Like most school districts, Batesville already utilizes an array of student support personnel and programs. But these efforts have been challenged by the trauma of COVID-19, with district administrators quickly realizing a need to innovate traditional support systems to connect personnel and programs with children and families in new ways as many more families have joined the ranks of those needing help.
This is a challenge that has required a comprehensive community response and once again our community has met the challenge head-on. We know we are stronger together. Through grassroots collaboration and comprehensive community development, our citizens continuously come together to engage in bettering the lives of all our children and families.
Our efforts and willingness to connect and collaborate as a community have resulted in another milestone to celebrate. On July 1, the Batesville School District officially adopted a Community School strategy – becoming the first in Arkansas to hire a community school coordinator to manage this initiative.
The community school strategy focuses on identifying the needs in a specific school and connecting students and families to community-based resources and supports that can help remove barriers to learning. Examples include installing a washer and dryer on premises for student use, partnering with health care and dental providers to provide mobile clinics, creating an on-campus food pantry, hosting GED classes for parents and more. Because they are structured to meet local needs, each community school is a little different.
Over the past few months, we have seen needs substantially increase while available resources decreased, forcing schools and community leaders to move quickly to identify solutions. Likely no one would have been ready for the degree of disruption brought by this virus, but communities with community schools had a head start. Because they knew their kids and families, their supporting organizations and their go-to business partners, they were able to ramp up quickly to serve many more students and families.
Similarly, Batesville has been doing capacity building work for some time – making the start of a community school feasible. Through the IMPACT Independence Strategic Community Plan, we conducted numerous community surveys and made the effort to talk to everyone, even having college students stand in convenience stores and gathering spots to talk to as many citizens as possible. Our efforts have advanced even further in partnering with ForwARd Arkansas, a nonprofit working to advance educational equity across the state, as we have continued to conduct community forums to hear from anyone who wished to contribute. Through our selection to participate in the Excel by Eight initiative of the Arkansas Campaign for Grade Level Reading, we were able to identify a grid of community assets needed for children to develop healthy and ready to learn as well as assess our own gaps.
This work and other efforts supported by our schools, nonprofits and business leaders have helped Batesville ready itself for this next step in our reach for equity for all our children and families. While we already had many good things underway, the unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19 spurred us to move fearlessly ahead with our community school now.
As a result, Batesville will come out of this pandemic with a fresh approach to accelerate our students’ educational achievement. Our leadership in adopting the community school strategy is a reflection of our “Pioneer” spirit. We invite you to join us in making sure the needs of all Arkansas kids are met and given the best possible chance to succeed.
Phil Baldwin is a member of the ForwARd Arkansas Board of Directors and serves as chief executive officer at Citizens Bank in Batesville.