By Gwen Klein

Every Tuesday night, the smell of warm cooked dinner lures a mass of students, with their parents and siblings in tow, into the inviting cafeteria of Asheville Middle School. Teachers, administrators, and other staff greet families and roam the buzzing room, pausing at certain tables to engage parents in conversation. Families dine on the cost-free catering services as they get to know the rest of their community and begin to feel more comfortable in the school building.

After dinner, tutors -- both paid and volunteers -- pour themselves over the homework of students in all grades K-12, patiently helping them work through their complex math problems or essay writing. During this time, families have time to browse the colorful array of community tables that line the edges of the room. Each table encourages families to become even more involved in the community by attending the events of different businesses and community organizations.

At the core of the event, known in Asheville as Homework Diners, lies coordinator Bruce Waller of Asheville Middle School. He has allowed the Homework Diners in his district to grow from only a couple of families to hundreds of community members.

“If you don’t have love in the center of your work, then your strategy and infrastructure will fail,” Waller said. This is the foundation that inspires coordinator Bruce Waller every day. His students, families, and relationships are the heart of his work as a coordinator, and he works tirelessly to design programs and partnerships for them, just like Homework Diners do successfully.

Although Waller is new at his job, only joining the coordinating community in January, becoming a coordinator with his fresh energy and ambition have allowed him to get a lot done in his first few months. He serves Asheville Middle School in the Asheville City School District, where the community schools are run by the United Way of Asheville & Buncombe County.

“At Asheville MS, I connect the school to the community and the community to the school using several different strategies,” Waller said. He highlights parent and student engagement and infrastructure as some of the things that he focuses most heavily on in his job, and some items that were not exactly present when he stepped into his position in the beginning.

In his first few months, he designed programming to support not only his students, but also their families and the greater community. Besides allowing Homework Diners to grow significantly, Waller implemented a program called “Race to the Test” in order to encourage students to relax and even become excited about end-of-year testing.

As a result, when testing came around in May, so did breakfast buffets and endless high-fives. “We made T-Shirts for proctors that had slogans on them like ‘Hey, you can do it!’ And we gave students a different type of breakfast that let them feel really supported in the morning beforehand,” Waller said. “Even giving them material about testing to take home to their parents to show them, like, this is what we got going on so they can be in the know.” He pulled proctors from all over the district and put emphasis in making sure they were supported and would be able to calm students down if they needed to.

Waller noted that teachers, administrators, and other staff members are often too busy in their own important scopes of practice to focus on something like promoting a positive testing environment. “Community school coordinators are vital because everyone is playing their part, and the gap is that you don't have an individual focusing on the positive things in children and the community and how to bring it out and support it,” he said. “I love being able to fill that role.”

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