Honoring School Board Best Practices

By Kathleen Vail

It takes a village to raise a child. This oft-repeated phrase was taken to heart by the three grand-prize-winning Magna Award districts this year.

One district went above and beyond the call of duty by providing a warm and stable home environment for students in great need. The other two districts found innovative ways to engage underrepresented parents -- immigrants and fathers -- into their schools.

The idea of caring for the whole child, the family, and the community is at the forefront of each of the winning programs.

Each year, one district from each of the three enrollment categories -- under 5,000, 5,000 to 20,000, and 20,00 and above -- earns the Magna Grand Prize. This year’s winners -- Missouri’s Maplewood Richmond Heights School District, New York’s Monroe-Woodbury Central School District, and Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh Public Schools -- will be honored by the editors of American School Board Journal and Sodexo School Services at NSBA’s annual conference in Boston.

You can read more about the winning programs in the supplement that accompanies this magazine, or go online to www.asbj.com/magna to search a best practices database of past winners and high-scoring entries.

Maplewood Richmond Heights School District, Maplewood, Mo.

One boy was sleeping at a White Castle three nights a week. He and other young men in the Maplewood Richmond Heights (MRH) School District had been homeless for years. If they were still attending school, they wouldn’t be for long, and they certainly weren’t headed for high school graduation.

This small urban school district on the edge of St. Louis had been trying to help homeless children by waiving residency requirements and proving transportation from local shelters. However, homeless teenage boys and young men continued to struggle because shelters often did not accept men.

What these boys really needed was a stable home with adults who cared about them -- and school leaders realized providing this was the only way to get them to graduation day. The school board’s humane and compassionate program, Joe’s Place, earned the 1,147-student district a grand prize Magna Award in the under 5,000 enrollment category this year.

The board, the superintendent, and the district’s social services director began in 2006 to discuss the possibility of creating a residential home for homeless high school boys within a year and half to two years, says board member Nelson Mitten. That timeline shortened considerably when a house near the high school came on the market. The board quickly purchased the home, with the understanding that the nonprofit organization established for the program would raise funds to purchase it from the district. The home opened in January 2007.

Joe’s Place offers its residents more than just a place to sleep, and the program tries to mirror family life as closely as possible. The district hired two houseparents who stay with the boys while the home is open during the week. The boys and houseparents prepare and eat meals together, and the boys must meet expectations about keeping their rooms and the common areas clean. They have regular study and bed times, as well. The houseparents are in contact with the students’ teachers and make sure they have academic support so they can graduate.

However, the board and the superintendent recognized that having a place to live for these young men, after years of homelessness, wouldn’t be enough to help them. An on-staff therapist provides individual and group counseling; community volunteers serve as tutors and mentors to the boys.

“They are going to have issues that go far beyond the norm,” says Mitten. “Poor and homeless students bring other issues to the table that need to be addressed other than academics.”

The boys are expected to have a plan for after graduation as well, including college, work, or the military. “We want to make sure they get through high school and make sure they have a future,” says Mitten.

The program also seeks to help the boys maintain or mend the ties with their families. The boys are expected to spend weekends and summers with their families, if possible. Therapists also meet with the families to help resolve conflicts and issues.

While this may seem like a heavy load for the district, Mitten emphasized that the Maplewood community and beyond is very involved with the program. Churches and local businesses provide meals and other services, and community volunteers are active in the program.

The district formed a nonprofit organization to maintain and raise money for Joe’s Place. Two current board members, including Mitten, and two former board members sit on the board of the program’s nonprofit organization. Their presence makes sure Joe’s Place continues to have close ties with the district, even when it no longer owns the house. The nonprofit raises funds and has established a capital campaign to purchase the house.

The success of Joe’s Place has spurred the district to consider expanding the program to serve homeless girls with a “Jane’s Place,” says Mitten.

Monroe-Woodbury Central School District, Central Valley, N.Y.

North Main Elementary School, with 620 students, has the highest number of English as a Second Language (ESL) students and the highest number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch in the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District. The school neighborhood has traditionally been a place where immigrants settled, first from Eastern Europe, and now increasingly from Mexico and Honduras. The 7,176-student district, in the foothills of the Catskills Mountains, is within a short driving distance of New York City.

The children from these families needed extra help with language and literacy, but Principal Matthew Kravatz and Assistant Principal Dolores Terlecky noticed that their parents also needed language assistance.

Parents would come to school to get help speaking with their child’s pediatrician and others. Terlecky, who speaks Spanish, would spend hours helping parents fill out paperwork. “We are not just a school. We are part of a community,” says Kravatz.

They also noticed that immigrant parents and their children were not participating in the community life of the school -- avoiding after-school and nighttime activities. “They were not feeling comfortable with schools in general,” says Kravatz.

Lots of schools offered English classes for parents, says Terlecky, but she and Kravatz wanted to do something different to help parents and draw them into the school. Their program, English as a Second Language Family Night, earned the district a Magna grand prize in the 5,000 to 20,000 enrollment category.

During the two-year run of the program, which has been suspended for now because of budget issues, parents and their children were invited to North Main once a week for dinner and literacy instruction. Terlecky says she knew that parents wouldn’t come if it meant leaving their younger children at home. So students from the high school volunteered to watch the little ones while teachers worked with the parents and school-age students.

A local pizzeria provided dinner, and a nearby church donated desserts and snacks.

Parents began asking if the program could be expanded to three nights a week. They would come faithfully, says Terlecky, arriving on foot through any weather. “It was moving and humbling, to see parents fight the elements to come here,” she says.

Students clearly benefited from the extra literacy time; and parents who had been reluctant to come to school earlier were now showing up for all activities, anxious to try out their new English skills on teachers and others.

“They go on field trips, do parties,” says Terlecky. “Being poor or from another culture doesn’t mean you are uncaring parents.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pittsburgh, Pa.

When Mark Brentley became a school board member in 1999, he ran on a campaign of increasing the participation of fathers and other men in the schools. One of the first things he did was establish Take A Father to School Day, a program that earned the Pittsburgh Public Schools a grand prize Magna Award in the over 20,000 enrollment category.

The program has been going strong for the past 13 years, surviving board and superintendent changes. Brentley knew from his days serving on his children’s PTA and PTO boards that men were scarce at these organizations. He believed that men would participate if given the right opportunity. “If you want men to get involved, you just have to ask,” says Brentley. “But we don’t ask.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools, with 25,00 students, is the second largest district in Pennsylvania and serves an urban population. Many fathers and other men think it’s the mom’s task to deal with school, says Brentley. But this annual event is changing their minds: “We made it where it’s cool.”

The day is usually held in May, and every district school participates with its own planned events and activities. Fathers are asked to take the day off and attend their child’s school. The definition of “father” is broadened for the day, as well, including brothers, stepfathers, uncles, grandfathers, ministers, or any other male who is a positive role model for a child.

The schools offer breakfast and lunch, and provide school tours, concerts, impromptu basketball games, time on the playground with the students, father discussion groups, gardening activities, and many other interactions. “To get them hooked, you have to make them feel like a king that day, “says Brentley. “These guys are walking around sticking their chests out. They thought it was the women’s job, and their reaction is, ‘There is a place for me.’”

Getting them hooked is the point, of course. The men sign in to the school for the day, and the principal and staff collect those names and work to get them to return throughout the school year as a PTA member and a volunteer. “One father said he goes to school every day. He found out it was so welcoming,” says Brentley. “The principals found a way to make him comfortable, make him relax.”

Participation has grown steadily over the years, with publicity from some famous Pittsburgh fathers such as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who attends the day with his children. Last year, almost 6,000 men participated. Some schools establish relationships with local businesses to bring in food for breakfast and lunch -- those donors are acknowledged and later thanked at board meetings.

In the past couple of years, Brentley added a service component, asking men to bring in a nonperishable food item for the local food bank and donate old eyeglasses for families and children in need.

“You can build an army of men” to volunteer, says Brentley. “The hook is bringing them in.”

Kathleen Vail (kvail@nsba.org) is managing editor of American School Board Journal.