When taking on his role three years ago as coordinator for Fort Worthington Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, Maryland, Justin Hunt was faced with challenges of having to merge three different school cultures and communities into one building. This was an intricate task in a city where the culture of each community changes from block to block. When an overflow of three hundred students showed up on the first day, Hunt knew that he had to do some serious work to ensure that every student would be successfully integrated into one school culture and community.
Sticking to his beliefs, building the people and they will build the community, and every voice deserves to be heard, Hunt set up focus groups with students, parents, and school leaders, along with community members and partners to listen for their needs and wants. Acting as a bridge for communication and support, Hunt diligently assessed what they could all offer each other. Hunt also met with school staff and administrators to ensure they were on track with the goals of the school, coaching them through new ways of collaborating with each other and interacting with parents. Going the extra mile to align everyone’s values and practice was consistent, multiple meeting and Google Hangout video calls were scheduled throughout the first year. To ensure that everyone could see that their voices were being heard, Hunt took ideas brought up in needs assessments and converted each one into an activity added onto the school calendar.
One of the biggest concerns that was brought up during his meeting with parents, was the lacked the educational support to help their children with their homework and volunteer in classrooms. As a solution, Fort Worthington partnered with Baltimore County Community College to offer GED classes to parents and community members. To eliminate the need for childcare, the classes were held during regular school hours. This engagement led to having the first 11 members earning their GEDs and not only began volunteering in the classrooms but encouraging other parents and community members to enroll in the next round of classes. This drove to doubling the enrollment for the second year with a 90% graduation rate.
Another way that Justin was able to increase community and family engagement was by looking to his Community Schools Action Plan, which was to engineer most of their programing and resources for parents and community members into one location. Hunt accomplished this by working with school leaders to merge the Instructional Leadership Team, School Family Council, and Community School Steering Committee into one overarching committee that was centered on increasing family and student engagement. The joint committees came up with the idea of hosting family engagement night events with the goal of making sure they were not only educational but entertaining as well. Knowing that parents would be encouraged to show up if their child was in a performance, family engagement night events became a place where the school’s Title 1 meetings were merged into their Out-of-School Time program (OST) celebrations. During Title 1 meetings, parents and community members were educated on the source of school’s funding along with where the money is being invested, and being made aware of parent leadership opportunities where they can use their voices to speak up and actually influence how the school allocates funds. This has created open communication between parents and the school's principal which has encouraged an increase in attendance. Fort Worthington now sees and average 800 people at each family engagement night event.
One of the most transformative implementations for the school has been the use of restorative practices, specifically restorative circles, for dealing with any issues that arise. During the school’s first year, this practice helped facilitate issues between students that emerged from different cultures. Implementing this had such a significant impact that students have begun utilizing the practice to solve problems within in their own homes. Hunt supports the use of restorative circles by stating, “it not only gives students the space and place to work through things, but also allows the school’s staff and administrators the time to address unforeseen issues and work through the anxiety that they bring on.”
One issue Fort Worthington did not foresee was the requirement for school uniforms. After one of their first focus groups, Hunt realized some of their students where previously attending schools that did not have school uniform requirements and/or had parents who could not afford to buy them. To solve this issue, Hunt pushed himself as a coordinator to develop new partnerships and worked with the school’s social worker to advocate and implement vouchers. As a result, they developed a system that hands out referrals for students to receive free school uniforms.
When looking back on his first year as Fort Worthington’s Community School Coordinator, Hunt credits his close and open relationship with the school’s Principal, Monique Debi, as one of the pivotal reasons why he was able to get over the hurdles that came with not only creating a new school, but being new to his position. Through multiple formal and informal one-on-ones throughout the week, they have been able to build a trusting relationship that makes it easy for them to know what each other's needs are along with their capabilities.
In thinking about what he has learned, Hunt admits that he went into his role thinking that community partners were most valuable, but quickly learned that every part of the community is vital to its growth and development, and that the Community School Model truly works when everyone is brought into it.
In offering advice to other Community School Coordinators, Hunt pushes the idea of connection before content and encourages folks to be visible and transparent while keeping focus on building the people in the community in any way possible. Hunt also states that it is best to remember that great community schools are not built in a day and that it is easy to run into problems if the process is rushed. One of the biggest pieces of advice that he offers is to really take time to learn the culture of the school and its history. In addition, to learn about the community in order to effectively frame programs. Hunt encourages new coordinators to seek out mentorship from a successful coordinator from a school that has a similar culture and climate.
From an administrator at the YMCA to becoming a first-time coordinator during the same time that Debi was brought onboard as a new principal, came with its challenges. However, to combat those challenges and create an amazing school, Hunt approached it by being open and honest, and grounded in humility to allowing him and everyone learn along the way.