The Commonwealth’s Secretary of Education, Pedro S. Rivera, stopped by Lebanon Middle School Friday morning to applaud the Lebanon School District for partnering with the United Way of Lebanon County on the transformation of two of its schools into community schools.

Northwest Elementary School and Lebanon Middle School are the first two schools in the district to receive this designation. Both schools will have additional staff and specialized programs to change the schools into community-focused structures.

“I’m here to celebrate this opportunity with you; this is the culmination of a lot of work over two years by the administration, the school board, the United Way community and others outside of the city who have been actively engaged and involved in making this happen,” Rivera said.

The community schools movement is a national program aimed at integrating the community and students’ families with the school.

Rivera participated in a ceremonial ribbon cutting inside the auditorium of the middle school with local county and school officials and a handful of students to officially launch the initiative.

Rivera participated in a ceremonial ribbon cutting along with Lebanon School District administrators and students. (Provided photo)

The goal of the community schools movement is to bring schools closer to their communities by placing other services there that can be accessed outside of normal school hours, with community schools often having activities and services available on weekends and evenings.

In some ways, the contemporary school will become much the same as the little one-room schoolhouse of the turn of the century, when many community activities were held in the school building.

In Pennsylvania, community schools already exist at school districts in Philadelphia, Erie, Allentown, and Bethlehem.

Community schools are recognized as having realized improved academic performance, increased student attendance and less truancy, and improved family participation, which leads to higher graduation rates.

Because the United Way is asking for donations to help the program get up and running, Rivera said some folks may ask why they should invest in this project.

Rivera noted that some may ask, “Why should we as a community, care about this?”

Rivera proceeded to explain the importance of community schools to a child’s future.

The life of a student growing up and going to school is a journey, he continued. Community schools will help that journey be more pleasant, safe, and stable, and students will be more sure of their own success.

He told the audience of about 100 people of his own personal journey as an educator.

When Rivera was an administrator in a Philadelphia school, he helped students purchase laundry cards so they could have clean clothes.

Rivera found transportation cards for the students so they could get to school and also made sure they were able to buy food.

Rivera said he knew of other teachers who reached into their pockets to help their students financially.

Not all students have access to the things they need, Rivera said.

“We (teachers and staff) knew that if we couldn’t reach the students’ holistic needs, we wouldn’t be able to reach them as educators,” Rivera said.

Later, as a superintendent, Rivera got the chance to initiate a community school in his district, and at the time, people asked why they should invest in that particular teaching strategy, he said.

Read More at The Notebook: Community schools movement has a supporter in Pa. ed chief

“Urban high schools can be very positive places, but when they don’t have access to resources, when needs aren’t met, they can absolutely deplete the resources of the community,” Rivera said. “By helping students now, by making these investments in a comprehensive and caring manner, it’s creating a model where schools and communities work together to serve the most vulnerable.”

At the state level, community schools are overseen by an advisory council Rivera said. The concept is garnering plenty of national attention, Rivera said, adding that everyone is taking notice.

“People running for president are asking ‘how can we help community schools?’,” Rivera said.

Breaking down systemic barriers by bringing resources to where families will be able to access them is another positive aspect of community schools, Rivera said.

“When done right, what we’re seeing with the community schools model is that it not only provides opportunities and resources for kids in school, it brings resources to our communities, where and when they need them,” Rivera said. “This is the start of a program of extreme value to the whole community.”

County Commissioner Bill Ames attended the presentation.

Lebanon County Commissioner Bill Ames addresses guests while United Way of Lebanon County director of community development Deirdre Carmichael (left) and Lebanon School District Superintendent Dr. Arthur Abrom and United Way of Lebanon County CEO Brooke Smith (right) watch. (Provided photo)

“This is a new partnership between the community and the Lebanon School District and I’m sure other school districts will be joining,” Ames said. “I’m here to recognize this new venture.”

Brooke Smith, CEO of the United Way of Lebanon County, also addressed the crowd.

“We want to celebrate this awesome project because we believe every student should have the chance to succeed,” Smith said. “They need hope, support, and the tools they need to be the best versions of themselves.”

Smith thanked WellSpan for sponsoring Friday’s event.

One of the goals with community schools initiative at Northwest will be to have all students reading at grade level by the time they reach third grade.

That is one indication of success in their education, Smith said.

“We provide safety net services, but that’s a band-aid, and we hope they won’t need that, that we can help the next generation to be more resourceful and more secure,” Smith said.

Smith also introduced the audience to a “text to give” app, sponsored by Fulton Bank.

Members of the audience could start a new text message, text to “91999,” and type in “success4kids,” then add a dollar amount and their name, send that message and get a link to complete their donation to the United Way.

The United Way of Lebanon County has created an easy way to donate to the community schools movement—just text “success4kids” to 91999 and you’ll receive a personalized link to complete your donation. The text interface was sponsored by Fulton Bank.

“You have the power to change the narrative of a child today,” Smith said. “It takes people who have a dream and a vision to change the narrative.”

Dr. Arthur Abrom, superintendent of the Lebanon School District, called community schools “an incredibly worthwhile collective impact opportunity.”

“As an investment, we know helping them (students) now will result in lower costs later in life,” Abrom said. “This opportunity is worthwhile, both for the city and the county.”

Neil Young, principal of Northwest Elementary School, one of the new community schools, said he was pleased that the school would be partnering with the community to address the needs of the students.

“It is very much a journey and we’re in the early stages of that journey right now, but we are going in the right direction,” Young said.

Dawn Connelly, principal of the Lebanon Middle School, said they are still in the process of assessing needs.

“The need is enormous and we need the community to help us out,” Connelly said. “Our kids are great and we want to show them that they mean a lot to us.”

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