How community schools are helping a hard-hit city dig out of tough times
Days after the GE Transportation plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, announced a round of crippling layoffs in 2013, an employee was found hanging from a crane in “Building 20,” according to the Erie Times-News. The image of a dead worker dangling from a crane in a dying factory seemed symbolic of a city going ever deeper into the depths of despair.
GE Transportation, once the largest employer in the county, has been shedding jobs for years, dropping from 20,000 workers, who were employed when the company was at its peak, to 3,000 in January 2017 after it “laid off 1,500 of its remaining 4,500 workers,” according to Yahoo News. Other plants in Erie—Hammermill Paper Company, a paper mill; Lord Corporation, a maker of industrial coatings, adhesives, motion management devices, and sensing technologies; and Zurn, a plumbing equipment manufacturer—were also shedding jobs or closing completely, according to a 2018 Associated Press article that appeared in the Pennsylvania newspaper the Morning Call. The layoffs and shutdowns affected blue-collar and white-collar workers alike.
As good-paying jobs left Erie, families increasingly left the local schools. By the 2016-2017 school year, the district estimated its schools were 5,000 students below capacity, reported the Erie Times-News, which meant less money was coming into the district from the state, compounding the district’s long-standing funding deprivation from the state—among the lowest in Pennsylvania, according to the Erie City School District’s assessment.
Asking local taxpayers to dig deeper was not an option in a city where almost 28 percent of residents lived below the poverty level, the median home value was significantly below the state average, and an abundance of government-related buildings made almost a third of the real estate tax-exempt.
Erie’s school district was also bleeding money to an expanding charter school sector, one of the largest in the state. In the 2015-2016 school year alone, Erie paid more than $22 million to charter schools.
Students remaining in district schools tended to be the ones who were the costliest to teach. In a 2016 report using data from the 2014-2015 school year, 80 percent of Erie K-12 students were classified as poor, and 17.6 percent qualified for special education services. The district was also in the top 3 percent among Pennsylvania school districts for the number of English language learners.
By 2016, the combination of the cratering local economy with declining school revenues had resulted in the district accumulating a debt load of $9.5 million in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Erie Times-News.
So dire were Erie’s financial straits that in 2016, the then district superintendent, Jay Badams, went to the state legislature in Harrisburg, NPR reported, and threatened to close the district’s high schools unless the state came up with emergency funding.
When I interviewed Badams in 2017, he told me his startling proposal was an “ethical decision,” because the more affluent school districts that Erie students would transfer to were more generously funded and offered richer learning opportunities.
Shortly after our conversation, Badams announced he would leave the district at the start of the 2017-2018 school year, partially due to his frustrations with funding. But before he left, he put into place two innovations that would help pull the district out of its nosedive.
First, a fiscal rescue package that included state emergency funding and a plan to consolidate schools resulted in the district rebounding from a deficit to a budget surplus of nearly $714,000 going into the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Erie Times-News.
The second innovation would take longer to bear fruit but would nevertheless show how public schools can be a rallying point for communities traumatized by wrenching change.
‘A Greater Sense of Hope’
“The biggest difference between Erie schools in 2016 and now is that there’s a greater sense of hope and a feeling that we’re having a more positive impact in the community,” says Joelyn Bush.
Bush is the director of marketing and communications at United Way of Erie County, a local nonprofit that teamed up with Erie’s Public Schools in 2016 to help implement the second innovation Badams proposed before he left—a pilot project at five Erie schools testing an approach called community schools that helps schools in a high-poverty district address the needs of students who have increasingly difficult lives.
“In 2016, we knew the biggest challenge Erie families faced was growing poverty,” Bush recalls. “Whatever we chose to do would have to address that.”
The model would also need to work within the district’s ongoing financial constraints.
The community schools approach matched the district’s criteria because, by design, it repositions schools as neighborhood hubs, not only for education, but also for integrated health, nutritional, and social services. And rather than requiring significant new outlays from local taxpayers, the funding model relies by and large on establishing a network of donor sources, primarily government grants and donations from local businesses and nonprofits with strong ties to the community.
In Erie’s case, seed money of $1.5 million for the pilot was provided by local and regional nonprofits, according to the Erie Reader, and each school implementing the approach was paired with corporations and nonprofits that pledged to cover ongoing costs of $100,000 per school, per year. The entire effort would be coordinated and managed by the county United Way.
“We knew we had people, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that wanted to help Erie schools,” says Mike Jaruszewicz, vice president of community impact for United Way of Erie County. “The community schools model provides the framework to do that, so people who want to help see how they can.”
“This wasn’t just a patchwork of programs to implement here and there,” says Bush; it was a way to have “real collective impact.”
Erica Erwin, currently the coordinator of public relations and strategic communications for Erie’s Public Schools, was an education beat reporter for the Erie Times-News when the district announced its pilot program. “The idea that there was a way to address barriers to learning, like poverty, by establishing a network of partners to help address the barriers was fascinating to me,” she recalls. “The idea seemed transformative.”
‘Thank God You’re Here’
But if the community schools approach were to fulfill its lofty promises, it would need to be workable for the people who had to implement it.
One of those people was Amy Grande, the community school director at McKinley Elementary School, one of the five schools in the initial pilot.
Born and raised in Erie, Grande has lived in the community her whole life. Prior to being hired for her job at McKinley, she had volunteered in the district starting in 2009, and then was hired as a gym teacher and an athletic coach.
Although she felt she knew her community and its problems—and felt confident that the community schools approach could help address those problems—she wasn’t sure how teachers would welcome having yet another program come into their school, especially one that saddled the school with the responsibility to address community conditions outside of the school.
It turned out she didn’t need to worry: “The teachers’ first reactions were, ‘Thank God you’re here,’” she says.
What teachers appreciated about the community schools approach and Grande’s role was that it gave them a way—and a person—to address the nonacademic issues that interfere with student learning but can’t be addressed by time- and resource-constrained teachers.
For instance, because Grande took her position midyear, during the typically harsh Erie winter, there were students who came to school late, or not at all, because they lacked warm clothing.
“Right away, I had 30 students who needed coats, boots, gloves, and hats,” she recalls.
What also quickly came to her attention were the school’s ongoing needs for basic food items supplied by the in-school pantry. Safety issues—such as lighting, security, and accessibility—also needed to be addressed. Eventually, she found herself helping families with things like utility bills and homelessness.
Sometimes, the issues were more complicated than what Grande and the school’s partnership with the United Way of Erie County could handle. But the community schools approach offered ways to take on and address those bigger challenges, too.
A Walking School Bus
“Transportation is a huge barrier for our families,” Grande says.
Getting to and from school became harder for Erie families when the city’s financial collapse caused the district to limit school bus service to only those families living outside a one-mile radius of the school. Later, that limitation was raised to 1.5 miles.
“At McKinley [Elementary School], that excludes most of our families,” Grande explains. “So, you’re talking about children as young as kindergarten having to cross dangerous roads, including highways, to get to school. That’s an incredible impediment to attendance.”
Consequently, McKinley Elementary School averaged only 73.5 percent of its students attending regularly in the 2018-2019 school year, which was well below the statewide average of 85.7 percent, according to an email sent by Jaruszewicz.
To begin to tackle the challenge, Erie educators and administrative staff, along with the support of their United Way partners, secured a grant to conduct a safe routes assessment to note where students live, the intersections they had to traverse, and the stoplights and sidewalk conditions students encountered along the way.
To address how students would get to and from the school, Erie schools and United Way of Erie County staff created a walking school bus.
“A walking school bus is a bus without the bus,” Grande explains, adding that a walking school bus consists of a group of students walking to school escorted by one or two adult “drivers.” The “bus” has designated “stops” in the morning where children “board” and proceed to the next stops along the way to school.
When school ends, students gather with their fellow “passengers” and are escorted back to the stops closest to their homes. Bus routes change based on safety conditions and the transportation needs of families from year to year.
Adult escorts for the walking school bus were recruited from a local service-oriented organization called the Blue Coats. The Blue Coats, Bush explains, was an entity born out of the need for Erie to address issues of unruliness and violence in the schools. The organization recruited volunteers, mostly men, to stand on street corners and other key traffic areas to monitor the behavior of students going to and from schools.
In 2015, the Erie school district credited the Blue Coats “with a sharp decline in violence in and around the schools,” according to an Associated Press article that appeared in the Washington Times, prompting a local philanthropy to award the Blue Coats a $300,000 grant, “to shepherd Erie children” through school.
McKinley Elementary’s first walking school bus started in February 2021 with only four students enrolled, but by the end of the school year, there were 30 students enrolled, according to Jaruszewicz. Of the 30 students enrolled, 26 increased their attendance, and the average number of students attending McKinley regularly jumped to 86 percent by the end of the school year in 2021, besting the state average.
Other Erie schools involved in the community schools pilot had similar success with raising student attendance rates. Strong Vincent Middle School saw chronic absenteeism decrease by 20 percent, according to Jaruszewicz. Edison Elementary School saw chronic absenteeism rates drop from 22 percent to 11 percent between 2017 and 2020.
Giving Erie a Fighting Chance
In 2018 and 2019, Erie’s Public Schools added one new school each year to its group of schools using the community schools approach. In July 2021, the district announced it would expand the approach to five more schools, based on the success of its pilot program, according to the Erie Times-News.
The short-term goal of the approach is for all students entering Erie High School to have attended a community school in their elementary and middle school years, according to the article. But “the long-term goal is to grow academic success,” says Jaruszewicz.
That may “take years for the results to show,” he readily admits, and certainly the interruption posed to in-person learning as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help.
But the progress Erie schools have made on improving student attendance is encouraging, as numerous research studies have found a close association between attendance in the elementary grades and achievement and social-emotional outcomes in later grades.
But Erie advocates for the community schools approach also tend to frame their efforts in a narrative about the city’s financial comeback.
“The work of community schools is also an economic development initiative,” says Jaruszewicz.
Erwin elaborates, “Improving the walkability to the school campus has ripple effects on family employability. If parents know their children have safe routes to and from school, they know they are free to be at work. When we add after-school programs for kids, parents know they can work afternoon shifts.”
Bush says, “The community schools approach is not just a school issue; it’s a community issue and an economic development issue. Investing in these students and families now will pay off in the long run because, through the model, we’re supporting the community’s future workforce.”
If Erie still has a fighting chance, it will need that.