Advocates promote community school at forum


By Eric Pera

The Ledger

LAKELAND – It’s been five years since Evans High School in Orlando became the state’s first community partnership school, endowing it with a multiplicity of services such as homework assistance, health care and mental health counseling.

Situated in one of the district’s poorest neighborhoods of Pine Hills, Evans has become a model to be replicated throughout Florida, including Polk County, which has deemed Crystal Lake Elementary School as its maiden community school.

The transformation won’t happen overnight, but by the start of the 2018-19 school year, Crystal Lake Elementary should be well on its way to providing services designed to break a cycle of poverty and improve student performance, officials leading the effort said Friday morning at a community forum.

Friday’s event at Polk State College in Lakeland invited stakeholders and the public to hear from people on the front lines of Orange County’s community partnership school.

Nancy Ellis, director of the Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Central Florida, provided numbers showing how a school-based comprehensive support system can turn lives around.

For instance, disciplinary referrals at Evans High decreased from 1,320 incidents in 2009-10 to 690 incidents for the 2014-15 school year, a drop of nearly 48 percent.

Additionally, graduation rates improved from 63.6 percent in 2010-11 to 83.5 percent in 2014-15, a jump of 20 percent and the second-highest change in the Orange County School District.

Blanketed with intervention services that include after-school activities, nutritious snacks and dental care, children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods can succeed, Ellis said.

“It’s hard to take a test when you have a toothache,” she said. “There are so many challenges kids face.”

Because the community-school concept puts health-care providers on campus, parents are freed from having to take time away from work to deal with a sick child, Ellis said, and those services are provided to the uninsured or under-insured at a sliding scale. Parents who can’t afford even a modest charge pay nothing at all.

“They don’t turn anyone away,” she said.

Ellis’ Center for Community Partnerships is shepherding Polk’s fledgling program that already has the blessing of School District officials.

Helping spearhead the move to transform Crystal Lake Elementary are John Small, Polk’s deputy superintendent of schools; Kim Long, executive director of Polk Vision; and Ed Shoemaker, a mental-health counselor and Republican state committeeman.

Small and Shoemaker were among the forum’s panelists, as was Jarvis Wheeler, director of the Evans community school. Long served as moderator.

In his comments at Friday’s forum, Small said children from poorer neighborhoods need a safe place to shelter from the storms in their lives.

“That’s why we’re doing this (creating a community school),” he said. “We have children who have an (Hurricane) Irma outside every day.”

There are about 12 community schools in various stages of development scattered across Florida, and another four in the earliest stage of development, including Polk’s.

Ideally, community schools become safety hubs, where students and parents can visit throughout the day and well into the night. Each is tailored to the specific needs of individual communities and are designed to relieve teachers and other instructional staff of the burden of addressing the needs of students.

“Traditional schools are one-dimensional,” Wheeler said, so people should think of a community school as a smartphone, which is multi-dimensional.

Not everyone in Pine Hill has taken advantage of Evans’ services, he said, but as many as 70 percent of area families have utilized the program over time. Fundamental to that level of participation is building trust, which takes time, he said.

“I encourage you guys to take your time,” Wheeler said. “The biggest mistake is rushing it. This might not be a build-it-and-they-will-come model.”

In Polk, several partner organizations have taken a lead role in fostering a community program at Crystal Lake, including United Way of Central Florida, Heartland for Children, Central Florida Health Care Inc., Southeastern University and Polk State College, Long said.

“This has been one of the biggest movements that Polk Vision has been a part of,” she said.

It could cost about $300,000 a year to staff and implement the program at Crystal Lake, chosen because of its high number of low-income children, percentage of adults who lack access to transportation and proximity to SEU and Polk State and the resources they bring to the table.

None of the forum presenters addressed the issue of money, though organizers have said previously that they will be seeking grants and donations from many of the partner organizations.

Eric Pera can be reached at or 863-802-7528.