When John Williams walks down the hall at West Junior High, he refers to students by name, picking up on conversations from the last time they saw each other, making plans for their free period, and offering up a quick fist bump. He has a relationship with students that is built on a mutual respect and love for each other.
Williams works for Change Equals Opportunity (CEO), an organization focused on mentorship for youth of color. He was attracted to West Junior High in particular because CEO’s mission aligns seamlessly with the goals and beliefs of a community school.
In January 2022, West was awarded a Full Service Community School grant through the Minnesota Department of Education. As a community school, West partners with local organizations and businesses to provide a range of services and programs beyond traditional academic instruction.
Community Schools are built on four pillars: collaborative leadership, family engagement, learning enrichment, and integrated services. These services include vision, healthcare, mental health, a barber shop, and even a food shelf where families can pick up essential items.
The convenience of having services accessible within the school building means families don't need to leave or miss a work day to transport a child to an appointment. It also ensures that students aren’t missing a part of their school day that could be integral to their academic success.
“The community school model is ensuring that our students feel like whole people and that they are able to enter this space feeling equal to their peers regardless of their circumstances outside this building,” said Leanne Kampfe, principal of West Junior High.
One thing that separates a community school from a traditional school model is the collaborative leadership and family engagement efforts. Community schools prioritize meaningful relationships not only with students but also with their families. By engaging with families outside of an academic setting through school events, staff and caregivers can get to know each other on a deeper level and will be better prepared to partner in their child’s education. In that way, administrators co-create decisions with families so they feel welcomed and valued as partners.
“It’s opening the doors to a different way of operating the school where it’s not only the principal making all the decisions,” Kampfe said.
Providing students with real-world experiences
Through partnering with local organizations like CEO, West can offer opportunities to make learning more relevant and help students build connections that will open the door to future opportunities.
“We try to expose kids to different opportunities within their life and within their world that they might not be exposed to,” Williams said.
Williams uses many methods to enhance the lives of students including a Black History Month Speaker Series in which successful adults were brought in to inspire students and open their minds to being a part of exciting opportunities available to them.
Additionally, through a grant with Hopkins Education Foundation, Williams will be co-creating a podcast with students called “We are WJH.” Students will use real podcasting equipment and learn the process of producing a podcast.
CEO has brought an abundance of opportunities to West Junior High students and it is a major component of a community school offering. Principal Kampfe said providing opportunities that connect students to the real world can have big impacts.
Another partnership with We Share Solar gave students hands-on experience building solar-powered suitcases, used as generators, for communities in Kenya. Students built the solar suitcases last year and were recently notified that they were delivered to schools and community centers to ensure access to electricity.
“The solar suitcase event was such a beautiful example of how the community and kids came together to do this thing that impacted people on the other side of the world,” Kampfe said.
Investing in a community school
Community schools have staff dedicated to their growth and development. Lindsey Leseman is the community school coordinator at West. Her role is integral to the success of the operation. She is the person on the ground building relationships, partnering with organizations, and creating the space for the school to thrive. Leseman is committed to fostering these partnerships because she believes in the mission and overall goals of a community school.
“Access to basic needs and services create better academic outcomes for kids,” Leseman said.
While West has made significant progress, it can take 3-5 years to fully implement a responsive community school and for improvements in student outcomes to show up in measurable ways. There is momentum building for the cause, however, funding may run out before the program can reach its full potential so staff are seeking additional grants and resources to help.
Kampfe said that West is just starting to see the benefits of this transition to a community school and expects that to increase. Several students who didn’t feel connected to school before are now walking through the halls with big smiles on their faces. She hopes to see the community school services grow so that it can continue to serve students and families in a positive way.
“We’ve seen gains, but there are far greater gains if we continue to invest in our kids,” Kampfe said.