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Community schools may be the future of education. Their funding is drying up. 

NEWPORT — Tired kids don’t do their best learning. 

So when Samantha Stevens, community schools coordinator at the North Country Supervisory Union, finds out that a student is sleeping without a bed at home, she buys them a mattress.

“On a home visit, we might discover that there are no mattresses on the bunk beds,” she said in an interview, noting the supervisory union has bought six mattresses since January. “That’s a time when we’ll be like, ‘Okay, we’re going to go to Walmart right now.’”

The money North Country uses to meet students’ immediate and basic needs comes through Vermont’s Community Schools Act, an innovative grant program that takes an expansive understanding of the role schools serve in the lives of students and their families. 

But now, amid the skyrocketing cost of education in Vermont, the future of community schools looks tenuous. As the source of the funding — federal Covid-19 aid — runs dry, lawmakers must decide whether state funding should be dedicated to keep the community schools grants alive. 

In 2021, the Legislature passed Act 67, also called the Community Schools Act. The competitive three-year pilot project was endowed with about $3.4 million in federal funds and overseen by the state Agency of Education. 

The money supported five recipients — Vergennes Elementary School, Cabot School, Hazen Union High School in Hardwick, the White River Valley Middle School, and the entire North Country Supervisory Union — all of which served communities with at least 40% of students meeting the income-based eligibility for free or reduced lunch.

The community schools philosophy seeks to address new challenges facing students across the country, such as increased social and behavioral needs and decreasing community connectedness. At the same time, the program acknowledges the changing role schools play in the present day, often serving as social service hubs for everything from psychiatric services to nursing and dentistry. 

The overall model is reduced to five not-so-catchy pillars: integrated student supports; expanded and enriched learning time and opportunities; active family and community engagement; collaborative leadership and practices; and safe, inclusive and equitable learning environments.

In practice, though, community schools are far less bureaucratic than they sound. Educational leaders work to get kids into school to do their best learning. Parents lack transportation? Community school leaders drive kids to school. Interested in engineering but the regular curriculum doesn’t support it? Community schools can create robotics programs after school, or place kids in internships to meet their interests. 

The framework has gained traction in urban areas such as New York City and Los Angeles, but leaders say Vermont is on the cutting edge of education by introducing community schools in a rural setting. And at a time in which the ballooning cost of public school is top of mind in Vermont, advocates point to a growing body of evidence showing that community schools provide a significant return on investment, approaching problems from a proactive rather than reactive perspective.

Now, in the final year of the grant program, the Agency of Education says the number of community schools is growing, serving more than 5,200 students in 28 different schools, up from 16. The agency has also partnered with the University of Vermont to study the effectiveness of the community schools philosophy, with the long-term goal of designing implementation guides for schools across the state.

The preliminary data is encouraging. In Hardwick, school leaders say 9th grade absenteeism is down 50% over three years. They also believe the community schools model helped them retain or attract 40 to 50 more students than they’d expect based on the broader community demographics.

But without action, the dedicated funding will dry up. In an eleventh-hour push, the House Education Committee is considering whether to appropriate $1.9 million to keep the program going. That amount is the same as what funds a specific high school completion program lawmakers are recommending be moved out of the education fund into the general fund. Thus, advocates say, the move would not create a net impact on the already overburdened education fund. 

Opponents in the committee — largely the three Republican members — don’t contest the success of the Community Schools Act. But amid education property tax increases above 20% in some towns, they say now’s not the time to spend more money. 

“I like the idea of the community schools,” Rep. Casey Toof, R-St. Albans Town, told his fellow committee members in House Education. “I just don’t like the funding part.”

Even if the funding ekes out of the divided committee, community schools face a more uncertain future before the rest of the Legislature and the governor. 

Cabot: A case study

Rebecca Tatistcheff, principal of Cabot School, which serves about 160 students, had participated in community schools work in New York City. Cabot is a rare K-12 school, and its community schools ethos “really is why I came to Cabot,” Tatistcheff said. 

Cabot, which recently survived a vote to close its high school, was among the five grant winners as part of the three-year pilot, using almost $400,000 to expand project-based learning, build out a senior internship program and increase after-school programming. 

Upward of 75% of Cabot’s 1st through 6th graders have been enrolled in the after-school programming led by older students, who are paid to contribute, according to Tatistcheff. Some of the programs, such as an after-school art class, are open to all ages, drawing in older community members, as well, she noted. 

Cabot has also used its Community Schools Act money to support project-based learning — funding field trips and paying to bring community experts into the classroom. 

The school’s philosophy allows teachers and students to cater classes to the present, or to class-specific interests. Thomas Dunbar, a science teacher, is learning alongside students about aquaponics, which combines raising fish in tanks with soilless agriculture. 

“I’ve used an aquaponics system, but I’ve never run one. I’ve never built one,” Dunbar said. “And so it is 100% like, I’m guiding (students) through it, but we are collectively doing the research.”

The style of teaching contrasts with what Dunbar called a “sage on the stage” approach. Rather than talking down to students from a place of expertise, he functions as a “project manager” and collaborator, with students themselves driving the work. 

On days in which a class project experiences a major setback, Dunbar admitted he sometimes wishes he could just teach from a textbook. But in the project-based format, students are far more engaged, he said.

“You don’t have to be the one who tells them whether or not they did well,” he said. “We’re designing an aquaponics garden as a class. We are going to know whether or not we met that goal.”

During a recent spring break, signs of students at work sprouted everywhere in Dunbar’s classroom. A rack of dayglo tie-dyed shirts hung, created by students in his chemistry of color class. Students had crafted cardboard prototypes of toys, which may ultimately reach a finalized form, showing off their physics skills. And in the center, the aquaponics tank bubbled, fish and all.  

‘I do not see another funding source’

North Country Supervisory Union, which serves more than 2,700 students in the Northeast Kingdom, was thinking like a community school long before it received a grant, Stevens, the supervisory union’s community schools coordinator, said. But the five pillars of the Community Schools Act ”reinforced a way of thinking,” among district staff, Stevens said. With the funding, North Country was able to support three staff members devoted to community schools work.

As part of her previous job, Stevens drew on federal funds devoted to helping students who fit certain criteria of homelessness. 

“There were so many kids that couldn’t access (the federal funding) because they weren’t homeless,” Stevens said. As part of her current team’s work, she focuses on the barriers preventing students from coming to school, or preventing them from doing their best learning. Oftentimes, that means meeting basic needs.

The team of three has also focused on community engagement as part of its grant work, hosting mobile after-school programming across North Country’s broad range of rural Northeast Kingdom towns. 

We’d really shut our door to community” during Covid-19, Stevens said. So North County began drawing in community members with events such as Van Go community art events — mobile arts and crafts nights — and STEAM nights, which engage families in science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The programs have targeted North Country’s more rural schools, further from area hubs such as Newport, and the nights always provide dinner, an added draw for families, Stevens noted. 

On a STEAM night in Charleston, kids and their families worked around a bonfire, learning about how different chemicals produced different color flames. While there, Stevens said she met a parent new to the community who’d driven a distance from Coventry and also happened to be a chemical engineer.

“He’s out there meeting completely brand new people,” Stevens recalled, highlighting one of the program’s goals: making connections between adults, not just their kids.

Stevens, who grew up in the district, said she’s never seen the community’s immediate needs so great. In addition to mattresses, the Community Schools money helps pay for sheets, backpacks and winter clothes for students who need them. In a resource room in North Country’s office, a large cabinet is stocked with necessities such as soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste. In the next room over, families can access a washer and dryer.

“Today, this student told me there’s nothing in the refrigerator at home,” Stevens said, so she planned to go to the food shelf or supermarket, delivering the groceries in the “least stigmatized way.”

That usually entails getting to a student’s home before they arrive and leaving groceries on the porch, she said.  

Currently, North Country’s three-person community schools office is “self-sustaining,” according to Stevens, braiding together the grant funding with other federal dollars and a congressional earmark. 

But without the grant program, Stevens said the district will lose the flexibility to meet immediate needs for students who aren’t homeless.

With a small team, if any one person devotes time to grant writing and grant reporting, the overall support work will diminish, Stevens suggested. 

And though Vermont’s education system is currently in a financial crisis, Stevens called the three-person community schools team a “remarkable” investment. The team fields calls from staff across the district, helping them troubleshoot for families trying to access services like Reach Up and 3Squares.

“If we lose Community Schools, I do not see another funding source that’s going to make that possible,” she said. 

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