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LEHIGH VALLEY, PENNSYLVANIA

Part Four: Case Studies of Scaling Up Community School Initiatives

LEHIGH VALLEY, PENNSYLVANIA: Building Out Regionally—COMPASS Schools and the United Way Of Greater Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania


The United Way of Greater Lehigh Valley (UWGLV) finds itself on the cusp of a great challenge and opportunity. After working for six years to expand community schools in three school districts, UWGLV has received a request from one of those districts to scale up the community schools strategy in all of its schools while a fourth district wants to join the initiative. How did UWGLV get to this position, and how is it responding to these scale-up opportunities?

UWGLV serves the area between Philadelphia and New York City, including the urban hubs of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton as well as rural areas. It launched its community schools initiative in 2005. Known as COMPASS (Community Partners for Student Success), the initiative is a core component of the United Way’s region-wide strategic community impact plan. According to Vice-President for Community Impact and initial COMPASS Director Marci Ronald, COMPASS is "a marriage of shared community responsibility. It takes shared leadership and good chemistry."

The COMPASS strategy grew out of community stakeholders’ concerns about outcomes for youth and families. In 1997, the United Way convened community leaders and partners across Lehigh and Northampton counties, including representatives from the departments of health and human services, school districts, institutions of higher education, and local businesses and corporations. The leaders formed a collaborative called the Lehigh Valley Council for Youth, which focused on best-practice models and strategies to boost support for students and schools in the region. Out of its deliberations, the council created Family Centers, wraparound services, positive behavior intervention and support programs, parent engagement, and other programs that promoted developmental assets in selected schools.

In 2004, the collaborative decided to think more comprehensively about its strategy and created a blue- ribbon panel that included Joy Dryfoos, a well-known community schools researcher, to evaluate its progress. Thanks to the generous $100,000 commitment of a local philanthropist, the Lehigh Valley Council for Youth held a small conference in 2005 with 40 education and community leaders from across the area to launch the community schools strategy. The event included presentations by representatives of the Coalition for Community Schools and the SUN (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods) Community Schools in Multnomah County, Oregon.

The council started crafting its community schools initiative by inviting four area school districts to participate. In wisely deciding to build on the success of its earlier work, it launched the first community schools in the Bethlehem Area School District in sites that had already adopted aspects of community schools strategies. At the same time, Lehigh and Northampton counties and the United Way planned to create one to two community schools in each of four focus districts as a way to start building the strategy from the ground up. They quickly expanded into the nearby Allentown and Bangor school districts. Bangor Superintendent John Reinhart explained why his district was interested in the community schools strategy, saying, "Our schools can’t offer all things to all people. We have to look to the community. I think community schools can offer real leveraging power…it’s a better way to handle the issues we face." Allentown Superintendent Dr. Karen S. Angello added, "We have benevolence in the Lehigh Valley; benevolence of heart, benevolence of skills, benevolence of funding. So why are we doing this? Because we have the ingredients. Community schools are all about aligning resources…to benefit our children and their families."
The fourth district chose not to commit to the initiative. It was in the midst of internal transitions and wanted to consider how the community schools strategy would meld with its existing work. That district is preparing to introduce the components of community schools in the 2011–2012 school year.

Late in 2006, the Lehigh Valley Council for Youth decided to reorganize its partnership structure to align with the new focus on community schools. It expanded its membership to include the heads of the Lehigh and Northampton County Departments of Human Services, lead executives from community-based organizations, and program providers. Together, this new collaboration of community leaders formed the COMPASS Council, with the intention of building a community schools initiative. They discussed issues of membership, name and branding, purpose, structure of meetings, communication, and resource development. From these leadership deliberations, COMPASS was launched in January 2007.

The United Way is the intermediary organization that administers COMPASS; it champions the initiative and builds awareness and community participation. UWGLV also works closely with lead agencies selected to manage operations at each site, providing ongoing training, technical assistance, and oversight. In addition, it provides core funding and receives contributions from each county’s department of human services, from corporate foundations, and from school districts under Title I, Safe Schools/Healthy Schools, and, the state accountability block grant.
At the school site, the United Way and a lead partner share the cost of supporting a full-time community schools coordinator. The United Way has selected a unique array of lead partner agencies, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Allentown, Communities in Schools of the Lehigh Valley, Northampton Community College, and Lehigh University, to participate as lead agencies. Early on, leaders decided to develop their own capacity to deliver training and technical assistance; in 2006, the United Way named a full-time director of training and technical assistance to support community schools through on-site training and technical assistance as well as implementation of the COMPASS model. COMPASS’s director is responsible for administration of the initiative, coordination of support for the schools, budget management, and resource development. A part-time administrative staff member assists the director.

COMPASS was awarded three VISTA volunteers who will join the initiative in July 2011. One volunteer will be placed in each of the three partnering school districts and will focus on building capacity for volunteer engagement at each school, alignment of program providers with each district’s academic vision and curriculum, and development of a consistent message and media presence within each district via a web site and newsletters.

The COMPASS Council continues to serve as the initiative’s community leadership group. It meets four times a year and is responsible for the initiative’s vision and strategy. In addition, the COMPASS Partnership, which comprises all members of the COMPASS Council and any other individual interested in learning about the COMPASS network, meets twice a year. Lead partners may attend the semiannual meeting, along with other program providers who want to learn how to connect to COMPASS. The purpose of the meeting is to showcase the COMPASS sites’ innovative programming and to motivate interested parties to explore ways to create lasting and meaningful impact.
The United Way’s regional focus, demonstrable improvements in several measures at COMPASS schools, and partnership efforts with state education leaders—amid a challenging economic climate and a school population with wide-ranging needs—have set the stage for expansion. Marci Ronald describes COMPASS’s scale-up plan as "very organic." She says, "As dollars—steady dollars—became available, the collaborative has thoughtfully considered how, when, and if to expand." COMPASS’s receipt of significant dollars from the United Way’s pool of undesignated funding from the 2008–2011 investment cycle significantly contributed to the initiative’s growth. In addition, Lehigh and Northampton counties have provided their respective schools and districts with some funding. Consequently, the initiative has expanded into 12 schools across three districts.

In 2008, COMPASS reassessed its work once again and developed a strategic plan to respond to a shifting environment. It focused on clearly articulating the initiative’s priorities, vision, and mission. In a case of unfortunate timing, however, the COMPASS strategic plan was largely put on hold when the United Way launched its own strategic planning process. However, through the efforts of COMPASS leaders in dialogue with the United Way Board of Directors, COMPASS community schools became a focus of the United Way’s strategic plan.
COMPASS now operates in 12, and soon to be in 13, of 42 high-poverty schools with academic achievement concerns; it reaches 8,000 students in elementary, middle, and high school. "In just three years," says Ronald, "we’ve had tremendous growth, success, and energy around what it takes to engage CBOs, schools, districts, and others to work together, for the long term, around a common mission for students in our community." Nearby districts, both urban and rural, want a similar set of community schools services in their schools; the United Way and its partners are encouraged by the possibility of a sizeable expansion.

As of spring 2011, COMPASS continues to work with the Allentown School District to understand the reality of what scale-up could mean. In fact, in partnership with the Allentown School District, UWGLV/COMPASS has submitted a proposal to the Social Innovation Fund of the Corporation for National and Community Service, requesting $1 million for each of the next three years. United Way has committed $500,000 to the project and has agreed to raise an additional $2.5 million over the next three years. The funds are expected to leverage $10.3 million for use in transforming five current School Improvement Grant (SIG) schools in Allentown into COMPASS Community Schools. In addition, despite financial constraints and budget cuts, Allentown Superintendent Gerald Zahorchak has created a new administrative position within the district to oversee and coordinate all before- and after-school programs and other opportunities and services across the district. The COMPASS Community School model is seen as the vehicle for effective and efficient coordination.

The Bethlehem Area School District recently inquired about how it might identify all programs and services offered within its jurisdiction, along with the full range of unmet needs. Part of Superintendent Joseph Roy’s plan for maintaining or increasing growth and opportunity revolves around the question, How do we increase the number of community schools in the district?

The Bangor area continues to make steady progress in understanding the demands of a rural district. It is working on the details of a five-year plan to implement the community schools strategy more fully across all five of its schools. The Easton Area School District (EASD) continues to build the infrastructure to support COMPASS goals. As a first step, the district has aligned itself with the important (and new in 2011) COMPASS-led Early Childhood Education effort, whereby COMPASS is working with a lead partner in Easton on the transition from pre-kindergarten to kindergarten. The United Way is using the partnership to educate and inform the Easton community about the COMPASS work on a larger scale. A local political figure representing parts of EASD has recently inquired about how the community schools model could be incorporated into state legislation promoting urban development. That inquiry holds promise for COMPASS’s further expansion.

Looking ahead, COMPASS Director Jill Perriera says, "We are keenly aware of the window of opportunity that is now wide open for COMPASS to look at a more comprehensive regional scale-up of community schools in the Lehigh Valley. Partnerships have been energized and strengthened by new leadership at all levels and are being guided by the power of leveraging resources and aligning efforts in the interest of student and family success and achievement."


Additional Resources

  • View a presentation about United Ways and community schools that feature COMPASS.
  • Read more about the role of the United Way in COMPASS in this Coalition brief.
  • Read about COMPASS in the 2009 Pennsylvania Community Schools Summit Brief.
 

 

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