Written by Justine Mariscal
Built on the foundation of collaborative leadership, the Pawtucket School Department and the Pawtucket Teachers’ Alliance have worked together to promote the community school model in the city over the last three years. Pawtucket’s efforts are supported by the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (HRFTHP) along with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), who have partnered with the Pawtucket community schools team on establishing their framework and working to expand the initiative throughout the state of Rhode Island by utilizing their connections to various teachers’ unions.
As the first community school coordinator in Pawtucket, Emily Mallozzi, came across a lot of unfamiliar territory, but was never afraid to ask the necessary questions and what-ifs to establish partnerships and get resources to her school. Inspired by the love and generosity that the teachers show to the students of Agnes Little Elementary School, partners provided them with resources that their parents couldn’t afford. Mallozzi’s message to the teachers in her first year, was that they did not have to do all the work on their own, as she believes that ensuring the wellbeing and success of youth is a shared responsibility that extends beyond school walls.
During her first year as a coordinator, Mallozzi focused her energy on doing a lot of outreach in the community to learn about the work that was already being done by community agencies and city departments. At that same time, she conducted a needs assessment for her school and found that the teachers were focused on increasing attendance, which was being affected by the housing crisis that is strongly reflected in the state. Focused on creating strong partnerships, Mallozzi zoned in on the city’s health initiative, which she found to be the focus of community partners, to convince stakeholders that the community school initiative was one in the same. By explaining the ways that school attendance is affected by health and how they are both impacted by housing insecurity, she was able to show stakeholders that a partnership between them and the school would create the biggest impact. This has resulted in different workshops and incentives offered at Agnes Little, such as nutrition and cooking classes, walking school bus, and free passes to the YMCA for students with good attendance. Mallozzi has also done work to bring in people who are in housing development to help parents gain access to affordable housing. She also sits in on a lot of community conversations to act as an advocate for parents and students, highlighting the barriers that exist for families to access proper health care, transportation and housing and how this leads to inequities in education.
When it came to creating an attendance initiative at the school, Mallozzi made sure that teachers took on a holistic view of their students and encouraged them to build relationships with families, especially those of chronically absent students. She also empowered teachers to help families problem solve by asking the right questions and educating them on the different services and programs offered by the school and within the community. This had led to a change in how the teachers and administrators address issues around attendance. Rather than taking the traditional punitive approach, school staff meet with students and their families to ask for ways that they can better support them. Mallozzi encourages teachers and staff members to really take the time to emphasize the importance of school community and culture in order to build and maintain relationships with families.
Agnes Little now has two teams, the attendance core team and attendance school improvement team, and a new program called ‘attendance buddies’ dedicated to increasing attendance. The attendance core team is made up of school staff who collect data, meet weekly to monitor trends, and talk about individual students who are chronically absent. The attendance school improvement team, which includes parents and community members along with school staff, works to analyze the school’s policies, protocols, and practices around attendance. The parents and community members on the team offer a new prospective to make sure that the school addresses attendance in way that is inclusive, culturally responsive, and respective of families. Attendance buddies, which is an extension of the practices already implemented in the school, was created and is run by teachers who lead the program case management style. When a child is absent a staff member who isn’t the child’s specific teacher, social worker, or the school secretary calls home to say that their presence was genuinely missed and even send handwritten notes saying, “we miss you”. Attendance buddies meet with students and their parents to set attendance goals while providing positive encouragement and offering incentives for increased attendance. These approaches have led to a 12.1% decrease in the number of students who have 10 or more unexcused absences, a 21.9% decrease in the number of students with 18+ tardies from 17-18 to 18-19. The school has also seen a 75% decrease in the number of kindergarten students who are chronically absent, which is the lowest it has been for the past 5 years. The benefits of the school’s attendance initiative are also reflected in data from the district’s STAR assessment as the number of students in reading intervention categories is the lowest it’s been since 2014-2015. The school has also seen a 20% increase in the number of students who are proficient in math, which is the highest it has been in 5 years.
The city of Pawtucket, RI has implemented two more community schools since Agnes Little made the shift and Emily Mallozzi has played a vital role in helping the schools make the transition. Acting as a mentor to the new coordinators, Mallozzi hosts bi-weekly professional learning community meetings with them to extend partnerships, review best practices and offer technical assistance. She also went into each school and trained the staff on the community school model, including how to conduct and use a needs assessment to create an action plan, as well as demonstrating how building community partnerships can increase opportunities that allow students to thrive. To ensure that the initiative continues to push forward within the state, Rhode Island hosted their first community school summit in 2018 with their next one happening sometime this year.
Mallozzi encourages all coordinators to lead with the rationale that community schools are an evidence based school improvement strategy and a comprehensive method to achieve equity in our schools.