Bringing the Community into Rochester Public Schools

Academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement are integrated at community school, which is “both a place and set of partnerships between the school and other community resources,” according to “Community schools offer a personalized curriculum that emphasizes real-world learning and community problem solving. Schools become centers of the community.”

Community schools are catching on across the country. In Rochester, Riverside Central Elementary School and Gage Elementary School are taking part in a two-year pilot partnership to become full-service community schools. They offer a range of services and opportunities for children and their families that promote school readiness, consistent attendance, student health and family engagement. Assessments—and lessons learned—provide valuable insights to identify and address needs and deliver educational excellence that will stand the test of time.

Success Answers, Empowering Success

Local educational professionals Jesica Johnston, community school’s site facilitator at Riverside Central Elementary School; Julie Ruzek, district facilitator of family and community engagement; and Jessica Marquardt, community site facilitator at Gage Elementary, embrace the new way of meeting students’ needs. They guide partnerships between Rochester Public Schools, United Way of Olmsted County, the individual school sites and other community resources. They also help provide answers to the challenges students and families face and empower students to achieve academic success. Johnston, Ruzek and Marquardt additionally answer questions and provide information about the background, purpose and impact of the community school model.

The community school model involves all stakeholders to support students in achieving academic, success. Through the partnership, teachers are able to focus on academics while community partners, who often are located in a school building, provide services that help ensure academic success. Stakeholders are involved in decision-making processes, planning and implementation of family engagement activities, and are able to utilize the school’s resource room. 

The Idea for Community Schools in Rochester 

A group of Rochester Public Schools’ employees have attended National Community Schools Conferences, which are held in districts across their country that are embedding the community schools’ model into the fabric. Conference attendees not only attend the event, but are also able to participate in site visits and witness community schools in action. After the National Community Schools Conference in Cincinnati three years ago, the superintendent of Rochester Public Schools, Michael Munoz, announced that Gage Elementary and Riverside Central Elementary would be the perfect sites to begin evolving into community schools.

Partnerships Provide Funding and Services

The partnership between Rochester Public Schools and United Way of Olmsted County began in June 2016. United Way’s role is to provide funding for the Riverside Central Elementary site facilitator and work with partners to mobilize the assets of the school and the entire community. 

Prior to the official partnership with the United Way of Olmsted County, Rochester Public Schools began establishing Gage Elementary School as a community school with grant support from the Minnesota Department of Education in December 2015. Partnerships will work to ensure educational, health, social, family and economic progress.  

Purpose of Community Schools

The purpose of evolving schools into the community school model is to strategically and purposefully address barriers that students have to academic success. A full-service community school addresses the following components: engaging instruction; expanded learning opportunities; college, career and citizenship; health and social support; community engagement; early childhood development; family engagement; and youth development activities. 

Following the completion of needs assessments by all stakeholders, and collection and analysis of numerous data points, short and long-term goals will be set to focus the partnerships’ work.

Measuring Impact of Community Schools

Each community school is unique in the services it provides and the impact it creates. Both Gage and Riverside Central Elementary Schools have completed needs assessments to provide insight into to how the schools can best support students and families. This process involved surveying staff, students, family members and neighbors and partners currently providing services to the school.

After identifying needs, new partnerships and strategies can be established to support students. The desire is to have these partnerships create an impact on students, families and neighborhoods, providing effective solutions to the information gathered in the needs assessments. 

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Trish Amundson is a Rochester-area freelance writer.