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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 6

A Community School

Molly Stark School in Bennington, Vermont, offers a range of health- and family-related services that benefit the community, parents, and, most important, students.

Picture this: At 7 a.m., on her way to work, a mom walks her 1st and 3rd grade sons to a child-care center that is located at their elementary school. A few students trickle in to attend an early-morning homework group that begins at 7:30. By 8 a.m., the school-aged children are off to their classrooms, and 3- and 4-year-olds arrive to attend preschool. A short time later, parents come with their toddlers to share some fun and conversation during a play group.
One mom makes an appointment for a home visit to discuss questions that she has about her 2-year-old. On her way out, she checks out material from the lending library, which is filled with books and educational games. On certain days, children receive needed dental or medical care in nearby rooms. After school, nearly 100 kids head to the cafeteria for an after-school snack before they attend one of 20 enrichment programs. Another child meets his high school "pal" to have after-school fun. Things quiet down between 5:30 and 6:30, but soon parents arrive to attend a community leadership course facilitated by our county's parent-child center.
All these activities are part of a vision: a school that is open year-round to provide a comprehensive program of integrated education, health, and social services.

Molly Stark School

Just four years ago, this full-service school was only a vision. Since then, the vision has become a reality at Molly Stark School in Bennington, Vermont. The school community offers an array of services and opportunities with the goal of strengthening families. Strong families have a much better chance of supporting their children to become healthy, successful citizens.
Molly Stark School embraced the full-service school model by chance. Located in rural Vermont, we are a preK–6 school with 440 students. Although we have a diverse population, more than 50 percent of our students live in poverty. We discovered that making excuses and placing blame for our problems were depleting our energy and leading us nowhere. Instead, we responded to the needs of families by doing what intuitively made sense.
If a child has a chronic toothache but no access to dental care, we provide dental services. If parents are worried about their child's after-school time, we provide after-school enrichment programs. If a single mom is looking for an additional caring adult to spend quality time with her son or daughter, we find a mentor. If a family doesn't have the means to provide a child with a quality preschool experience, the child joins our preschool. If parents want to learn new skills while we provide child care, they take the basic education courses or the community college courses that our school offers.
There is no debating the significant role of good instruction. High standards, well thought-out curriculum, developmentally appropriate instruction, and continual professional development are essential. However, for many children, good instruction alone will not suffice. Often, the lack of reading, writing, and math skills is a symptom of a more complex problem. Molly Stark gives children and their families these essentials for success. In addition to strong curriculum and instruction, we offer an intensive array of services around health, social responsibility, and family involvement. Five of our programs, which have grown extensively over the past few years, are after-school programs, birth-to-5 activities, mentoring, health and wellness, and parent involvement and parent literacy.

After-School Programs

We know from research that school-aged children who are unsupervised after school are far more likely to use drugs, to engage in criminal behaviors, to receive poor grades, to be truant, and later to drop out of school. Three years ago, we piloted four after-school enrichment classes, which 25 students attended. Through funding from the Turrell Fund, today we have more than 20 offerings for every eight-week session, with more than 200 student participants. The many program offerings include classes in cooking, rock and roll, pet care, Tae Kwon Do, automotive repair, sign language, sports, LEGO building, first aid, computers, chess, and jewelry making.
This year, we began offering before- and after-school child care for school-aged students. Parents can leave their children in a safe, caring environment as early as 7 a.m. and pick them up as late as 5:30 p.m.
In addition, we offer after-school reading and homework clubs. Through reading games, one-on-one tutorials, or computer programs, approximately 45 students practice reading skills three days a week, with the help of staff, community volunteers, and college students. Our before- and after-school homework clubs, offered both at school and in a community room at a nearby housing complex, show students how to organize and complete their homework assignments.
Our goals are clear: Through affordable programs that are accessible to all students, we provide supervision with a caring adult, support positive social interactions, and improve academic achievement. Last year, one student who had been suspended for the day because he was verbally aggressive to a staff member showed up at the front door right after school, asking permission to go to his after-school program. We had found a hook for this student: Not only did he want to be at school, but he was also able to shine in his area of interest.

Birth-to-5 Programs

Recent developments in brain research have a significant impact on how we view the first years of life. Children who receive early quality interventions are more likely to do better later in school. This window of opportunity cannot be ignored. Molly Stark's plan for birth-to-5 programs includes literacy programs for parents, play groups for parents with their infants and toddlers, home visits, a lending library, and a preschool.
These programs expose children to environments rich in language and learning. They also help parents increase their understanding of child development and the importance of continual stimulation and support.

Mentoring Programs

A child who enjoys a positive connection with a caring adult is significantly and powerfully influenced. Many successful people speak about a trusting and trustworthy adult with whom they had had a positive relationship as a child over a long period of time. We know that this match can reduce a child's likelihood of using drugs, engaging in physical violence and risk-taking behavior, and dropping out of school.
Currently, Molly Stark has two mentoring programs. One, the Pals program, is similar to the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. Local high school students receive community-service credit when they pair up with a Molly Stark student to spend quality time together outside of school.
Our other program is site based and encourages employees from local businesses to spend one hour each week with a Molly Stark School mentee. Mentors share with our students the importance of school and learning as well as a vision of opportunities that are available to them. No one has expressed the importance of this program better than a 5th grade girl who came back from lunch with her mentor and enthusiastically announced, "So many people think I'm special!"

Health Services

Economic deprivation can affect children's nutrition, their access to adequate medical care, and the safety and predictability of the physical environment. The challenge is not only to give students affordable, accessible health care, but also to encourage parents to seek out these services for their children. Too many children don't have a consistent primary-care physician or dentist. At Molly Stark, we provide immunizations and physicals for 3rd and 6th graders. In addition, a local pediatrician and a psychologist work with us regularly to provide short-term intervention and to make additional referrals to community providers when necessary.
Last spring, a local retired dentist approached us and said that if we provided the space, he would provide dental services to any Medicaid-eligible student in our district. After receiving a state dental-access grant, we were able to build a dental room with all the necessary equipment. The partnership began. One 6th grade student, after healing from five rotted teeth that needed to be extracted, commented, "I never knew what it was like not to have my mouth hurt."
Other health initiatives include flu shots for staff, a healthy-snack cart, an annual community health fair, and a wellness convention for all 6th graders. In all our health offerings, we strongly encourage parents to participate with their children.

Parent Involvement and Parent Literacy

A parent is a child's most powerful teacher. Parents love their children but sometimes lack adequate skills and knowledge to ensure their healthy development. Reading and talking to children are two of the most important activities that parents can do to ensure their future achievement. Parents must gain the skills necessary to promote school success for their children, and we want to do anything necessary to give parents that opportunity. Parental involvement with the school increases when families have personal and positive contact with school personnel. We target this as our goal.
In the fall 1997 parent-teacher conferences, 59 of our school-aged students were not represented by at least one parent. In fall 1998, only three children did not have at least one parent attend. This significant change came about through a concerted effort of staff members to welcome and make positive contacts with parents as often as possible. This good attendance of conferences has since become the norm for our school.
Because children model their parents, they must know that their parents are committed to school and learning. A close correlation exists between a parent's education level and a child's school success. It makes a difference not only when children and parents do homework together, but also when parents increase their knowledge and education, because they become better advocates for their children regarding school issues.
Molly Stark provides parent support groups, parenting classes, and home visits. In collaboration with the Sunrise Family Resource Center, a community partner, we offer a Community Leadership Institute. The goal of this 20-week program is to enable parents to become more involved citizens and leading advocates for their children by integrating child development, leadership, and democracy skills into a parent curriculum.
Through a partnership with our local adult basic-education center, we also offer many literacy programs for adults, including GED classes; Read-with-Me classes, in which parents learn to share books with their children; and computer classes. Through a Vermont Council on the Humanities grant, we created a lending library with a particular focus on books and educational games appropriate for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. In addition, we offer literacy breakfasts, board books for new babies, and family activity nights.
All our efforts culminated in a community development block grant to build an on-site family center. At the center, which officially opened in October 1999, we offer an array of family outreach and center-based services.

Benefits of Full-Service Schools

With support and encouragement from the governor, lieutenant governor, Department of Education, and Agency of Human Services, other schools across Vermont have joined forces with Molly Stark to develop similar programs for children and families at the school site. The challenges are many: funding, space, time, human resources, turf issues, evaluation, and sustainability. But through a concerted effort, we believe that change can happen and that careful, well-thought-out investments in our children and families will make a difference.
Why center these services at the school site? After all, is this really the job of educators? In the end, we do have an academic focus. We know that when children don't learn to read, write, and understand math concepts, they will have a much harder time succeeding. In addition, everyone goes to school, and therefore there is less stigma attached when students and parents use the school for services. Why not capitalize on that? Finally, we have discovered a respectful way to work with parents. Many parents must visit community agencies (or worse, service providers invade their home) to receive support. If the school can be the bridge to those agencies, then its role is more efficient, less duplicative, and more respectful. It's not just their job or our job. It's everyone's job to support and strengthen families. And individual program changes have less impact than a comprehensive approach does.
At Molly Stark, we could no longer ignore the academic implications of social and health issues. Although the mission is long-term sustainable change, even the short-term results have been significant. Scores on state standardized tests have risen, physical and verbal aggression are no longer major concerns, absenteeism is declining, and parent and student commitment to school and learning continue to grow. Children and families feel supported and healthier.
Ultimately, we would like to see fewer of our students drop out of school, more of our students move productively into the workforce, and more of our students learn how to eventually become parents who advocate and provide for their children. We have created a framework to reach these goals, and on the way, we have learned the essence of a true community of learners.

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