At Springfield’s Community School, Teaching’s More Than Textbooks.

Robberson Elementary is home to some of the most at-risk students in Springfield. Test scores are low. Ninety-four percent of students are on free or reduced lunches. This year, Springfield Public Schools are trying to fix the problems at Robberson. They’re starting not with classes or teachers — but with the community itself.

story by Sarah Elms / photos by Dan Oshinsky and Jordan Hickey
published August 22, 2012

It’s a cloudy, rainy afternoon, something rather uncommon for this steamy summer in Springfield, Mo. Even with the gloomy weather, there’s a line of children and their families that zigzags out the door, down the steps and onto the asphalt in front of the main entrance of Robberson Elementary.

After a summer away from school, squeals of laughter erupt as friends are reunited. Children call out to one another and wave back and forth, parents introduce themselves and shake hands. It’s Tuesday, Aug. 14, the day before the official start of classes for Springfield Public Schools. Robberson, whose students range from kindergarten through fifth grade, is hosting its “Meet Your Teacher Day” so students and their families can become acquainted with the school, the staff and the teachers. It’s just a back-to-school event, but everyone seems unusually excited to be here.

Robberson staffers are on hand with rosters organized by grade and instructor, so they can help point people in the direction they need to go. The teachers are just as excited as the students are to start the year. They stand in their classrooms, welcoming students and chatting with families; they want them to feel ready for the next day.

“Hey, bud! How are you?” Cassie Downs, a kindergarten teacher, says to an incoming student. She crouches down so she is at his eye level. “You’re going to make new friends tomorrow.”

Tomorrow represents a big step forward for Robberson. The school, located on Springfield’s northeast side, serves a large population of at-risk students and families — and the community hasn’t been getting stronger in recent years. School officials point to one statistic — the percentage of students getting free or reduced price lunches — as an indicator of the economic health of the community around a school. In 2011, 94.4 percent of Robberson’s students qualified for free or reduced price lunches, up from 83.7 percent five years prior. [1]

Officials are also worried about the academics at Robberson. On tests mandated by No Child Left Behind, Robberson students have failed to meet standards three out of the previous six years.

So after a few years of planning, change is coming to Robberson. As is always the case on the first day of school, bookshelves are stocked, bulletin boards are up, and nametags are taped to the desks. But something’s different this year.

This fall, Robberson Elementary opened its doors as a community school, the first of its kind in Springfield. It’s joined other schools in a national trend toward re-imagining what education can mean to a neighborhood or a city.

The community school philosophy is all about taking a holistic approach to education. [2] The Robberson staff believes that succeeding academically takes more than lectures and textbooks; students need to be healthy and happy in order to learn, and they need stronger support systems both on and off school grounds. Robberson is now actively working with its community to ensure students have all the tools they need to succeed, whether that’s health care, proper nutrition, clean laundry, tutoring or a safe place to play until their parents get off work.

According to Marty Blank, director of Coalition for Community Schools and President of the Institute for Educational Leadership, there are more than 5,000 community schools across the United States. “We’re seeing a rise of this work because people are recognizing the importance of addressing both academic and non-academic factors influencing students’ success,” Blank says. “And as they do that, they realize that schools are simply not resourced to be able to address the challenges that influence students’ success.”

Much of Robberson’s curriculum remains the same from previous school years. The big change is that the school’s staff is focused on making local resources more accessible to Robberson’s students and families. The goal is for the school to serve as the hub for the surrounding neighborhood, offering aid and activities outside the normal hours of the school day, even extending school hours into the weekend.

It’s a new take on education, and Springfield Public Schools is giving it a shot with Robberson.

“We want the kids to grow up to be productive citizens of society,” Downs says. “I mean, what better backing to have than society itself?”

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A "Meet Your Teacher Day" event at Robberson, just before school began.
(Above) A “Meet Your Teacher Day” event at Robberson, just before school began this month. (At top) Students walk home after school ends.

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Robberson’s move toward becoming a community school has been in the works since 2006, when Springfield Public Schools were included in a five-year project called Enhancing Children’s Healthy Opportunities (ECHO).

The project established a more comprehensive set of integrated social and academic services for students and their families in Campbell and Robberson, two Springfield elementary schools that enroll a significant population of at-risk students. It expanded counseling and mental health services, parent education, after-school tutoring and family events at these schools. In addition to these services, ECHO developed a system to collect and analyze data in order to measure the impact that the changes had on the students’ personal and academic growth.

The project was funded through a $1 million Challenge for Children grant.

When ECHO ended in spring of 2011, Springfield Public Schools took the data from the project and began researching the community school strategy and how it might be implemented in Springfield.

Christine Giddings, a specialist for choice and innovation at Springfield Public Schools, was hired last November to spearhead the initiative. She says the district planning team visited and spoke with districts from across the United States that had already implemented the community school strategy. They traveled to Tulsa, Okla., where there are more than 30 schools in some stage of the process towards becoming a community school.

“We really took the opportunity to study what other people are doing, and then brought that back to how it applied to Springfield,” Giddings says.

Although Robberson is the first in Springfield to implement the community school strategy, it’s a trend that’s taking hold across the nation. In addition to Tulsa, the district planning team researched schools from Chicago, Cincinnati and Evansville, Ind. Giddings says the community school strategy has seen a lot of success on the coasts, and it’s now making inroads in the Midwest.

Once Springfield Public Schools got a strategy down on paper, they brought the elementary schools into the picture. Four schools, including Robberson, showed immediate interest in making the transition and agreed to complete a feasibility study with the planning team.

“That’s where we immediately started engaging their staff and their families and the community surrounding the schools and really got their opinion,” Giddings says. “We had a lot of engagement going on, which was great.”

After sending questionnaires home with students and conducting numerous focus groups and phone surveys, Giddings says Robberson emerged as the school most ready to implement the strategy this year.

Once Robberson was identified as the first community school, the district did a needs-and-interests assessment with both the staff and the families of the school in order to get a feel for what changes the community wanted to see. Assessments were sent home with each student’s report card, and, according to Giddings, more than 50 percent of those assessments were returned to the district.

Through those assessments, Giddings and her team identified the community’s top priorities and used those to build the new Robberson.

“No community school is exactly alike because you tailor it to fit the needs of that community,” Giddings says. “So that’s why there’s such a heavy emphasis and importance of engaging the families and the staff and the community around each individual school, because it’s really built with them.”

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Kevin Huffman, Robberson's principal, talks with a student.
Kevin Huffman, Robberson’s longtime principal, talks with a student.

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Robberson enrolls about 300 students each year, the majority of whom come from families struggling to make ends meet. Many students go without proper nutrition, clean clothes and regular dental and health care, but all of those deficiencies are things that Robberson — now in collaboration with the surrounding community — is working to alleviate.

Dr. Kevin Huffman is in his 16th year as principal of Robberson Elementary, and he describes the community school as a place where every part of a child’s life is important.

“Obviously, the education is our highest priority, but we realize that a lot of times we can’t get to a kid’s head until we have met a lot of the other basic needs of that child, and a lot of times of their parents as well,” Huffman says. “So we’re wrapping the services around the child and their families … removing some of those obstacles and barriers that sometimes get in their way of learning.”

The top three priorities that came out of the family surveys included increased after-school programs, extended tutoring opportunities and more extracurricular activities. It’s programs like these that will help keep children happy, healthy and focused, and therefore more likely to perform better in school.

In addition to expanding these programs, Robberson is looking at including adult education classes for parents and grandparents of students. These classes could help community members obtain a GED or learn computer skills. The school will also be partnering with agencies to provide mental health services, as well as dental care and overall wellness counseling for the families.

“We’ve got these structures that are here and they’re well maintained and they’re open nine months out of the year from 7 to 3,” Huffman says. “And it’s silly not to have them open ‘till late in the evening and use them for after-school activities and for parents to come in at night and do adult [education].”

Huffman and Giddings say the school already offers access to many resources outside of the classroom. The difference families will see this year and in years to come is that those resources will be targeted toward their specific needs and will be much more easily accessible as a result.

The school is still finalizing some of its partnerships with organizations and agencies in the community, but groups such as Springfield’s Care to Learn — which provides aid for “health, hunger or hygiene issues” for students in the Ozarks — have and will continue to be on board.

“I think Springfield is a very caring and compassionate city, and there are already in place a lot of people doing a lot of good things,” Huffman says. “The way I see this community school project is bringing all these good people and all these good services to one table and kind of under one umbrella, so that we’re focusing and we’re being more strategic and more streamlined.”

“The education is our highest priority, but we realize that a lot of times we can’t get to a kid’s head until we have met a lot of the other basic needs of that child, and a lot of times of their parents as well.”

Over the summer, Robberson hired a new nurse, counselor, and resource coordinator to help make all of this possible. The resource coordinator, in particular, is committed full-time to structuring and scheduling all of the services and activities that Robberson is and will be offering.

Downs, one of the kindergarten teachers, says she’s extremely happy with the addition of the resource coordinator to the staff. She thinks it’s something the school could have benefited from years ago.

“I’m really excited that we’ll have one central go-to person because we have so many different needs in the school,” Downs says. “For several years, there would be a family that needed utilities, needed help with rent, they needed medical help, they needed dental health, and instead of going to the counselor, the principal, the nurse, there will be one central location.”

She smiles, adding, “And they can just do all that for us, and we can go ahead and teach!”

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Christine Giddings, standing in the Robberson library.
Christine Giddings, standing in the Robberson’s library.

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When Giddings walked into Huffman’s office during the last week of March five months ago, he was hoping she was bringing good news. Robberson was still in the running to be Springfield’s first community school, and an answer was due to be handed down soon.

Giddings presented Huffman with a “community school” notebook, and his face lit up. The staff was ecstatic; they cheered and celebrated, and then got right to work making their vision become a reality.

“The very next morning I came over here, and there were dry erase boards out saying, ‘We’re the community school,’ and parents — I had several parents stop me on the way in and said how they were excited about it,” Giddings says. “I think that’s just continued to grow, and it’s been fun to watch the awareness and the excitement just spread.”

Giddings and Huffman put together a leadership team made up of Robberson staffers and parents and grandparents of students to help direct the vision of their community school. The team also acts as a kind of liaison between the district and the community.

Fred Romaine is a fifth grade teacher at Robberson, now in his seventh year at the school. He started out student teaching at Robberson, and he’s been there ever since. He says it has been great to be a part of such a community-oriented initiative.

“From the get-go, I think Springfield’s been doing it right because they didn’t just keep it as a district idea or a district-run program,” Romaine says. “It’s been a collaborative effort between parents, teachers and district officials, where we’re all working together for the betterment of the kids.”

Romaine echoes Huffman when he says the school has already implemented many of the social programs that characterize community schools. Now, everything will be more centralized, and there’s a strategy in place to tailor these services toward the families that need them most.

The school’s also used to making big — and sometimes unusual — changes. For more than a decade, students at the school have practiced reading to dogs. It began with a single dog, and now Robberson has five in all. Teachers have found that students gain confidence when reading to their canine buddies. When a student misses a word, the dogs are still there, wagging their tails and smiling, and the students are able to press on with the assignment.

And when a student needs a friend to talk to, it’s a dog — not a guidance counselor — that the students often turn to first.

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Fred Romaine, a fifth grade teacher at Robberson.
Fred Romaine, a fifth grade teacher at Robberson.

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Although the staff is confident Robberson will successfully make the transition to a community school, there’s also the sense that the coming year will be something of a trial run.

Giddings says a team will continue to evaluate the needs of the community throughout the school year and measure the impact the program is having. They’ll be looking at student participation, attendance, behavior and growth in achievement levels, among other things.

“We can really narrow things down and look at … how often a child attended an after-school program or a before-school program, and if their family was also engaged,” Giddings says. “Then we can look and see how that relates to their academic success.”

They want to work out the kinks and address any roadblocks they might run into this year, because it isn’t a temporary experiment. As long as there is both a need within the community and a willingness to participate, Robberson will remain a community school.

“We are finding partners who are coming on board, and as they are coming on board, they’re coming on board with the understanding that this is not just a one- or two-year commitment to kids and to neighborhoods,” Huffman says. “It’s going to be a long-term thing.”

As it finds partners for 2012, another concept is sitting on the back burner. It’s what staffers refer to as a “continuous learning environment” — bureaucratic code for year-round school. If Robberson went to the year-round model, then the rest of the support system for the community could also stay active year-round.

Other schools could also eventually transition to the community school model. Because every neighborhood has its own needs and expectations, the process would not be identical to what’s happened on the northeast side of Springfield, but the hope is that Robberson can serve as a reference for how to operate and sustain a community school in Springfield.

“As we continue to evaluate Robberson and what the impact is that it’s having there, then we’ll be able to look at the foundation we’ve built with the other schools and build upon that,” Giddings says. “It won’t be like starting from scratch again.”

School has now been in session for one week, and the Robberson staff is optimistic about the year ahead. All eyes in the education community are watching and waiting to see what will come about from this transition, and how this new take on education might change an entire community.

As Giddings says, “The hope and the goal is that this is something that’s transformational.”