at the Crim’s community school “boot camp,” are introduced to mindfulness techniques that help deepen self-awareness, reduce stress and increase well-being.
Photo: Cristina Wright

“Initially, we’ll be looking to see if our programming promotes a stronger attachment to school, reduces depression and anxiety, leads to less conflict and increases cooperation among the kids.”

For Downs and the other new community school directors, a first step in realizing those goals will be “unpacking” them to determine what can realistically be accomplished — and measured — each year.

“This has got to happen for our children,” she said of the community school’s push to promote every child to the next grade prepared to succeed and — ultimately — to graduate.

To sustain those goals, it is critical that parents and community members are welcomed into the schools and “empowered” to keep the work going, she said.

“As we approach the new school year, we’re telling our AmeriCorps members that their task is to duplicate themselves — to find a parent or community member to replace them after their term of service is done.”

Behaviors will start to change only when everyone — teachers, parents, community members and particularly students — feel that they are valued, appreciated and respected, said Downs.

“That sense of belonging is extremely powerful,” she said.

And that is the “genius” of community education, said Burger.

“There already were many good things in place at the school when we arrived,” she said. “Harnessing that power, taking hold of the talents and unique ideas that are present in each school and its neighborhoods, it can change the dynamics of a community.”