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A City Education: Schools That Overcome Challenges Become Communities

What do schools that overcome challenges all have in common? They become true communities.

In our A City Education series, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the opportunity gap and ending the dropout crisis.

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy writes, "All happy families are like one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I can see some resemblance of this idea in education.

A school may face policy problems like curriculum and funding or it may struggle with larger community problems like poverty, violence and substance abuse. But the schools that overcome those challenges and are the most effective all seem to have something in common: They have a diverse group people who care enough to do whatever it takes to help that school succeed. In fact, it seems to me that the more people who have a vested interest in seeing a school succeed, the more likely it is to happen.

I work as a City Year tutor at Maynard Evans High School in Orlando. Last year, for the first time since the state began its current system—and indeed for the first time in the school’s entire history—Evans was rated a “C” school by the state of Florida. The rating system is based on score from Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test. Just before Christmas break a month ago, it was announced that Evans was a “B” school. It should be said that I had never been to Evans before this year and thus I don’t feel qualified to describe the school’s history as either failing or not, although it did receive an “F” grade four times between 2001 and 2007. However, it’s obvious that more students are testing at a higher level than ever before and fewer students are falling behind.

What’s the difference?

This is where it gets tricky because I don’t believe there’s a singular solution. But there is a story at Evans that I see as a game a changer.

Amy Ellis, a senior administrator and an essential person in the day-to-day partnership between City Year and the school’s administration gave me some insight into the innovation happening on our campus, the Evans Community School. The Evans Community School is a part of Evans High School, but there aren't classes taught there. It's a place for the non-academic resources at Evans, complete with MDs, psychologists, and much-needed outreach programs.

Ms. Ellis explained that in 2008 the University of Central Florida approached the Children's Home Society and Evans' then-principal, David Christiansen, with the idea of starting a new partnership between public and private community entrepreneurs that would be located at Evans. The inspiration to have a high school serve as a hub for the varied community needs was based on a similar program developed by the New York's Children's Aid Society.

It was an opportune time since Evans was in the midst of creating a new campus that would allow for enough space to house the community school. It was a perfect fit and perfect timing. "Our students need more than just an academic institution to help them grow, thrive, and become healthy and successful," Ms. Ellis said. "My hope for our students is that they'll learn the tools necessary for personal long-term success—not just in school, but also in relationships, society, and every other aspect of their lives."

The idea blossomed as hoped and the school started more partnerships with private institutions like JPMorgan Chase, who's the founding funder of the community school, Disney, and non-profit organizations like the Heart of Florida United Way, AmeriCorps VISTA, several donors for an on-campus food bank, and City Year. Last October with students, parents, and dozens of civic partners in attendance, the Evans Community School held its official grand opening.

Even though the community school didn't officially open until October, it was serving students at the start of 2012, but more importantly Evans was able to use the promise of the new community school and the new campus to provide a new starting point for a school that had been struggling mightily. It changed something by creating a more positive school environment and adding the needed extracurricular resources.

However, there's still a need and an opportunity to expand. Ms. Ellis recently shared with me news that the community school had received a $500,000 federal grant to open a first-of-its-kind "health cottage" with on-site physicians, nurses, and psychologists that would serve the needs of the entire student body and faculty at Evans. The goal is to open the health cottage in August this year.

What does all of this mean? Obviously it doesn't mean perfection or that the need of every student on campus is successfully being met yet. However, to be at Evans, inside the community hub, it feels like a haven. The positivity and the potential of the people there make the present and future effectiveness inevitable in my mind.

Painted on the wall of the hub is a quote that says "Our vision: The Evans Community School is an international model for high performance and the heart of a thriving, engaged community where students achieve maximum potential and lifelong prosperity." I see my service at Evans as being even more valuable and worthwhile because the number of partnerships and people invested in the well-being of Evans High School makes change more sustainable. I'm lucky because I'm not just one tutor trying to change the world. I'm truly working at a school on the rise that will succeed because of the hard work of many.

Click here to add getting involved as an Evans Community School volunteer, service provider, or donor to your GOOD "to-do" list.

City Year corps members with Principal Ellis photo courtesy of City Year Orlando

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