Community School at Weis shows need, power of early investment

Weis Elementary School.

Numbers can tell you a lot.

But they aren’t always the only part of the story worth telling.

Escambia County has 11 elementary schools on the “lowest 300” list. It’s a list of elementary schools that, based on the language arts scores on the Florida Standards Assessment, are among the lowest scoring in the state.

One of them is C.A. Weis Elementary School on Q Street.

Weis is home to a Community School, a concept managed by the Children’s Home Society in partnership with the University of West Florida, Escambia Community Clinics and the Escambia School District.

It was launched in 2015 with a $75,000 grant from the University of Central Florida that Children’s Home Society was awarded, with a $25,000 match from the Escambia School District. In 2016, portions of two more grants helped fund the program: $100,000 Jessie Ball DuPont Fund to provide technology to collect and analyze performance data from the project, and $15,000 from Gulf Power Foundation.

The community school model puts a premium on mental and physical health, growth and learning, community engagement and safety. It places site coordinators in schools to assess students’ needs and provide resources to help them succeed in the classroom and in life.

In the school’s ZIP code — 32505 — the median income of the nearly 29,000 residents is $28,489. The Pensacola average is $39,734, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There is a health clinic at Weis. And after-school programs. And a backpack buddies program to send food home for the weekend with students sponsored by a local church. It is one of the schools served by Every Child a Reader in Escambia’s Reading Pals program (which matches mentors with preschoolers whose language skills are not on track for kindergarten readiness).

CHS officials say that some 1,600 volunteer hours were logged last year at the school.

None of that accounts for the hours that teachers and staff have put into Weis. It doesn’t count the extended school day hours they must teach because they are on the “low 300” list, or the lesson preparation time.

It doesn’t count the time spent after school and in the summer or the work that goes on in every classroom, every day to open these young eyes and minds to learning.

I am a Reading Pal. Doing so is part of fulfilling the Studer Community Institute’s core values of commitment to the community. One of my former mentees loved puzzles and she made up great new adventures for the Three Bears. She loved the Hello Kitty boots she got for her birthday. She wore them long beyond the time for boot weather.

She struggled to match the letters of the alphabet to the sounds that match them. She struggled to focus when we read stories. She liked when her family stayed with grandma, because grandma’s fridge had more food in it.

She didn’t lack curiosity or creativity. She was full of those things. She lacked the exposure to the ways and means to express those things.

Weis was graded a C in 2017 by the state based on the school’s state standardized test scores. In 2016, the school was graded an F.

The community and the teachers at Weis have made a remarkable investment in the school and the children who attend it. But there is more — so much more — to do.

Lindsey Cannon is the executive director of Children’s Home Society locally. She noted that the Weis project has not been fully funded with backbone funding for core positions like a navigator, Community Partnership School Director and afterschool programming.

“Although we are funding these positions with support of our community, to follow the Community Partnership School Model and to fully implement, funding would need to based annually on $300 per child enrolled,” Cannon said.

“We at CHS and Weis Community Partnership School have not been funded to that level as of yet, but we know if we get there, we could do so much more to enhance the core services to children and create dynamite parent engagement programs to support our families.”

It’s a lot of work at only one of the schools in our community in need of the time, talent and treasure that this community can offer.

Because there are 10 more schools just like Weis. That’s why the energy in the community that has emerged around making the school readiness of our young children a priority is encouraging.

It’s not just about liking the feeling that comes from doing a good deed. Social scientists and economists alike are increasingly framing the issue of school readiness not only as an academic issue, but also as an economic development issue.

It’s not a matter of helping children, because really, who among us could be counted against such a thing — helping children be ready for school and life.

Only a cold, cold heart would find something wrong with that idea.

It’s a matter for creating a workforce with the intellectual capital to fill jobs that our employers demand. It’s about creating a community of homeowners and entrepreneurs who build up their families while they build up our community. It’s about raising education levels and reducing crime and poverty rates.

It’s about making this a better place for all of us to live, by building a brain, building a life and building a community.

It’s a long road to walk — as the folks at Weis know well — but it is one we must all walk together.