'Community School' Concept Takes Root in Florida

Aug 10, 2015

Evans High School in Orange County used to be known as a dropout factory. But since 2007, it's gone from a double-F to a B school - in one of Orlando's most troubled neighborhoods. Now, the "community school" concept is spreading to other Florida cities.

Evans High School is in a neighborhood called Pine Hills, where homes and businesses have bars at the windows. One student, found carrying a Taser, said it was due to her dangerous route home. The neighborhood has exceptionally high rates of juvenile crime and referrals to the Florida Department of Children and Families.

"We have long said at the Department of Children and Families that if we're ever going to get our arms around neglect and abuse, it has to be a community-wide effort."

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll. He says Evans has succeeded by becoming what's called a "community school" -- addressing the barriers to student success in a high-risk neighborhood.

"Everything from getting a child to school when they need to be there to making sure they're fed when they arrive at school to making sure it's safe going back and forth to school. If there are issues at home that may impact the child's ability to learn when they get to school, that there's assistance to do that…"

And Evans has shown that the strategy works. From a 50-percent graduation rate in 2007, the school now graduates 80 percent. From an enrollment of 1600, it's now more than 2400. The secret? Evans principal Jenny Gibson-Linkh says it's understanding what keeps students from arriving at school ready to learn.

Like abscessed teeth.

"We're talking about diabetes, we're talking about, you know, students who can't afford insulin, who aren't taking insulin on a regular basis, whose sugar is up and down all the time. You're talking about students who aren't eating on a regular basis, so they've having difficulties with high blood pressure."

Evans is the first a community school in the state, spear-headed by the University of Central Florida, the Orange County Public Schools and the Children's Home Society. The school offers health care, dental care and mental-health care. There's a huge demand for counseling, says Jarvis Wheeler, director of the community school, and the counselors push their caseloads to meet it.

"A lot of times, our mental-health counselors, they're seeing members in the community that they couldn't let go of their caseload, or they're seeing some of the parents, or they even have groups."

Evans also serves dinner and keeps pantries stocked with healthy snacks. Working with Second Harvest, the school offers classes in preparing nutritious meals --- which students can then take home. And Dave Bundy, director of UCF's Center for Community Schools and Child Welfare Innovation, says food was a big factor in getting the tutoring program off the ground.

"We weren't getting the attendance we had hoped for, so we asked the kids and the community school counselor. They just looked at us and said, 'Feed 'em.' I said, 'What do you mean?' They said, 'Everyone here is hungry. If you have food, they're going to come to tutoring.' So we started feeding 'em, and ten times the number of kids came."

The University of Central Florida --- which has a 25-year commitment to Evans --- provides tutors for students and support for faculty. A community school starts with four key partners: a university, a school district, a health-care provider and a lead non-profit. From there, says UCF administrator Nancy Ellis, the partners may differ but the strategy is the same.

"Being very deliberate about what we're doing and why we're doing it. Making sure the partners are on board. Making sure that each step of the way, that what we're doing is most important and most applicable for the kids, and the families, and the community."

Members of the Tallahassee City Commission toured Evans in June, with an eye toward starting a community school on the city's violent south side. Commissioner Gil Ziffer says without seeing Evans, it's hard to grasp how quickly the school turned around.

"It's incredible -- but it can be done. And it's not rocket science. Food… mental health… dentistry... and overall health care helps kids learn. We can do that here."

This year the Legislature allocated $900,000 to encourage the development of community schools. Three new ones are underway: in Brevard, Escambia and Pasco counties.