Laurie Root, who took over as CEO of the United Way of Erie County on Jan. 1, knew that the organization had made a bold claim a few years before when it announced it was on a mission to “Crush poverty.”
But Root, who spoke recently at the United Way’s annual meeting – the first one held live in two years – said she inside evidence almost daily that progress is being made toward that audacious goal.
A recent example concerned a local pilot program for Vision To Learn, a California-based Charity that provides free eye exams and glasses.
Erie public schools conduct vision screenings of their own. But those screenings don’t always lead to students getting the help they need.
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“We know that 30% of the students who are screened as needing additional support don’t get to an eye doctor for a myriad of reasons,” Root said.
A mobile Vision to Learn van, equipped with testing equipment and a selection of eyeglass frames, provided additional testing and glasses for 143 students who were part of a limited pilot program earlier this school year.
Students who needed glasses were able to pick their own frames, Root said.
“At one school, a fifth-grader got glasses for the first time after having a significant impairment,” Root said. “You think this child is going through school and not being able to see. Clearly, that has a significant impact on the child and their performance.”
A new approach
Community schools, which will soon be found in 16 Erie County schools, aren’t the only initiative of the United Way of Erie County.
But the program, which employs a United Way employee as a school principal in each school, has become the focus of an organization that once doled out money each year to a long list of local organizations.
“We have referred to the community school initiative as our flagship, while the other programs – and they certainly are important – we see them as supporting that over-arching goal of breaking the cycle of poverty in our community,” Root said.
Other United Way initiatives include Erie Free Taxes and the Imagination Library, which provides a free book each month to Erie County children 5 and under.
Community schools, based in low-income areas, are viewed as a means to removing barriers to education. That can mean finding resources, including food and clothing. And it can also mean providing programs to encourage attendance.
It is the job of the community school director, who is embedded in the school, “to identify barriers and start removing them,” Root said.
A new funding model
While revenues from employer-based fundraising campaigns have declined in recent years, both in Erie and across the country, some of the slack has been made up by what Root calls corporate partners. At least one of those partners is attached to each of Erie County’s community schools, which are expected to serve about 8,800 students this fall.
Erie Insurance, for instance, sponsors the community schools program at Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary School.
“Community schools are designed to organize school and community resources around student success, and we’ve seen that first-hand at Pfeiffer-Burleigh,” said Ann Scott, community outreach manager at Erie Insurance.
“The community schools model has allowed ERIE to be more strategic and focus our support on areas that have a direct impact on students’ ability to learn and succeed,” Scott said in a statement. “For example, our employees helped remodel the Pfeiffer-Burleigh library and donated thousands of books. Employees also serve as Tutors and Classroom Helpers. We’ve donated food, clothing and uniforms, school supplies and personal care items to students and their families. By making sure students and families are supported outside the Classroom, they can be ready to learn in the Classroom. “
There are measuring sticks that should indicate whether the community school program is working, including the PVAAS, or Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System.
However, COVID-related disruptions over the past two years have made it difficult to make Meaningful comparisons, according to both Root and Erie Schools Superintendent Brian Polito.
Polito, whose school district has committed to spending $ 2.5 million of COVID relief money on community school efforts, said that doesn’t affect his belief in the program.
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“Anecdotally, what we are seeing in our mature community schools is a huge improvement in the culture and climate of the building. It’s night and day,” Polito said. “Having the community schools coupled with our new curriculum, I am feeling very confident we are going to see some huge growth.”
The concept of a community school, and its ability to address generational poverty issues, might sound nebulous. But Polito said the changes are tangible.
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“It really does build a community,” he said. “The community school is there to build those relationships with the family and connect them with the school. We have seen a lot more family involvement in our buildings.”
Root understood just how bold the “crushing poverty” goal might sound.
“The statement is very bold when you look back at the trillions of dollars that have been invested (to eradicate poverty) since the 1960s,” Root said. “You can’t just throw money at something. That’s not going to fix anything long-term.”
She feels confident, though, that education and forging a stronger connection between families and schools will make a lasting difference.
“We understand this is a Marathon, not a Sprint,” Root said. “But we have wins every single day in the community schools. This is an investment in a generation and the next that’s going to help a large group of students be academically successful and make good choices.”
Jim Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.