By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Aug 16, 2016 at 1:02 PM

Last year, Milwaukee Public Schools joined with the United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County to create the Milwaukee Community Schools Partnership and launch a wrap-around services program at four MPS schools: two high schools and two K-8 schools.

The program kicked off at Auer Avenue School, Hopkins Lloyd Community School, James Madison Academic Campus and Bradley Tech.

According to the partnership page of the United Way’s website, "Community Schools is a proven model to increase a school’s capacity to better engage and align partnerships centered on the self-identified, real-time priorities of schools and communities. Our strategy places the focus on the whole child by providing academic supports, social and emotional learning, health and wellness, family and community engagement, and a safe and supportive climate."

It’s the kind of program that not only works to educate children during the school day, but to address issues outside the building that may effect how children do in the classroom. 

In June, the district and United Way announced that two more schools – Browning and Lincoln Avenue Elementary Schools – will join the program’s roster this coming academic year, which kicks off at traditional calendar schools on Thursday, Sept. 1.

According to district statement, issued at the announcement of the new additions, "The Community Schools model has been implemented across the country, showing that authentic engagement and shared leadership, combined with coordinated community partnerships focused on equity, can improve educational outcomes, school climate, and investment in local neighborhoods.

"In Cincinnati, which has become a hub for the effort, graduation rates rose from 51% to more than 80% and the achievement gap between African-American and white students was dramatically reduced."

The program was launched with a $300,000 grant that is rapidly dwindling, so it seems that six schools might be the max for now, though further grants or funding sources could expand the reach.

We caught up with Ingrid Henry, a veteran teacher – who taught at Auer Avenue – who currently serves as a teaching and learning organizer with the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, to ask her about the community schools model and how it’s working in Milwaukee.

OnMilwaukee: How is a community school different than a traditional school?

Ingrid Henry: The Milwaukee Community Schools Partnership is a collective strategy to transform schools into a place where students, families, staff and the surrounding community can work together to ensure every student is successful. 

The difference is the inclusion of parents, children and the community decision making. The decision making is focused on academics, extra-curricular, family supports and more.

Are there others who are making the switch or considering it?

Educators and MPS have recognized the need for community-wide supports. There are many school communities that have expressed interest in the process. MTEA, MPS and United Way want that expansion to be real and sustained, so the work around what it means to be a community school and making it happen is progressing.

What are the benefits of a community school? Is there research that shows their benefits?

A return on investment study by The Finance Project and the National Center for Community Schools shows a social return of $10-$14 for each dollar invested in community schools. Students in high-implementing community schools in Tulsa, Okla. had math scores 32 points higher than those in other Tulsa schools; their reading scores were 19 points higher.

Evaluators of Baltimore’s community school initiative found that experienced community schools had significantly better attendance and lower chronic absence than non-community schools. From 2009 to 2014, experienced community schools increased their average attendance rates by 1.6%, compared to a 1.8% decrease for non-community schools, and decreased early chronic absence rates by 4.1%, compared to non-community schools, where early chronic absence increased by 3.6%.

In Cincinnati, high school graduation rates climbed from 51 percent in 2000 to 83 percent in 2009, and the achievement gap between African American students and white students narrowed from 14.5 percent in 2003 to 4.3 percent in 2009.

A research review of community school models by Child Trends found growing evidence that community schools reduce grade retention and dropout rates while they increase school attendance, math achievement, and grade-point averages.

What are the biggest hurdles to getting community schools going?

Hurdles to getting community schools going are funding for the community school coordinator (position), finding the right partnerships to support the school and community in growth and having the time to take the emphasis off of tests and into an education that addresses the whole child.

How do we overcome those?

Educating the public on what a community school is and the promise of what it entails is one way to overcome hurdles. Having elected officials understand, believe, and support the work is also essential.

How have the results been so far at the schools that have adopted the approach?

There have been early positive gains in enrollment, early literacy, attendance rates, family engagement and program partnerships. At this point we try not use academic data because a year is not a trend. In cities that have successfully community schools, we can look at data over a minimum of seven years.

How important is public education to addressing the problems that Milwaukee faces?

Education is one part of the issues Milwaukee faces. With the community school initiative we want to provide a good start for children in Milwaukee, as well as some of the vital supports the families and communities need.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.