Crystal Lake Elementary to become community school in Polk pilot program


By Madison Fantozzi

The News Chief

BARTOW — Seventy-three schools, eight months and four committees later, the community school model initiative is moving ahead with a pilot program at Crystal Lake Elementary in Lakeland.

The Polk County School Board gave the go-ahead Tuesday to start a pilot at Crystal Lake Elementary, which group members said has the most potential of successfully implementing the program for a variety of reasons, including existing community partnerships, space for a health clinic, accessibility of services to the public and room for growth.

“A community school is much more than a place for students to attend class,” said Ed Shoemaker, a mental health counselor and Republican state committeeman who co-chairs the group. “It’s a true example of what community partnerships should look like: It helps students, it helps parents and it helps local citizens turn their hopes into a reality.”

The community school model makes schools hubs for education, health and social services for their neighborhoods through community partnerships.

They’re different from schools that don’t have the model in that schools typically have community partners and programs that are not well-aligned with the school’s academic plan and goals, according to the Coalition for Community Schools.

The community school model brings the school district, a university and key community partners, including a lead nonprofit organization and a healthcare entity, under a 25-year memorandum of understanding to provide services in a school.

“It’s not like it’s rocket science and we don’t know how to help kids,” said Penny Borgia, United Way of Central Florida’s chief operating officer and chair of the group’s community partnerships committee. “It’s getting all of those partners and services under one roof.”

Led by Shoemaker, Deputy Superintendent John Small and Polk Vision Executive Director Kim Long, the group has studied where and how to implement the community school model in the district since November.

The district is partnering with the University of Central Florida, which has flagship community schools in Orange and Brevard counties. Community partners include Polk State College, Central Florida Health Care, United Way of Central Florida, GiveWell Community Foundation, Learning Resource Center, Polk Education Foundation, Winter Haven Public Education Partnership, Heartland for Children and local chambers of commerce.

They looked at several factors at 73 schools, including school grades, student populations, percentages of students receiving free-and-reduced meals and bus transportation, absences, discipline, teacher turnover and retention rates, space for a health clinic and vicinity of existing health clinics, and feeder school patterns.

The group’s four committees — criteria and accountability, community partners, the School District and steering — met independently and arrived at three elementary schools to possibly implement a pilot program: Crystal Lake, Inwood in Winter Haven and Gibbons Street in Bartow.

The group concluded Inwood lacked space, while Gibbons Street has sidewalk issues and a difficult feeder school pattern, with students splitting up among different middle schools.

A simpler feeder school pattern is preferred so that students in the program can be tracked and outcomes of the model can be measured, Long said.

At Crystal Lake Elementary, Crystal Lake Middle School is right next door.

Other factors that added weight to the group’s decision included a Florida Department of Education grant for sidewalk work at Crystal Lake Elementary, and the school’s existing partnership with Southeastern University, which has volunteers and interns working there.

It would cost about $300,000 a year to staff and implement the program, Long said, but United Way of Central Florida may pick up $200,000 of that and other community partners could help pay the tab.