Escambia County Public Schools is working to close the achievement gap for students living in underserved communities by launching the school district’s third Community Partnership School at Bellview Middle School.

The school was selected to take on the model in partnership with Children’s Home Society of Florida, Community Health Northwest Florida, Escambia County School District and the University of West Florida.

The school will complete the feeder pattern starting at C.A. Weis Elementary, where the model was first established locally in 2015, and ending at Pine Forest High School, where the model was established in 2022, to provide families with support from their child’s kindergarten year all the way through high school graduation.

The community partnership model not only provides students with needed support to help improve academic achievement but is designed to be an asset to the children’s families and the wider community. The model helps address issues such as hunger, homelessness, poverty, exposure to violence, mental health struggles, inadequate access to health care and more, so that students and families can focus on education.

The program is a 25-year commitment intended to have generational impact. The longer that the program is active in the school, the more trust is developed within the community, organizers say.

“It took a while for people to feel comfortable,” Lindsey Cannon, executive director of Children’s Home Society, said of starting the initial partnership with C.A. Weis Elementary School. “They didn’t know what we were doing, they didn’t know if we were going to stay.”

Soon, they saw the tides turn as people felt comfortable enough to come forward with their needs. The same happened when the program was brought to Pine Forest High School, only a little quicker. The clinic was filled with more need than there were hours in the day.

Not only were families at both schools getting their needs met, whether it be from mental healthcare, to safe areas for play or after school programs, but the academic progress was showing too.

Now, integrating the model into Bellview Middle School will help with closing the achievement gap for underserved children and help provide them with the resources they need for school, and for life after.

What is a community partnership school?

Florida’s Community Partnership Schools model began in an Orlando High School in 2012 and has expanded to over 40 schools statewide. Bellview Middle School marks three in Escambia County, with the potential for more.

The model requires four community partners − a school district, a health care provider, a nonprofit organization and a college or university − that all commit 25 years to serving the school and community.

The major goal of the program is to take away the barriers to student learning, such as food insecurity, poverty, inadequate access to affordable healthcare, behavioral health services and heightened rates of violence and crime.

Each year, the state allocates grant funds, with the Children’s Home Society of Florida receiving $80,000 to start, with increases over time.

How do leaders decide what goes into a community partnership school?

There’s no one-size-fits all model for each school, as the program is built around that school’s unique needs. And more importantly, what the parents and students would like to see, according to Cannon. This starts with a community needs assessment.

For C.A. Weis, parents’ said their top two needs were access to health care and a safe place for their children to play.

By establishing a clinic right on the C.A. Weis campus, parents were able to have an important resource in their own neighborhood, a playground and running track for the community to utilize.

This will look different for every school, and Cannon said she is eager to see what the Bellview Middle results will reveal.

“These are the kind of things we’ll look at at Bellview too, we’ll ask the same kinds of questions,” Cannon said. “What the parents really want to see is opportunities for their families and for their kids.”

What are Bellview Middle School’s challenges?

Bellview Middle School has a history of challenges aside from academics, with 100% of students deemed economically disadvantaged by the state for the 2022-2023 school year. The state also monitors the number of “experienced” teachers at Title 1 schools, meaning teaching more than four years. What they found is Bellview Middle has averaged about 11% fewer experienced teachers over a four-year period than the state’s typical Title 1 school.

Since 2017, Bellview has hovered at between 20%-40% below the state average in students who are at or above satisfactory test levels across four subject areas. In the latest round of school grades, Bellview Middle received a D.

The Community Partnership Model hopes to address these differences over time to offer equitable opportunities for all students.

Are Escambia County’s existing community partnership schools seeing success?

Although the model has only been in Escambia County for less than 10 years, the Children’s Home Society has collected data on the improvements that have occurred once some of the barriers have been removed.

At C.A. Weis, the percentage of students making learning gains in reading is 8% higher than the school district’s average and 7% higher in math.

Discipline referrals dropped over 90% between 2016-2020, and out of school suspensions have decreased by 94% since 2016.

At Pine Forest High School, the students enrolled in the school’s positive behavior program went from 40 to over 600 since the model began, according to Cannon.

Will there be more Community Partnership Schools in Escambia County?

District 1 Escambia County School Board Member Kevin Adams has been advocating to bring the model to ECPS for the past six years, even bringing his ideas to former Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, who filled the position before Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr.

He said the district is filled with “haves” and “have-nots,” with students who are living in poverty and high crime. However, the model can provide equitable opportunities to fill the gaps, he said.

“It’s the only program I see that works,” Adams said. “In my opinion, I wish we had the Community Partnership School for every low-performing school in Escambia County.”

He said the program is considered effective because it is “bringing everything together” a child may need in order to see academic success. Adams said he has not only monitored the progress in Escambia County since the model has been implemented, but has seen its success mirrored across the state.

Cannon said that the matter of adding more schools is dependent on funding by the legislature and whether they are able to secure the allocation they need to bring the model to more schools.

For the past funding round, Bellview Middle was prioritized over other schools in the state because it completed the feeder pattern.

It is also a laborious task implementing the model, since the certification process alone requires three to five years, and the model is committed to staying for 25.

“It’s the hardest, best thing I’ve worked on in my career,” Cannon said.

Interim ECPS Superintendent Keith Leonard said in a statement that the district is excited for the opportunity.

“The addition of Bellview Middle School to our Community Partnership schools will provide or students, families and the entire community surrounding Bellview Middle with wrap-around services second to none,” Leonard wrote.

Originally posted by Pensacola News Journal

By Brittany Misencik