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January 24, 2022

Building Community Across the Miles

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By Deanna Hron

One of the things I love about my small northern Minnesota community is that we look out for each other. I can’t count the number of people who checked in at the school before the holidays to be sure all our families had food and other necessities over the break. And when the weather turned cold, they brought in coats and hats to make sure the kids would be warm through our subzero winters.

My school, King Elementary, is a hub for this kind of community care. Our district is implementing a model of education called full service community schools (FSCS) that encourages and embraces the school as a community care hub.

My school, King Elementary, is a hub for community care.

A lot of people think community schools are only found in urban areas, but our rural needs are well-served by this model. Our elementary (preK-5) and high school (grades 6-12) serve a 540-square-mile area; the largest town (where the schools are located) has fewer than 1,000 people; and some of the communities we serve are 20 to 30 miles away. Our district has a 70 percent free and reduced price lunch rate; 51 percent of our students identify as Native American; and another 9 percent identify as people of color. This mix of 60 percent students of color, rural remote living and high rates of poverty demands a holistic approach to school success by the district — a full service community schools approach.
 

Mental health support is one of the services we provide in-house; we have four mental health practitioners at the elementary school, and three at the high school for whom we provide office and meeting space. We provide some basic services including a food pantry and a clothing closet, for anyone who needs them — no questions asked. We have a high-quality after-school program run by the Boys and Girls Club, and partnerships with lots of other agencies like University Extension, 4-H, Community Education run by a five-district collaborative called the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative, and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

The more powerful thing about our community school is how we build relationships.

The people in our community value the school and its services — some families have their kids go to the school nurse because they don’t have access to a doctor. Many rely on us for after-school child care. Breakfast is free for all kindergartners, and 70 percent of our families get free or reduced-price lunch. Lots of our kids ride the bus for more than an hour every day, and if someone misses the bus and has no other way to get to school — a common problem in our rural community — we’ll go out and pick them up, even if they’re 25 miles away.
 

All these services help keep our students in class, engaged and learning. But as important as that is, the more powerful thing about our community school is how we build relationships.
 

The Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people here have taught me so much about the importance of relationships — like many Native American tribes, their cultural traditions place a high value on relationships and community. I am learning how to honor that tradition to build trust so we can all care for our community together.

Along with distributing groceries and providing transportation, we are putting in the time to build trust.

This only happens over time. For example, when you pick up a child at their home, you see how many other people might be living there, and it’s easier to understand that finding a quiet spot to do homework might be hard. You might have a conversation with Mom and learn that there is a special needs child in the household who needs extra care. You might try to call later and learn that the home has no working telephone, or no reliable cellphone service; this means another trip out to the house if you want to deliver information about homework or health programs, teacher conferences or the next basketball game.
 

We often go that extra mile — literally. When one of my students complained that her teeth were hurting, I drove to her home on Leech Lake Reservation so I could tell her parents about our free dentist. They told me they didn’t have transportation to get her to an appointment, so I drove her myself.
 

In another case, community school staff make a weekly food delivery to a family with no transportation. The grandpa in this household is living with seven or eight of his grandchildren; in our area, it’s pretty common for grandparents to be raising the children, but he’s pretty cut off from the outside. Even though he has a phone, most of the time he chooses not to answer it.
 

Four years ago, when we started these deliveries, we’d hand Grandpa the box and leave. Now that he sees he can count on us to come every week, there’s more connection. He invites us inside, and we ask how things are going. By the time an eye doctor came around with free appointments, Grandpa trusted us enough to take the children to get their eyes checked. That’s a win for everyone.
 

We also know that a relationship with one family can help many others. We frequently get calls from people who say, “So-and-so said that maybe you could help me,” or texts from people who say, “This is happening at so-and-so’s house, can you help them out?”
 

The answer is yes. Because along with distributing groceries and providing transportation to healthcare, we are putting in the time to build trust. We are building community.
 

Read the details about how these full service community schools were financed and developed with help from Education Minnesota, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

Deanna Hron is the King Elementary School FSCS site coordinator, the former president of the Deer River Education Association and a former member of Education Minnesota. She received the Educator Leadership Award at the Community Schools National Forum in 2018.

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