The temperature was heading rapidly toward the mid-90s and the humidity clung like a wet shawl as I drove up to E. D. Nixon elementary on a June morning to meet Camille Finley and Durden Dean. Camille works for the Montgomery County school system coordinating their new pilot community school program and Dean is a school board member.
One of the truisms of education is that students from high poverty homes are more prone to struggle in school. This is why it is hardly a surprise that the 76 “failing” schools in Alabama have a collective poverty rate of 71.5 percent–20 points higher than the state average. This does not mean students in these situations have any less God-given talent as much as it means they come from home environments that are at a disadvantage in providing books to read, adequate medical and dental care, out of school experiences, etc.
This is where the community school concept comes into play. Instead of concentrating all resources on just the classroom, such schools look at the whole child and try to meet as many needs as possible.
This is where Findley enters the equation. She is the person cataloging the needs and rounding up resources to meet them.
Nixon and Davis elementary are the two pilots. The free-reduced lunch rate at Davis is more than 20 points greater than the system average, Nixon is even higher.
One of the first efforts at both schools is a summer enrichment program that includes both academic and “fun” activities. The month long session includes Project Based Learning where students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to complex questions. There is also a focus on Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) instruction.
In addition students have an opportunity to explore Zumba, photography, arts and crafts, chess, engineering, golf, etc. In one class at Davis the students told me excitedly about the chicken coop out back. And sure enough, there it was, complete with baby chicks. In another class students were designing a new school brochure on computers. Some were even learning how to make power point presentations.
A handful of work study high school and college students were busy working with their young pupils. Helping them with reading, math and other subjects.
I’ve long been interested in the community school approach. It just makes sense. Luckily, more and more systems in the state are coming to understand the same thing and are beginning programs.
Thanks to Camille Findley and the support of Durden Dean and his fellow school board members, Montgomery is off to a great start.