A school is more than just a building, more than books or blackboards; it’s an extension of a community. And an inability to focus on that community, on the specific needs of those in the classroom, leads to failure.
Thanks to Broome County’s recent designation as a New York State Promise Zone, the College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA) will have the opportunity to address the needs of the community and help local children succeed in the classroom.
“We are going to develop a system of community schools in Broome County,” says CCPA Dean Laura Bronstein. “The public school functions as the hub of the community. It is there to be a community center with the belief that unless you serve the whole child and the families in the community, children won’t be able to achieve the way they need to — especially those in low-income communities.”
The Binghamton area is the fifth Promise Zone in the state — New York City has two, while Buffalo and Syracuse each has one. The zones create environments that engage and support schoolchildren so that they are prepared to learn. The Broome County Promise Zone is a joint effort of Binghamton University, Broome-Tioga BOCES and the Broome County Mental Health Department, with a $416,000 annual budget.
Before the Promise Zone, there was SHARE — Safe, Healthy Attitudes Require Education. Binghamton University and Broome-Tioga BOCES began working together on that project in 2009, with funding from a four-year, $5.6 million grant.
“With that grant, we built a consortium across the different school districts in Broome County to look at mental health, safety and early childhood education,” says Bronstein, who helped lead the project as chair of the Social Work Department and director of the Institute for Intergenerational Studies, which houses the Center for Family, School and Community Partnerships.
In February 2013, the final year of the SHARE grant, New York officials were invited to see SHARE’s impact in the community and envision the potential of a Promise Zone.
“We felt like we were positioned as a springboard,” says Bronstein. “If we could be designated as a Promise Zone, we would be able to jump to the next level as opposed to losing the great groundwork we had made (with SHARE).”
In July 2013, the request was granted. Binghamton University would take a lead role and funding would go to the Broome County Mental Health Department.
The project began in the fall in four of Broome County’s 12 school districts: Binghamton, Union-Endicott, Johnson City and Whitney Point. Each district has a community-schools coordinator to focus on specific needs. Melinda Kmetz, Broome County Promise Zone Director at Broome-Tioga BOCES, is the day-to-day supervisor of the project, while Luann Kida serves as community-schools director at CCPA.
“Our goal is to reach out to all of the (school districts) so we have relationships with them,” Bronstein says. “What is each school looking to for success?”
For example, a school may believe that attendance is a concern and identify 30 students who are chronically absent, Bronstein says. The Promise Zone team would establish extra services for those students and see if attendance rates eventually change.
“We will take our cues from data from the communities and the schools, and what they are interested in pursuing and changing,” Bronstein says.
The project will also make a difference at Binghamton University, as undergraduate and graduate students will volunteer their services. Master of social work students will work as interns in school districts, while 40 undergraduates have already started interning for work ranging from making a video documentary to tutoring.
“Because there are so many schools and so many different needs, we can ask our students what their interests are,” Bronstein says. “An English major could help students understand literature or write better. They might be able to take part in an after-school program at a high school doing some tutoring. Whatever interests Binghamton University students have, we are able to connect them to something in the school districts.”
That connection is made possible by an on-campus partnership with the Division of Student Affairs, which named Pam Misener as the University’s community-schools coordinator.
“(Our) students have formed this amazing cohort,” Misener says. “Though they are all doing different things, they’re working with similar themes and having this shared experience that makes the learning exponentially greater than what can sometimes happen in this kind of effort. There’s a sense of camaraderie that you don’t always see to this degree.”
Bronstein and Elizabeth Carter, assistant vice president for student development, plan to teach a class on community schools in spring 2015.
“We are interested in students having an interdisciplinary experience,” Bronstein says. “It builds on our Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence and the notion of students learning from people in different disciplines.”
Bronstein praised CCPA’s relationships with Broome-Tioga BOCES and the Broome County Mental Health Department, noting that she, Kathy Sheehan (assistant superintendent at Broome-Tioga BOCES) and Katie Cusano (deputy commissioner of mental health) presented in April at the Coalition for Community Schools Conference in Cincinnati.
“Because we worked together as part of the SHARE grant, we really have a great partnership,” Bronstein says.
While the long-term goal of the Promise Zone project is to develop community schools in Broome County, Bronstein says there are a number of factors that make it a priority for the University and CCPA, such as economic development and student success.
“This (project) serves our students so they can take what they’re learning in the classroom and look at how it can be applied in the community. Our mission also is to serve the community. We want the community to feel like we are here to support them,” she says.
“We are expanding our faculty, staff and students at the University. Why do those families want to live here? If they have a school system geared toward the needs of children, families and the community, that’s a nice thing.”
Nathaniel Jimenez ’14 used his video editing talents to showcase the energy and enthusiasm on display at Binghamton High School. bit.ly/1fMDyW4