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Graduating from a Community School

Oh The Places You Will Go: Graduating from a Community School

With graduation season now complete, we wanted to highlight the accomplishments of students who found support within their school communities throughout high school. 

Michelle Rivas Martinez can remember her mother saying "Just graduate from high school and I'll stop bugging you." As a 9th grader, Michelle was barely passing classes and spending a lot of time in Principal Jose Navarro’s office at Social Justice Humanitas Academy in San Fernando, Calif.—a community school affiliated with the Los Angeles Education Partnership.

"I wasn’t thinking about college," she says. "I didn’t think it was for me."

Now, Michelle is preparing to attend the University of California at Santa Cruz and study anthropology.  

The opportunities and additional services available to students in community schools have a way of transforming even the most disengaged students into lifelong learners who are prepared for college, a career and any other challenges they might face. As they look back on their four years of high school, graduates like Michelle reflect on the individuals and organizations that gave them support along the way.

‘The People You Call Your Family'

Community schools can be a refuge for students who face tremendous academic and personal challenges, including the dangers of community unrest and drug-related crime. In Baltimore, Renaissance Academy High School, part of the Family League of Baltimore’s community schools initiative, became a shelter for Khalil Bridges even as he lost friends and classmates to gun violence. Instead of giving up on his own education, Khalil would sometimes stay at school until 9 p.m., working in the food pantry and "doing things to make the school look good."

"If you don’t come to school, you’re going to feel bad," he says. "That is where the people you call your family are."

He describes Hallie Atwater, the community school coordinator at Renaissance, as "like my mother" because she helps him remember appointments, deadlines and other details that might get lost due to his own mother suffering from an illness and seizures that have impaired her memory. He says the school takes care of him so she doesn’t have to worry.

In a city where schools were closed during riots in 2015, Renaissance works with community partners to give students a voice. From rapping in a school recording studio set up by Communities United, a nonprofit community organization, to speaking about his life on a panel at the White House, Khalil has taken advantage of opportunities to speak in support of his school and accepts help when it’s offered.

He’s relied on a mentor from Seeds of Promise, an organization that the school hires to provide both academic and social-emotional support. Khalil’s mentor never missed one of his basketball games. He also became close with Brandon Bull, the co-director of the AIM Basketball Association. In addition to providing after-school enrichment programs at the school, Coach Bull also runs a barbershop and offers free haircuts to Renaissance students.

"Any person they know, they reach out to to support that school," says Khalil, who took college classes while in high school and is considering says attending a community college and studying to become a physical therapist.

‘A Support System at School’

Community schools can also provide students opportunities to develop supportive relationships with other adults who can monitor their progress toward graduation and connect them with additional services when needed.

Kelsy Brown’s freshman year at Westlake High School in Atlanta just happened to be the first year Communities in Schools (CIS) became involved with the school, providing students the additional guidance and resources they need to be successful. Kelsy was overwhelmed during 9th grade and having a hard time finding balance between her social life and her academic responsibilities.

Then she was referred to CIS and started to have regular contact with site coordinator Demona Warren, who could monitor Kelsy’s grades, let her know what to work on and compliment her when she worked hard.

"Having someone like that is really important, who can constantly be on your tail," she says, adding that while she is fortunate to have support from both her parents, "for those students who don’t have someone at home, having a support system at school…is really helpful."

Dr. Warren recommended she attend after-school tutoring sessions, which she said improved her grades and even gave her enough confidence to enter the competition for Miss Westlake. She was crowned with the title not only for her grades, but also for serving as the manager of both the basketball and football teams for all four years of high school. Now Kelsy is headed to Savannah State University where she wants to study social work and eventually open a nonprofit child-care center.

Wanting to ‘Be an Example’ 

Community schools give students opportunities to develop their leadership skills and give back to their schools and communities. Those "in-depth conversations" Michelle had with her principal helped her realize she had something to contribute, and by the time she had reached her sophomore year, she was making A’s and B’s, playing three sports and looking for leadership positions.

She remembers how disappointed when at first she wasn’t chosen to serve as a mentor to an incoming freshman. "I wanted to be an example," she says. So she worked harder and mentored a sophomore the following year. She also took a course through the Youth Policy Institute, a SJHA partner, to become a career college ambassador, meaning she helps other students learn about the college application process, understand the financial aid process and access other resources about college. She believes that because she initially struggled in high school, she can empathize and be even more helpful than if she had had an easy road.

"It’s not about having the perfect grade," she says. "It’s about being able to offer something to someone."

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