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Building a Community School, One Connection at a Time

April 1, 2024

Building a Community School, One Connection at a Time

Mary Moriarty discusses her experience advocating for and developing community schools in her district.

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Mary Moriarty is stretched thin. The middle school science teacher recently took a job as community schools coordinator in Hammond, Ind. Her assignment: Transform two middle schools into thriving community hubs.

Now she is busy lobbying for support: connecting with parents and community organizations to learn what they need and to brainstorm how they might work together to get it; attending countless meetings; talking to every parent and teacher she can reach; encountering obstacles and then tapping every reserve of patience and persistence to overcome them; and building a network where all the players are mutually supportive of one another, thriving together.

From the moment she learned about community schools, Moriarty was convinced that they were the answer to her district’s struggles. And the hours spent advocating, connecting, brainstorming?

“It’s worth it,” she says.

From the Beginning

Moriarty first learned about community schools at an AFT workshop with other members of the Hammond Teachers Federation. The schools are designed as hubs of activity for students and families, built on strong relationships among educators, learners, business owners, religious organizations, social organizations and others. Does a student need eyeglasses? The local optometrist provides exams down the hall. Is a family short on food? The city food bank maintains a location on campus. Is Mom looking for activities to keep the kids off the streets? After school programming and social events take place right at the school.

But what clinched the deal for HTF was testimony from Julie Sellers, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. She described how her district faced many of the problems Hammond has today — poverty, lack of parent engagement and deteriorating buildings — but after converting to “community learning centers,” it’s become a national model for successful community schools and one of the highest-performing urban districts in Ohio.

If Cincinnati could do it, Hammond could do it, too.

Early Steps

It’s a steep climb from zero to success, and Moriarty had to start at the beginning, drumming up support from district administrators, some of whom were not entirely convinced this “whole” child approach would work. What about straight-up reading, writing and ‘rithmetic?

So HTF invited a group of administrators to visit Oyler School in Cincinnati to see for themselves.

The trip was a success, and the following year a similar group attended the AFT’s community schools intensive, where they hammered out the beginning of a plan: They would present a community schools proposal to the school board.

It worked. The board approved funding for a community schools coordinator, a position that’s proven to be crucial to the success of community schools in other districts, and Moriarty was hired to fill the job.

Things that Work

Moriarty’s next steps were focused on the community itself. What do people want? Are there businesses that would love to connect with kids? Do families have internet, or do they need broader access? Would parents appreciate home visits with teachers, instead of missed emails and phone calls? Would sports bring people together, and could a local business donate uniforms? What about student music performances, and could a town studio help with instrument repair?

After talking with parents at a back-to-school night, Moriarty learned that many wanted reliable, accessible tutors for their children. So she created a partnership with Purdue University, which provides college students as tutors, and a local McDonald’s restaurant, which donates the space and the food for tutoring sessions. “The kids absolutely loved it,” says Moriarty. Connecting with college students was especially “cool,” and the older students benefit, too: At least one of them is in a teacher prep program.

She’s also working on a program for parents to come in to the school and learn how to use the parent portal and student Chromebooks, so they can communicate more comfortably with teachers.

As these programs get off the ground, Moriarty is also paying close attention to the local political climate: In a district where there have been school closures, parents are wary of district administrators and want to be sure their beloved neighborhood schools remain open. At the same time, many teachers are unhappy with administrative policies and budget decisions. It can be tricky territory to navigate.

Moriarty presses on.

Reaching for a Vision

Asked what she envisions for Hammond five years into the future, she doesn’t hesitate: “I would love for our schools to be open and welcoming,” she says. Right now, she often finds middle school classroom doors closed. Parent-teacher conferences are usually done by phone, rather than in person, even though teachers give parents the option to come to the school. This distancing may be left over from the pandemic, when everyone was isolated, says Moriarty, “But I’m determined to get this turned around.”

She’d also like to see the campus stay open and lively after school hours, for parents as well as students. She imagines enrichment programs like robotics, the Science Olympiad, writing classes and athletic programs. Maybe parents could come to a training session while their children are in another program.

And she’d like more volunteers to help run it all. She’s already got a sign-up system in the works.

Moriarty is confident it will happen. She’s seen it in other districts. And she’s sure that once she makes the right connections among community organizations, parents and administrators, it will happen in Hammond as well.

This story was written by Virginia Myers, AFT communications specialist. If you want to read more stories about the inspiring lives of AFT members, sign up to receive our e-newsletters.

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.

Building Successful Community Schools Collection

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The AFT was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.7 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities.

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