Legislation working its way through the Statehouse would be a game changer for children and families as Vermont builds back better. H.106 creates “community schools,” a new model to transform our schools into community centers by inviting into our schools the supports that children need to succeed.
The pandemic has exacerbated and shined a light on a deeply entrenched problem with Vermont’s education system: children from low-income families do not do as well academically as their better off classmates. The challenges of learning from home this past year have been especially difficult for low-income families, and their children have fallen even farther behind. We are failing in our shared obligation to help all children get the quality education they need and deserve. Achieving the cherished American ideal of equal opportunities for all requires a greater commitment to overcoming the many barriers that low-income children often face. What we have been doing obviously has not been working. A big part of the reason is that many children are arriving in kindergarten seriously behind their peers in emotional and intellectual development and social skills. Throughout all grade levels more and more children suffer from physical and mental health problems. Low-income children are much more likely to drop out. A vast majority of our prison population do not have a high school diploma.
It’s time to try something different. Federal stimulus funds targeted at schools and the Biden administration’s commitment to reducing childhood poverty give us the opportunity to innovate, adapt, and reshape our schools. H.106 uses those federal funds, providing demonstration grants to 10 school districts to hire coordinators to develop and implement the community school model. It has already passed the House and is now being considered by the Senate. Community schools operating as community centers would require the Agency of Human Services to be a stronger partner with our schools. The vision guiding community schools is that the supports our families and educators need to help kids learn should be found in our school buildings. Dental and health services, mental health counselors, pre-K programs, after-school and summer programs, family social services—all could be provided in our schools. These are not new services. They are all out there now but access is often difficult, especially in our rural areas.
Invite all those programs into the empty classroom spaces resulting from a declining school population. Some would provide badly needed revenue by paying rent. State government could locate social service and other offices there. Mental health centers could provide onsite counseling to students. Community members would be encouraged to organize after-school academic, artistic, and sports programs. Local seniors’ meals programs could share the cafeteria. The possibilities are limited only by the vision of educators, state government, and community partners. What better way to keep our rural schools alive? As we try to entice young families to stay or move to Vermont, we need to have vibrant communities with local schools, not schools that are an hour’s school bus ride away. This is not a new idea. Bennington’s Molly Stark Elementary School pioneered the model in Vermont in the 1990s. Schools in Burlington and Winooski and several others have many components of a community school. Over 5,000 schools nationwide — rural and urban — have adopted and succeeded with this model. It is long past time for Vermont to do the same.
As Rep. Kathleen James of Manchester, the lead sponsor of H.106, stated on the House floor: “As our students, families, schools and communities emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time not just to recover but to reinvent — to turn this dire challenge into a remarkable opportunity.”