Every Friday, at 1:53 p.m., Sha’Ron Kennedy helps his classmates at Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Langley K-8 prepare bags filled with food. First, he slips in some instant noodles, and then he adds green beans, corn and tomato sauce. Sometimes he also adds breakfast oatmeal and fruit. 

Once all bags are prepared, Kennedy leads the students to different classrooms. 

At each class, they knock on the door saying, “Blessings in a backpack!” then deliver the bags to other students. 

Kennedy is a seventh-grader in Langley’s autistic support class where he volunteers to work in the school’s Blessings in a Backpack program. The program is part of Langley’s community school model, providing food for students experiencing food insecurity. 

A kid standing in front of a room full of food.
Seventh grader Sha’Ron Kennedy demonstrates packing food for the “Blessings in a Backpack” program that provides food for students experiencing food insecurity at Pittsburgh Public Schools Langley K-8 on Nov. 30, in Sheraden. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

PPS Langley is one of nine schools in the district that are designated as community schools. Unlike traditional neighborhood public schools, the community public school model focuses on providing services that support the neighborhood’s needs by involving parents and other community members. They often partner with local businesses and organizations and have an integrated focus on learning opportunities, health and fulfilling basic needs. 

The pandemic reinforced the importance of community schools, when schools needed to meet a range of needs outside the classroom. The Coalition for Community Schools estimates there are about 5,000 community schools in the country. 

Students run through the tiny town made of Lilliput Play Homes in the library at Duquesne K-8, on Dec. 12, in the city of Duquesne. The town features a child-sized veterinarian office, gym, bookstore, trolley and other Main Street mainstays in which students and library visitors can engage in dramatic play. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Outside the city, Communities in Schools of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County [CISPAC] is helping districts build community schools across the region. Last year, they began implementing the full-service community school model across eight school districts in Allegheny County. 

Community schools across Pittsburgh serve as hubs of the neighborhoods in which they operate. Many go far beyond delivering instruction and offer resources such as food, clothing and after-school programs with a focus on mental health and reducing violence in the community. 

Ariel Greer, middle school autistic support staff and facilitator for the Blessings in a Backpack program at Pittsburgh Public Schools Langley K-8, walks through the school on Nov. 30 in Sheraden. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

A spreading model with federal friends

Although the model is relatively new for Pittsburgh-area schools, community schools have, over the past two decades, reported successes in states including Texas, Florida, Ohio, California, Maryland and Minnesota.

In Cincinnati for example, all schools became community schools following a policy passed in 2001. From 2006 to 2015, research showed that the achievement gap between Black and white students in the Cincinnati school district decreased from 14.5% to 4.5%. In the Minneapolis area, the Brooklyn Center Community Schools saw district-wide behavioral references cut in half in the first five years as a community school system.

A hallway in Sto-Rox high school. (Photo by Amaya Lobato Rivas/PublicSource).

On Nov. 28, the Biden-Harris Administration announced almost $74 million in grants for full-service community schools in Idaho, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio. The next day, senators from Ohio, Maryland, New York and New Mexico introduced The Full Service Community School Expansion Act of 2023, which is a comprehensive bill aimed at helping more public schools implement the wrap-around services of a full-service community school model. 

The long-term success of community schools depends on consistent funding, according to Jennifer Kotting, communications strategist for The Partnership for the Future of Learning, a national network dedicated to supporting public education.

“It’s really ongoing [funding] that is needed to maintain a really strong set of possibilities in each community school,” Kotting said. 

Duquesne: Reducing violence through conflict resolution

CISPAC’s full-service community school approach stands on four pillars: integrated student support, expanded and enriched learning opportunities, active family and community engagement and collaborative leadership.

School districts such as Sto-Rox, Duquesne and Pittsburgh are hoping the community schools model will help students deal with trauma stemming from violence in their neighborhoods.

Duquesne has partnered with the University of Pittsburgh’s Just Discipline Project [JDP] to reduce exclusionary discipline practices in schools. Instead of resorting to suspensions, which have been linked to the school-to-prison pipeline, the project aims to offer more holistic solutions.

For a school to be selected for the Just Discipline Project, it must show high disciplinary action numbers. 

Currently, JDP is partnered with 20 schools around the Pittsburgh area, including Sto-Rox and PPS Langley. At most schools, they employ a full-time restorative practice coordinator who is available all day, much like a traditional teacher. 

Standing from left, Dejames Scott, Dae-Mere Johnson, and Talain Pirl, all 14, talk with second graders as they color worksheets on kindness at Duquesne K-8 on Dec. 12, in the city of Duquesne. The three come to work with the classroom as part of their work as Leaders in Training with the University of Pittsburgh’s Just Discipline Project. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

At Duquesne, Molly Means, a restorative practice coordinator, leads a classroom group of middle schoolers to become leaders in training. The students learn restorative justice ideas and lead healing circles in younger classrooms. 

She said Duquesne’s desire to increase restorative practices makes it a good fit for the project. 

“It’s a unique opportunity for kids in the school districts that we’re in to get to be part of a leadership program, to get to learn about mediations, to get to learn about community building from such a young age,” said Means. 

Dae-Mere Johnson, an eighth grader at Duquesne and part of Means’ group of Leaders in Training [LIT], said the violence and shootings around the community impact his mental health and that of his peers. 

Johnson said he feels he and his fellow LITs are helping other — especially younger — students by sharing the conflict resolution skills they’ve learned.

“Sometimes they need help,” Johnson said. “I feel like when we come into the classroom, it’s helpful. It calms them down.”

Dae-Mere Johnson, 14, talks with second graders as they color worksheets on kindness at Duquesne K-8 on Dec. 12. Johnson comes to work with the classroom as part of his work as a Leader in Training. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Whether through leading healing circles for younger classrooms or helping students resolve conflict at lunchtime, Duquesne Superintendent Sue Mariani said, the leaders in training are helping to shift the school’s culture from a punitive approach to a restorative one. 

Bridget Clement, executive director of CISPAC, said often there is tension in schools where there is a majority of economically disadvantaged, Black and brown students and mostly white administrators.

“We have teachers that are afraid of the students and administrators that are afraid, and this comes out a lot because they don’t understand how to best engage students that are traumatized,” she said.

To avoid overidentifying Black and brown students for discipline, Duquesne teachers present data on students displaying at-risk behaviors, such as attendance or discipline issues, to a team of school counselors, teachers and administrators who work together to determine the best course of action for a student, said middle school Principal George Little.

George Little, middle school principal at Duquesne K-8, sits in his office on Dec. 12. Little says having staff that are community members and alumni helps to build on the success of the community school relationships. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Duquesne’s community school model emphasizes student mental health supports, through an approach known as social and emotional learning. 

“We have students who experience significant trauma,” Mariani said. To address that, educators focus on “making sure a kid feels safe, whether it’s emotionally or physically before they can even learn.” 

Duquesne has a full-time therapist from Auberle, a social service agency, available to students during the day. 

Langley: Meeting community needs, addressing burnout

Other than a Family Dollar that sells eggs, milk and some dried goods, Sheraden, where Langley is located, does not have a grocery store. 

“It’s a food desert,” said Keysha Gomez, founder of H.O.P.E. for Tomorrow, a community partner at Langley. In addition to in-house programs such as Blessings in a Backpack, community partners including H.O.P.E. and 412 Food Rescue work together to send kids home with food every day after school. 

Gomez said because public schools lack resources, it falls on standalone organizations such as H.O.P.E. to raise money through grants and fund-raising.

Mike Dean, the community school site manager at Pittsburgh Public Schools Langley K-8, sits in the school’s “free store” offerings like coats, backpacks and accessories on Nov. 30, in Sheraden. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“Finances are a big problem,” she said. 

Mike Dean, Langley’s community school site manager, said they try to provide basic necessities not only for students but for the community outside of the school. 

“If someone wanted to come out and needed something at that moment, it is the understanding that Langley is the hub for this community,” he said. 

Outside of the food pantry and a free clothing store, Langley also offers a boxing program, a dental cleaning and hygiene camp each fall and summer, and lifestyle classes. The school has also worked with the city to install a stop light on Sheraden Boulevard. 

Langley K-8 staff Sarah Armenti, left, a social worker and Langley’s family and community engagement coordinator, and Lamont Chatman, a paraprofessional with the school’s autism support program, on Nov. 30, in Sheraden. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Nationwide, teachers have left the teaching profession and experienced higher levels of stress and lower morale after the pandemic, as reported by Chalkbeat. Former PPS teachers have said that burnout preceded the pandemic. 

Kathy Monti-Trievel, a Langley alumnus and now a teacher at the school, thinks that the shift to a community school model in 2017 has eased some of the burden. Having community partners bring in extra resources such as food and clothing — things teachers previously had to provide alone — has helped, she said. 

“I think community schools allow there to be healthy boundaries for teachers and staff to do their craft, which is to teach, deliver instruction,” said Sarah Armenti, a social worker and Langley’s family and community engagement coordinator. 

Sto-Rox: Expanding community, reducing absenteeism

Sto-Rox Superintendent Megan Marie Van Fossan said she would like to see more providers in their school buildings. She said the district is facing staffing challenges in teaching and health care services. Not having full-time nurses in the buildings also contributes to truancy issues in the schools, she said.

Fully 72.3% of students were chronically absent, missing more than two days of school a month for any reason, in the Sto-Rox Junior Senior High School in 2021-22. 

Sto-Rox superintendent Megan Marie Van Fossan at Sto-Rox High School. (Photo by Amaya Lobato Rivas/PublicSource)

Van Fossan said the district is working on social-emotional skills and conflict resolution to solve violence issues that contribute to truancy and drop-out.

Duquesne’s Mariani said she believes the community school model has played a major role in supporting the return of eighth graders, who came back to the Mon Valley city in 2022 after almost a decade of being educated in neighboring districts. When it comes to the district’s goal to reopen the high school — closed in 2007— Mariani said she hopes to use a similar model. 

Student work on the lockers at Duquesne K-8, on Dec. 12. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Sonya Gooden, a school board director for Duquesne and a family advocate at Duqusene’s Head Start program, said she feels the lack of a high school disrupts community bonds for older children.

“With the closing of the high school, bringing it back will again make a wholeness of the community because currently we’re split up between different cities,” Gooden said. “Once you get to 13, 14, you’re away from your friends and it takes away from the center of the community which the district represents.”

La’tresha Dean, the director of the Boys and Girls club at Duquesne and a parent in the district, said that while she believes the community school model at Duquesne is making a positive impact, its leadership and goals need to be consistent for community members to put their full trust into the school.

Building trust in the community

Many of Duquesne’s school staff are community members and alumni. Little said that established interpersonal relationships between staff and students give the district leaders a better understanding of students’ needs and help parents and families feel more comfortable confiding in staff and seeking out help.

“By having so many people from the community in the building it helps us understand what’s going on in the community … around guns, drugs, domestic issues — we hear about it,” Little said.

Clement said sometimes parents who have had bad experiences in school do not want to engage with their children’s school. CISPAC accordingly works to engage parents through their community school model. 

Students play veterinarian in the tiny town made of Lilliput Play Homes in the Duquesne K-8 library, on Dec. 12. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“We need to have more of that family infusion so that the teachers and the administrators who maybe aren’t on the ground have a better understanding of what the community is dealing with on a day-to-day basis,” she said. 

Another way Duquesne is keeping parents in the loop is through its Parents As Allies organization that focuses on supporting parent needs and engagement — both for their children and for themselves. Last year, Duquesne held a career and resource fair where parents could find mental health resources and professional development opportunities.

Through community and parent engagement, LaQuandra Bennet, Duquesne’s CISPAC site manager, says the long-term goal of the full-service community school model is to equip parents and the community with the resources to help their children on their own.

“We want to empower families when it comes to their student’s education,” Bennet said. “We want to make sure that … the things we’re bringing in are able to continue and that is going to be with the help of the families.” 

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at lajja@publicsource.org.

Tanya Babbar was an editorial intern at PublicSource and is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh.

This story was fact-checked by Erin Yudt. 

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Lajja is the K-12 Education Reporter at PublicSource. Originally from India, she moved to the States in 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Before...

Tanya Babbar is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in English nonfiction writing and minoring in creative writing. She’s lived 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh for most of her life, but...