By Mark Lewis
CABOT, Vt. -- The afternoon bell that ends the regular day for students here at Cabot School also rings in the start of a new day for them and others in this rural village. Students return to school to do homework or read poetry. Adults file in at night for continuing education. Townspeople young and old drop by the health clinic that looks out onto the village green.
The wood-frame school, serving all grades in a village surrounded by dairy farms, is part of what some experts see as a revival of "community schools" in America. They can be found in the inner city as well as rural countryside.
"It's 4:45 p.m.," said Gina Trent from her office at New York City's Intermediate School 218. "Most schools would be dark and silent. I can look out my window right now -- the playground's full."
Other students are inside, getting homework help or participating in programs in arts and crafts, sports or dance. Later, in the evening, local adults come in for classes in citizenship, English as a second language, computers and other topics.
"It usually goes to 9 or 10 o'clock," said Trent. "We are a community center as well as a school."
Cabot in Vermont and I.S. 218 in a Manhattan neighborhood blighted by drugs, crime and other urban ills, are running with the simple idea that schools work best when they are an integral part of the neighborhoods they serve. Typically that means new partnerships between the school and local agencies and businesses and much greater parental involvement, said Larry Decker, a Florida Atlantic University professor who has written extensively about community schools.
It is an old idea, as old as the one-room schoolhouses and the tight-knit communities that once supported them. But it is generating new enthusiasm among educators.
More than half of all schools can now have some elements of a community school, according to Pat Edwards, a program officer at the C.S. Mott Foundation in Flint, Mich. But when it comes to schools that build truly collaborative relationships with the community, "those numbers drop drastically," she acknowledged.
While her foundation has studied community schools for decades, in the last five years inquiries from educators have jumped 10-fold, said Edwards. "It's gaining momentum," said Trent of the Children's Aid Society, a partner in New York City's I. S. 218 community school initiative.
Behind that momentum lies the decline of big-city neighborhoods and rural towns, leaving schools to deal with a host of social problems, including drugs, violence and teen pregnancy that result from family and community breakdown, noted Edwards. The schools have lacked the resources to meet these challenges effectively, she said, and now they are turning to the community for help.
While many schools are looking beyond the classroom, others are looking at schools to see how they could benefit the whole community. "We cannot return to the one-room schoolhouses that communities literally built with their bare hands," wrote Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, recently in Education Week. "But we can begin to reinvigorate our communities by making our public schools truly community schools -- ones in which everyone has ownership."
Here in Cabot, in north-central Vermont, the local school began a few years ago to add the modern components of a community school.
"The community didn't have a health center and the only doctor in town retired," said Principal Hasse Halley. "The community had a need and we had a need, so we joined together." Today the health clinic in the building is open to all Cabot residents.
An agreement with a local business permits Cabot students to use the company's well-equipped chemical lab for science projects. And the school building is now open at night for adult classes on parenting and other topics.
"People here feel very connected to the school," said Halley. "We're building on the closeness of the school to the community."
Community schools are not popular with all educators. Many resist the idea of letting the community have input into their schools, said Halley. "I think there's fear on the part of some schools to really let everybody in," she said. "It gets too complicated."
"A lot of schools still are like islands apart," he said. "But schools cannot do it alone. In today's world it takes the interaction of parents, the school, the workplace and the community to create an educational environment that works."
In Cabot, parents volunteer at the school and voters recently approved a bond issue to refurbish the buildings. Parents at Cabot are more involved with their own children's education as well, which educators now believe to be critically important to a child's success.
"We have a zero dropout rate," Halley said. "SAT scores are 100 points higher this year than they were last year."
Of course, test scores can swing dramatically within small groups --Halley's school has only 250 students, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. At Trent's I.S. 218, with its 1,400 students from grades 6 though 8, test scores are up incrementally since it opened in 1992, she said.
There are far fewer fights and less graffiti than at similar New York schools, and attendance rates are among the very highest in the city.
The Children's Aid Society, with an office right in the school, provides medical and social-welfare services to both the students and the community. Trent noted the contrast with most New York City middle schools, where students "are lucky if they get one guidance counselor. They're lucky if they get a nurse who comes in once a month or something. Here we're are an integral part of the school."
A raft of studies in recent years has concluded that community schools do help both students and the community. These findings have fueled interest among educators and public officials, said Decker, who has identified versions of the concept in at least 46 states and the District of Columbia. He singles out Florida and Minnesota as states that have been especially willing to put funds into the effort.
"I think the community school is making a comeback," Decker said.
"We return to the idea of the community public school not because it is old, but because it is true," Geiger wrote. "When schools are the center of the community, as Thomas Jefferson envisioned, we have better schools and better communities."
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