Community Schools Blunt the Impacts of Poverty in Vancouver, Wash.
- Expertise: Community Schools
- Position: Superintendent and Chief of Staff
- District: Vancouver Public Schools, Wash.
Leaders here began to notice trends about a decade ago that were bound to change the economic makeup of their 23,000-student district.
Some blue-collar-job providers like Del Monte, Alcoa, and Union Carbide had left the city, and explosive growth in neighboring Portland, Ore., was trickling into Vancouver, driving up housing prices and making it harder for lower-income residents to find supportive services.
Rather than waiting to see how those changes would affect their schools, the district set out in 2008 to incorporate a bold vision into its strategic plan: Vancouver would create an “opportunity zone” where schools would focus on addressing the impact of poverty that can affect students’ classroom performance.
“We have a vested interest in the success of young people,” Superintendent Steve Webb says. “Too many of our young people have barriers to student success in their homes and in their neighborhoods. … If not us, then who?”
City leaders and school volunteers credit Webb and his chief of staff, Tom Hagley, with helping make that vision a reality.
Lessons from the Leader
- Build Capacity: When scaling up a community-schools initiative, make sure the district has capacity such as staffing and financial resources to do it well. It’s equally important to ensure that community partners also have the resources they need.
- Perfection Not Required: Do what’s possible with the given resources, even if it’s not a perfect replication of something that’s already showing success. Empower the people in charge at each school to be the connecting point for community partners, volunteers, and families.
- Cultivate Engagement and Ownership: Start with a foundation of public support and board and executive sponsorship. A strong commitment at the board and executive levels can enable districts to make strategic investments despite limited resources and competing priorities.
In several phases, schools in the opportunity zone each set aside space for a family- and community-resource center staffed by a coordinator to help meet the needs of students and their families. Each resource center developed its own menu of services that are tailored to the specific needs of the school community, offering such help as food pantries, free clothing, referrals to mental-health services, family-literacy classes, GED prep programs for parents, and on-site dental care through mobile dental vans.
As the centers became a reality, so did the district’s projections about changing demographics and the needs of students. In the past decade, its enrollment of students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, a common indicator of poverty, has grown from 39 percent to 53 percent. That rate would be considered low for some large urban districts, but it was a big change for Vancouver, particularly in schools where the proportion of low-income students climbed well above 80 percent.
But, because the district countered those demographic shifts with a strong, data-driven plan, it also saw positive changes in that time, such as an improvement in its graduation rate, higher levels of parent involvement, and more low-income students enrolling in Advanced Placement courses.
Today, there are family- and community-resource centers in 16, or nearly half, of the district’s schools, six central-office staff members who help support their efforts, and a “mobile FCRC,” a van painted with brightly colored children’s faces that provides some services at schools without designated centers.
Through the centers, staff members coordinate public and private resources, volunteer services, and community contributions to meet students’ needs. It’s a focused, highly strategic take on the community schools concept that has been adopted by some other school systems, and community members say it’s been very successful.
Students further disengage in school when “their unmet needs are seen as problems,” says Emily Gibson, an instructional coach in the district.
“It’s up to us to lead the change and lead the charge,” she says. “We are the hub.”
The centers are as different as the schools that host them.
On a cold, foggy fall day in Vancouver, it was cozy inside the family- and community-resource center at Hudson’s Bay High School, where coordinator Chelsea Unger lit candles and welcomed students as they poured in over their lunch break.
Unger, who graduated from Vancouver schools, seeks to create a stigma-free environment so students feel comfortable coming to her for help, she says. On the walls of the center, posters outline rules calling for respectful conversation and a lack of judgment. Some students earn an hour of classroom credit by helping Unger organize donated clothing and stock her on-site food pantry.
On this day, some students quickly walked into the center to grab a loaf of bread or other food to take home. Others sat on a couch in the corner to chat about their lives.
Senior Cody Weckner started visiting Unger in the center his sophomore year to talk about problems with people at school and just to “have a place to come calm down,” he says. Unger helped Weckner schedule a meeting with a counselor and work through obstacles, like a lack of transportation to his appointments, he says.
“This is a safe environment for me,” he says.
Hudson’s Bay is one of the latest schools to add a family- and community-resource center.
The longest-running center is at Fruit Valley Community Learning Center, an elementary school, which formed a model for the districtwide initiative.
At that center, young mothers meet for parenting classes. Neighborhood students who’ve since moved on to middle school often eat breakfast in the center on cold mornings while they wait for their bus, giving the center’s staff a chance to check in on them.
“The district has really educated itself about the areas of poverty and trauma and mental health,” says Staci Boehlke, the center coordinator at Fruit Valley. “It’s not, ‘We’ve got to get this fixed so they can learn.’ It’s just part of the fabric.”
When the district updated its strategic plan in 2014, it included a new, bold goal: By 2020, it will offer services at all 35 of its schools, whether or not they have their own centers.
Districts can take on all kinds of ambitious academic-improvement initiatives and “only see results going to a certain point,” says Hagley, who oversaw the task force that led to the creation of Vancouver’s first resource centers.
“To me, the community-schools work is critical to finishing that transformation,” he says. “So much of this is about recognizing the power that comes from alignment. It’s not just about additional resources.”
Webb, whose caffeinated enthusiasm plays in contrast to Hagley’s mild manner, is credited with steering the district through its new strategy in part by redirecting money from lower-poverty schools to help finance those with more needs, a move that received little protest from the community, he says.
Too many of our young people have barriers to their success in their homes and in their neighborhoods.
Any time the district finds a way to cut costs—by trimming miles off bus routes through a new GPS-mapping system, for example—it targets the freed-up funds toward its strategic vision, lending sustainability to the initiative by incorporating much of its funding into the annual operating budget rather than relying solely on philanthropy to subsidize it.
Ask Webb what personally drives him to address issues of poverty—beyond research on its academic effects—and he recalls his own childhood.
“One of my enduring memories as a child was nagging, persistent hunger,” he says. “For me, education was a path out of poverty.”
Webb, 52, grew up in Tacoma, Wash., before he earned a bachelor’s degree in politics and government from the University of Puget Sound, a master’s in teaching from Lewis and Clark College, and a doctorate in education from Seattle University.
He served as a teacher, coach, assistant superintendent, and superintendent in several districts throughout California and Washington state before he became deputy superintendent of the Vancouver schools in 2006.
He took his current post in 2008 as the district kicked off its vision for family- and community-resource centers.
Connection to the City
In the time since, the district has won several awards and recognitions for its work, including the 2014 District of Distinction Award from District Administration magazine and three Magna Awards from the American School Board Journal. And, after being named as Washington state’s superintendent of the year, Webb was selected as one of four finalists for the 2016 national superintendent of the year by AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
Hagley, 47, who as chief of staff is responsible for overseeing the district’s communications and helping with strategic planning, was raised in Vancouver before obtaining a bachelor’s degree in history from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and a masters degree in mass communication from the University of Georgia.
He says his connection to the city, and his understanding of how it has changed since his childhood, have motivated him in his work. Hagley has worked for the district for more than 20 years.
To me, the community-schools work is critical to finishing that [academic improvement] transformation. So much of this is about recognizing the power that comes from alignment.
Since the family- and community-resource centers have taken root, the two men have taken on new roles: advocating for state and federal policies that will help other districts launch similar programs, explaining their approach to national organizations, and welcoming guests to observe the fruits of their work. Neighboring districts, impressed with Vancouver’s work, have created centers of their own.
In 2013, Vancouver’s centers attracted nearly $3.2 million in contributions and in-kind donations, Hagley estimates. For every dollar the district invests, it sees a return of about $4 in contributions and services, he says.
An outside observer of the centers could be forgiven for failing to recognize which adults are school staff and which are community members from the faith community, private businesses, or public organizations.
The centers seem to have been a catalyst for community enthusiasm, growing well beyond their original vision in ways both big and small.
When a low-income apartment complex recently announced plans to close and gave tenants a month to move out, for example, the centers worked together to help coordinate efforts to rapidly rehouse 79 residents.
That quick work was part of a larger cooperative effort with the local public-housing authority, which district leaders credit for a drop in student-mobility rates.
“We’re creating more stability by keeping kids in homes and in classrooms,” Webb says.
Chris Olsen, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning, was formerly a principal of a school that would later be folded into the opportunity zone.
She credits the approach and consistent vision championed by leaders like Webb and Hagley for the initiative’s success.
Before the new strategy was adopted, “my desk was overflowing with discipline referrals, and the nexus of those referrals was poverty,” Olsen says.
“We were admiring the problem, and we didn’t have the assets and the plan to do something about it.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the educational background of Tom Hagley and incorrectly described how long he has held his current job as chief of staff. The information has been corrected.