By April Tisher
When the news first traveled down the wire that Howard Bishop Middle School had been selected as a “community school,” parents and students alike weren’t really sure what that meant. Many confused the term with neighborhood school, which given that Bishop sits right in the middle of a neighborhood didn’t seem to be news at all. The reality is that being a community school is something much bigger!
A community school’s purpose is to provide services not typically associated with education that students and their families may be lacking. The official definition from Communityschools.org reads: A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities. It is no secret that thousands of school-age children come to school each day lacking basic necessities. It is hard to learn when you are hungry, sick, have a toothache or have unmet emotional needs.
Mike Gamble, the principal of Howard Bishop Middle School, said that they are very excited about having the community school, which they call “The Nest” for the Howard Bishop Hawks. “The important thing to remember is the community school is a long-term commitment but will consist of small steps,” said Gamble. He noted that many of his teachers have always provided a variety of social services for their students, just because they are caring teachers. Now having the community school will allow teachers to teach and not spend time and resources trying to find supplies, clothing, food and glasses, for example, for their students.
Jennifer Anchors, executive director of the Children’s Home Society of Florida, said that The Nest is a “Community Partnership School,” which means that the decisions for the community school are made by a 25-year partnership consisting of Children’s Home Society, The Alachua County School Board, The University of Florida, The Alachua County Department of Health and Santa Fe College. These entities come together as an all-encompassing decision-making team to discuss and prioritize the specific needs of the school, students and their families. Anchors said there are currently 11 other community schools in the state of Florida, with another five in the works. However, each school will look different depending on the specific needs of the individual students of that school.
Already in place at Bishop is the director of the community school, Tarcha Rentz, and a full-time mental health counselor, separate from the school’s guidance counselors. The Nest also already has a clothing and snack closet for those who need it. As future funding allows, the plan calls for an after-school coordinator (to provide separate tutoring and assistance from the existing EDEP), a health coordinator and a parent-community liaison.
Karen Clarke, Deputy Superintendent for Alachua County Public Schools, said that this is an incredible opportunity for multiple agencies to collaborate together to mobilize resources and services to better serve the students and families of the Bishop community area. Clarke said that several factors went into the decision to choose Bishop, such as its central location and close proximity not only to the RTS bus line, but also to the Fern Side Family Services Center and WIC, Head Start and Health Department offices. Proximity to other schools (where siblings may attend and can also benefit from the services offered) was also a consideration. Making access easy will increase the likelihood that families can take advantage of what the community school has to offer. “Endgoal possibilities are endless by focusing on what the families need,” said Clarke.
It’s important to note that each phase of a community school plan is dependent on not only the needs of the schools’ families, but also on funding. The community partners provide resources, volunteers and education, but not necessarily money. Funding comes from private donors and grants, which are always being sought. For information on how to donate, please visit Chsfl.org and note Howard Bishop as the designation.