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Getting Creative with Community Partnerships

By Jana McClelland, Jill Padgett and Elizabeth Ahrens | September 2017

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When you think of Des Moines, Iowa, and by default Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS), diversity is typically not the first thing that comes to mind. The truth is that DMPS is an urban school district of more than 33,000 students. Over the past decade, our district has seen a dramatic increase in student and family needs. Currently, 75 percent of the students in the district are identified as low-income, based on eligibility for the Free or Reduced-Price Lunch Program. DMPS minority enrollment has increased over the past decade to 62 percent, with Latino families the fastest growing demographic segment of both the city and the schools. English language learners make up 21 percent of the total district population and represent students who speak more than 100 different languages.

The vision of the Des Moines Public School District is to be the model for urban education in the United States. As the student population changes, our schools are striving to become the hub of the community; a place where students' and families' social/emotional and basic needs are met.

East High School, the largest 9-12 high school in DMPS, has a comprehensive student support team that uses a multi-tiered system to support more than 2,400 students. This team consists of five counselors, five administrators, a behavior specialist, a social worker, a community–school coordinator and an at-risk coordinator. Collectively, this team develops and implements appropriate student interventions based on data from the district early indicator system, BrightBytes and Infinite Campus.

During the 2016-2017 school year, East's student support team recognized that community partnerships could play a special role in helping address the needs of East students. Pastor Keith Hackle from a local congregation was eager to partner with East to implement an African-American young men's group. The team identified eight students to participate in the group based on their behavior referral data. The group met weekly over the course of the school year and followed a curriculum developed by Pastor Hackle. At the end of the year, the students selected for this intervention reduced their behavior referrals by 49 percent compared to the previous school year. More important, these students were able to make a lasting connection with someone from their community and they transformed from thinking that adults in the school building worked against them to truly believing that staff members are a partner in their success.

All staff in our building also recognize the importance of implementing buildingwide initiatives to support a positive school climate. Our local neighborhood-based police officer shared with us her concern about an unexplained spike in juvenile crime taking place on Monday mornings before noon. As a result, we began partnering with the Des Moines Police Department to offer all students a hot breakfast served by our local police officers, the Salvation Army and other community partners. This opportunity for a partnership also came at the height of the discussion happening across the country regarding relationships with police officers. At first, students were reluctant to approach the officers in uniform to accept a breakfast burrito or slice of breakfast pizza. In fact, we served only 75 students on our first Monday. By the end of the school year, however, we were regularly serving more than 900 students, and there was a drastic shift from students avoiding officers present on campus to walking up and engaging them.

To date, East High School has more than 30 community partners operating regularly in the school building. We believe this type of transparency between the walls in the classroom and the community surrounding our building is the best approach to ensuring we achieve our mission; that our students graduate with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to be successful at the next stage of their lives.
Jana McClelland is a school counselor, Jill Padgett is the district community–school coordinator and Elizabeth Ahrens is vice principal, all at East High School in Des Moines Public Schools. They presented on this topic at the ASCA 2017 Annual Conference.