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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 1, September 2006

Community school teams: A made-in-Vancouver success story

by Yvonne Eamor

A ground-breaking Vancouver initiative aimed at refining the community schools concept has caught the attention of school districts as far away as Quebec.

And for good reason—it’s helping keep kids on the right track at a time when the federal government is toying with the idea of jailing 10- and 11-year-olds with its proposal to expand the age of criminal responsibility.

Community School Teams (CSTs) have proven to be the success the COPE-led Vancouver School Board (VSB) envisioned when the initiative debuted in the 2004–05 school year. In that first year alone, CSTs co-ordinated or managed more than 1,600 programs for 55,000 students, and they helped improve the literacy and social responsibility of students who needed the extra helping hand. That’s pretty impressive stuff for an initiative that had no map and no blueprint—only enthusiasm and a burning desire to serve typical and vulnerable children.

This innovative program grew from a VSB concept to bring school and community members closer together by revamping its community school model to offer more resources and outreach for the city’s vulnerable students, and to maximize the way it utilizes CommunityLINK funding. The result has been a made-in-Vancouver success story.

Community School Teams’ Co-ordinator and former Vancouver principal, Dan Marriott, says the CSTs are not focused on one school, but on a family of schools, which allows team members to reach more students, and helps develop the neighborhood school as a key component of a community. "Vancouver used to have 10 or 11 community schools but they weren’t necessarily situated in locations that served vulnerable children. The VSB shifted that focus so that community schools became more targeted, and more partnerships were created in the community."

The board formed a dozen CSTs and chose one secondary school to serve as a hub for its neighboring elementary schools. Each team has a co-ordinator, a teacher, and a youth and family worker. "These team members are mobile," says Marriott, "on a Monday morning the teacher could be with a Grade 5 class writing poetry and then teaching study skills for seventh graders in the afternoon and on Tuesday, it’s off to another school where they might work with a small group of kids or they could co-teach. The youth and family worker might run a ‘demons and dragons’ group to talk about kids and their problems. The team co-ordinator might be meeting with community partners." Essentially, the CSTs become part of several schools.

The teams work year-round, and during breaks in the school year, part-timers are hired to offer numerous recreational programs for neighborhood kids.

Marriott says while the focus of the CSTs and their various programs is vulnerable kids, any student can utilize what CSTs have to offer. "We run targeted and non-targeted programs. Within those programs, we know we have a set of vulnerable kids in there, but we don’t want to separate them. We want the mixture, we need the mixture of kids for role modelling. We want high-risk kids to be part of a group they’d not normally associate with during the year."

Marriott says such inclusion helps "let these kids be just ordinary kids in the neighbourhood. We don’t want them separated and forming cliques or gangs and we don’t want them to be alone. And we don’t want that disconnect you get with really high-risk students. We want them to be part of the community."

Marriott says it’s been documented that youth as young as 10 can have characteristics that indicate they are vulnerable to dropping out of school. "Dropping out of school is not an event," says Marriott, "it’s a series of events. Our teams help keep kids in school, help them stay connected, and help their parents stay connected. It all has to help keep the kids on track."

While CSTs spend time with kids during school hours, the teams are arguably most successful after school—when at-risk kids are most vulnerable. "Almost all our hubs have hired a part-time programmer who is busy from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. running after school programs," says Marriott. "It could be a homework program, or a recreational activity ranging from basketweaving to piano lessons to baseball. The key is to keep them involved with a quality experience after school."

Marriott says the teams have found that if they can capture kids in the "soft time" between after school and after work—when parents return home—they’ve accomplished a couple of things. "They’ve created a huge connection with the school as the centre of the community, the parents and the kids feel that. And, they’ve taken the kids out of harm’s way by ensuring they’re not influenced by negative factors."

Heading into the third year of operations, Marriott says the results have been terrific. "We’ve managed to put resources where they had not been before. Our informal results show a 37% growth in literacy in the kids who fall under our umbrella, and an improvement of about 55% in social responsibility. This model works very effectively."

A researcher has been hired to compile detailed data to determine just how successful and valuable the CSTs have become to the district.

The only downside, says Marriott, is there are more kids than staff. "We have 42 staff members to handle the city’s 4,000 vulnerable kids. The notion of who is vulnerable is difficult so basically, the work we’re doing has no limits."

He suggests that CSTs may have to become more selective about the programs they offer to ensure programs remain high quality. "And probably, we could target populations that have not been targeted before and have a bigger, more comprehensive impact on our neighborhoods."

Marriott estimates BC’s CommunityLINK funding comprises barely 1% of the province’s total education budget. "We receive about $3 million from CommunityLINK, so the impact of that 1% is considerable. I believe the province is getting a pretty good bang for its buck."

Marriott says there is one thing with which CSTs can’t help: poverty. "Many vulnerability issues stem from poverty and while we can’t mitigate poverty, we can improve the chances of getting a good education. And if there’s something going on that can help these kids, we’re going to try to get it to them."

That’s a pretty good model for other districts, like those in Quebec, to emulate.

Yvonne Eamor is the BCTF’s media relations officer.

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