Engaged Families and Communities

Using the COMPASS to Success in Lehigh Valley

With the average school counselor in Pennsylvania assigned to nearly 400 students each (almost twice the ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association) plus increasing clerical or test-administration duties that have absolutely nothing to do with counseling or student achievement, who is there to actually sit down with a kid in need?

“We know a lot of schools are thinking about this and saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have these resources?’ but they don’t have a person with the time to do it. It’s not a lack of desire (to help), it’s the lack of a person in many places,” noted Jill Pereira, acting director of the COMPASS Community School Initiative of the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley.

“The beauty of it is,” she said. “We can fund that person.”

Five years ago, the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, which includes the area around Allentown in northeast Pennsylvania, began looking for a more comprehensive way to serve families in needs. They already were collaborating in school-based or community centers that provide health or other social services to families, but they wanted a more comprehensive model, Pereira said. They found it in the “Community School” model, which functions with the primary realization that student achievement is intertwined with family and economic factors and launched the Community Partners for Student Success (COMPASS) initiative.

Since then, the United Way has funded a community school coordinator in 12 schools across three districts in two counties: the Allentown School District, the Bethlehem Area School District, and the Bangor Area School District. While that person works for a community agency like the Boys and Girls Club of Allentown, or an institution of higher education like Northampton Community College, their office is inside the school building and their salary is paid by the United Way.

Each month, they meet with the principal, as well as other partners – health-care providers, after-school program providers, public library representatives, and educators – to talk about the needs of their specific community of kids. For many of the schools, Pereira said, much of the new services are about after-school programs for kids and parents.

According to the 2008 COMPASS report, more than 2,700 students had engaged in nearly two dozen after-school programs at COMPASS schools, an average participation rate of 58 percent. At the same time, COMPASS schools offered 21 after-school programs for adults – including GED and literacy programs – and more than 425 parents had attended those.

“We really try to engage parents – have them understand how important it is to be involved in their children’s education,” she said. Services include adult GED and literacy programs – and some sites will even drive parents to the classes.

Meanwhile, more than 1,300 students also received on-site, free medical, dental or vision care by a community-care provider – not the school nurse.

The idea is that these services will help students do better in school – and be better prepared for the next stages of their academic or professional career. With that in mind, of all the offerings, 80 COMPASS programs or strategies are tied directly to the academic curriculum and 66 are specifically offered to students performing below grade level.

The question is: Does it work ?

The answer is, it sure seems to be helping. At one COMPASS elementary school, proficiency rates for third-grade students rose from 26 to 54 percent between 2006 and 2008, and 40 to 66 percent in math. At another, they rose from 57 to 66 percent in reading. Meanwhile, out-of-school suspensions decreased by 50 percent at one school, thanks to increased positive behavior supports, professional development for educators, and referrals to after-school programs.

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