Community learning centers foster partnerships

For Immediate Release:

May 12, 2005

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by Erin Andersen

Lincoln Journal Star

Education is not an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. process for children -- it's 24 hours a day from the sleep they get, to the meals they eat, to the support they receive at home and in the community. That's what inspired Lincoln Public Schools to create Community Learning Centers, which bring together educational and community-based programs to students, their families and others who live in the school neighborhood.

Lincoln's centers also are the model for a national Full Service Community Schools bill proposed Tuesday by Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and the House Minority Whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

Citing LPS's 19 community learning centers as examples of what works, Nelson and Hoyer unveiled their proposal to create $200 million in grants in 2006 for states and communities to create their own full-service community schools programs. The proposal requests similar federal funding through 2010.

As the bill is written, 75 percent of the federal funds will go to local grants, 20 percent to state programs and 5 percent for technical assistance and evaluation.

"Full service community schools provide more than just after-school programs," Nelson said. "Their objective is to close the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students and to foster community involvement in school improvement efforts."

LPS was one of five school systems recognized by Nelson and Hoyer as full service community schools during their joint press conference in the U.S. Capitol. Others were located in Maryland, Portland, Ore., Chicago, Ill. and Indianapolis, Ind.

Key to the full service community schools philosophy are partnerships between schools, community organizations, social service agencies and public and private businesses, Nelson said.

Earlier this school year he toured the Saratoga Lena Merrill Community Learning Center at Saratoga Elementary School.

"The combination of services it provides to students and family and the community are clearly invaluable," Nelson said in a telephone press conference Tuesday. "It brings communities together through the school. It helps schools and families succeed. Everyone wins."

LPS has centers at Saratoga, West Lincoln, Hawthorne, Holmes, Elliott, Pershing, Hartley, Huntington, Riley, Clinton, Lakeview and Everett elementary schools; and Lefler, Goodrich and Mickle middle schools.

July 1, four additional CLCs will open at Arnold, Norwood Park and McPhee elementary schools and Dawes Middle School.

Each program is unique to the school and surrounding community it serves. But each program is partnered with a community service agency such as the Lincoln YMCA, Family Service, Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department, Lincoln Housing Authority and Heartland Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

"Really, Lincoln is on the cutting edge," Cathie Petsch, Lincoln's co-coordinator of centers, said of its community learning center programs.

While many communities have programs designed to meet people's health, education and welfare, often they are scattered about the community or county, making it hard for the people who need them most to find them and use them.

Each center evaluates the needs of its school community — which includes everyone living in the neighbor, even those without children in the school. The center then finds the agencies and organizations providing the programs and brings them into the school — often layering them in such a way that parents can attend classes while their children participate in math, science and reading enrichment activities.

Dave Knudsen, principal at Saratoga Elementary School, sees these partnerships time and again at his school.

Several evenings a week, Southeast Community College teaches GED classes for neighborhood adults. Afterschool programs help kids with homework, special academic needs and engage them in activities that coordinate with school curricula.

Once a month, parents and children attend the center's One Family/One Book literacy program. Families are treated to dinner, a book and activities, plus families get to keep the books.

Neighborhood families can receive the services of WIC (Women Infants and Children food program) as well as food distribution from the Lincoln Food Bank and Center for People in Need at the school.

And earlier this winter, when school staff learned that a number of their students were sleeping on floors, couches or sharing twin beds with siblings, school staff and center representatives held a bed drive, garnering enough beds so every child got a bed of their own, Knudsen said.

"Probably one of the nicest benefits we are seeing is that our families who feel really comfortable with the community learning center are feeling comfortable with the school itself," Knudsen said. "It has really built a nice connection with those families."

And that connection ultimately will pay off in student achievement scores, attendance and student success, Petsch said.

"Our main goal is to improve the achievement gap in our schools. We are seeing progress," said Bill Johnston, chairman of the Lincoln Community Learning Centers Leadership Council.

"We are seeing progress," Johnston said citing data collected by University of Nebraska-Lincoln which found lower rates of truancy and student mobility among families participating in center programs.

Furthermore, Petsch said when comparing scores on district-mandated criterion reference tests "our CLC students do improvedly better over the rest of the population in their schools, and they almost sometimes match the score of the entire district."

That's what the centers are supposed to do, Johnston said — give students the support they need in, as well as out of, school, so they are ready to learn and succeed.

"Because if you come out of school and don't have the basic skills down, you're cooked," Johnston said.

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