When Stacy Darga first moved to Sun Prairie, Westside Elementary had its share of challenges. Of the nine elementary schools in the city, Westside had the highest number of students on free and reduced lunches then, and it still does today. It is a school of high poverty and many have unreliable access to transportation as there is currently no public transit system within Sun Prairie. For some of these reasons, with initial grant funding obtained, Westside Elementary became one of the first community schools in Sun Prairie.
As someone who was passionate about Westside Elementary, Stacy Darga had her own children attend this school after moving to the neighborhood—which eventually led her into becoming their first part time community school site coordinator. In 2016, when the initial funding was not renewed, the Sun Prairie Area School District and the City of Sun Prairie realized that the community school model was important for Westside families and worked together to continue the funding-- which transitioned her role into becoming a full-time community school site coordinator. This co-funding model continues to this day, and has expanded to support four community schools in the Sun Prairie Area School District.
“We are all about wrapping our arms around our Westside families, meeting them where they are at and helping to connect them with any resources and support they may need,” Darga said.
To identify and accommodate several of the education barriers in their community, the school has helped in the implementation of various programs to mitigate challenges found. In order to accommodate transportation issues, the administration has started to provide taxi vouchers for students who cannot access reliable bus or car transit. They also offer an afterschool programming bus home to any Westside student involved in that programming. In addition, staff has started bringing their programs to families in place of having them come into the school, as they found that several family and community members did not feel comfortable on school grounds because of their own negative experiences with education. Additionally, the school offers programs for parents at unique times of the day to accommodate their busy work schedules. These weeknight programs include offering a free meal and free childcare run by local high schoolers, where they can earn credit for volunteering.
During the day, the community schools' room is welcoming and open. It is a space available for parents to apply for jobs, register for summer school and meet with other community partners. Over the summer, a camp is offered for Westside students enrolled in summer school, with breakfast and lunch provided. To mitigate additional food insecurity issues, snack bags are sent home for the weekend during the school year and the school has its own non-perishable food pantry which families can utilize. Beyond that, the school effectively engages community members with their students through the creation of their school garden and green house, where both members grow plants and take fresh produce home.
Although there are barriers in engaging community members with families and students, Darga said the funding from the school district and the city has helped them immensely. They are often invited to school board and city council meetings to help voice the needs of families and programs.
One initiative that the school started upon receiving proper funding and grants is the mindfulness program. Each morning, scholars have Mindful Mornings led by the principal, where they center themselves before beginning their school day. Throughout the day, scholars are encouraged to practice de-escalation strategies in classrooms as well as in the mindfulness room at Westside, where they can use equipment such as singing bowls, yoga mats, among other mindfulness exercises before returning back to class. After several parents learned about their students’ experiences, they, too, wanted to learn more about mindfulness. In the Winter of 2019, the school started offering mindful parenting workshops in the evenings in an effort to help make families lives overall calmer, which they continue to offer today.
In engaging parents, students, and other community members, Darga has said that it is important that she keeps in mind that she is not able to speak on behalf of what the families and students may endure on a day to day basis—and for that reason, the school staff emphasizes conducting needs assessments routinely. For example, in some of the needs’ assessments, they learned that Westside families were least likely to use the city’s food pantry—which they thought could be due to its hours, or the stigma surrounding food insecurity. As a result of these observations, they also have the mobile food pantry on site at various family events throughout the year. After gaining further evaluation data from students and parents, they proposed solutions to make sure families’ basic needs are met—for example, starting a winter clothing closet, sending food home with students on Fridays, and starting a “walking school bus” initiative where staff members walk students to and from school safely on time.
“We believe in transparency, letting folks really know what's going on at the school, and not sugar coating the fact that we have families with huge needs and challenges. We believe the role of a community school is to help families meet those needs,” Darga said.
As a mentor to other Community School Site Coordinators in the area, Darga likes to think of herself as an “ambassador of community schools.” In sharing the challenges she’s faced, she said she admits that she is not the expert and that she is still learning about the work. In an effort to get the word out about the community school model, she meets with various partners and volunteers to talk about the benefits of the community school model.
Other initiatives include workshops done in the school district to other staff members. For new Westside staff, she does training on the first day of work to educate them on the community school model as well as speak to them about how they can get involved in moving the initiative along.
In evaluating the impact of the community school model, Darga reported that disciplinary cases have decreased and there was a 90% attendance rate of students who want to be in school. The parental approval rating has gone up every year. In addition, students enrolled in the after school programing have increased their reading and math scores each year, which has helped Westside reduce its achievement gap.
In the transition to a community school, Darga said that the overall process takes time, as it takes years to develop relationships with partners and families. Additionally, Darga said it is critical to have a good foundation to start with—for example, administration buy-in and a strong site leadership team are crucial to launching a new community school and sustainability.
“I am blessed to work with amazing leadership at both the city and school district level who believe in this work,” Darga said. “I am also so incredibly fortunate to be part of a building level team that truly embraces the community school model and has seen first-hand the impact it has on Westside scholars and their families. Being a community school is not the quick fix answer to a school’s challenges, but I do believe it is a large piece of that puzzle. I am so fortunate that I am able to see first-hand each and every day the difference we are making in our Westside scholars and their families lives.”