Community Schools Spotlight – People, Pride and Passion: A site visit to Donegan Elementary School

Posted by on June 30, 2016

By Caitlin Fritz

Since our last K-16 Newsletter on community schools, we had the opportunity to take an inspirational field trip to visit a community school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Accompanied by a team from the Mayor’s Office of Education and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, we visited Donegan Elementary, a school located high up on a ridge across from the ghostly remains of Bethlehem Steel. We were greeted by an enthusiastic cohort of school staff, district administrators, the United Way of Greater Lehigh Valley, partners, and even students.

Principal Sonia Vazquez and Community School Coordinator Rosa A. Carides-Hof led us through a spirited community school presentation and tour of their school.  Donegan serves students in South Bethlehem, a neighborhood that is experiencing the lasting impacts of post-industrialization, deep poverty and high rates of family mobility.  Out of the 508 students in grades K-5, 79% are Hispanic, 97% qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 22% are English language learners. There is little no subsidized housing in the neighborhood, making it difficult for many families to stay in the same home, or even in the school catchment area for an extended period of time.

For the past three years, Donegan Elementary has been a part of the United Way of Lehigh Valley’s community school initiative.  The United Way’s model mobilizes financial support from corporate, nonprofit and higher education partners to sponsor a community schools strategy at schools throughout three urban districts (Bethlehem, Allentown, and Easton) and one rural school district (Bangor). In the case of Donegan, corporate partner, Familywize Community Service Partnership, Inc., funds the United Way which in turn funds the school’s lead partner, Lehigh University Center for Developing Urban Educational Leaders. Lehigh University then uses the funding to hire and support the Community School Site Coordinator. Although Ms. Carides-Hof is an employee of Lehigh University, she is completely embedded in the life and culture of Donegan Elementary by working there every day. She has actually been at Donegan longer than Principal Vazquez, previously serving as the school’s Family Development Specialist. Throughout our site visit, the strong relationship between the two was very much evident, and was described by Principal Vazquez as a pilot/co-pilot scenario.

The amount of partners and resources they  bring into the school is  impressive, demonstrating the web of support a school can build even in a smaller city. Many local businesses and community organizations provide support to the students and their families including backpacks full of food for the weekend, T-shirts for various leadership programs, and eye exams, just to name a few. Families are connected to job fairs at Sands Casino and to English language classes at North Hampton Community College (a more complete list of partners can be found here). Students from Lehigh University visit Donegan, serving as tutors and mentors. All of this is strategically coordinated by Ms. Carides-Hof, through partner meetings, a leadership team, data-sharing, and the development of mutually shared goals.

The school has also integrated some unique strategies to improve school climate, engage parents, and promote healthy living. Parents can attend Zumba classes with their children that includes discussions of community issues using a restorative circle strategy. Wherever possible, the school works to incorporate culturally appropriate food, with a healthy twist, on traditional recipes. During out visit we overhead the morning announcements, which incorporated mindfulness breathing techniques to start the school day energized and with a positive mindset. Students also gave us a warm welcome, and discussed their participation in afterschool running clubs.

Principal Vazquez also discussed how they work to empower the students through a variety of leadership development opportunities. The Student Leadership Program at Donegan provides opportunities for each grade level, including kindergarten. Students are given responsibilities such as the morning announcements, tutoring younger students, or helping out with after-school and weekend events. The competitive selection leadership program is designed to instill within the students the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the principles from the Leader in Me program, and build on each child’s inner strengths.

The United Way of Greater Lehigh Valley provides overall support and coordination across four school districts, three urban and one rural. Site Coordinators from each school meet monthly for training and peer networking, and are continually provided technical assistance throughout the year as needed. The United Way has also negotiated data-sharing agreements with each school district, (in this case, the Bethlehem Area School District), and is looking to expand the community schools strategy at additional schools.  They are especially interested in building community schools based on high school feeder patterns in the area.

During our visit Principal Vazquez said, “We tell our students that they can go to college – college is for them.” As I reflect on our site visit, I am reminded of an overarching goal of any school: to create students, that at the end of 12th grade, are college and career ready.  With a deep connection to corporate and university partners, and the possibility of students continuing through a community school their entire K-12 career, I am excited for the long-term impacts that this strategy will have on the college and career opportunities for the students in the Greater Lehigh Valley.

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