$5 million grant to further reach of United Way's community school initiative

December 4, 2014
Author: Marjorie Cortez

SALT LAKE CITY — At Woodrow Wilson Elementary School, arts specialist Rosemary Mitchell dares her students to “dream big.”

The Post-it notes hanging in her visual arts classroom provide a glimpse into her students’ dreams.

One child dreams of traveling into space. Another child wants a puppy.

While some of the students' dreams are fanciful, others are aspirational, such as the child who dreams of getting on the school’s honor roll.

“We can do that,” said Lyndsey Edwards, director of school community partnerships for United Way of Salt Lake. "That we can do."

Woodrow Wilson isn’t your typical elementary school, Edwards explains. It’s a community school, which bolsters students’ academic success with a host of community resources intended to help children and their families succeed in school and life, she said.

Carefully selected services such as health, social services and community development programs wrap around the school's academic mission, which includes preschool and after-school programs.

If parents need help learning English, the community school finds a partner to provide the instruction. If a family hasn’t had flu shots, a community partner hosts an immunization clinic. If a child needs glasses, a mobile vision care van visits the school so he or she can have an exam and receive glasses on the spot.

United Way even found community partners to provide free haircuts for the whole family during parent-teacher conferences, said Principal Jadee Talbot.

“Every time we find a gap, we provide a system to fix it,” says Scott McLeod, United Way of Salt Lake’s senior director of community school partnerships.

As McLeod explains, a traditional elementary school is like a rotary dial telephone. But a community school can be likened to a smartphone with apps for educational services and a wide array of supports such a health care, nutrition and programs that strengthen families.

“It’s a system of strategies that are all aligned toward common goals,” he said. Among those goals are children prepared to start kindergarten, students performing at grade level by the end of the third grade, making sure students are prepared for a high school curriculum and on track to graduate once they start. The next step is guiding them into post-secondary education and training programs.

In South Salt Lake, the strategy is starting to yield benefits for each community school taking part in the United Way partnerships. Third grade reading proficiency is up 15 percent at all community schools, based on end-of-year tests and Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills or DIBELS scores.

Five years into the partnership, Woodrow Wilson students who are English language learners are outperforming other English language learners statewide in math proficiency.

At community schools throughout South Salt Lake, the number of kids on track to graduate from high school, which is a measurement of ninth-graders with no failing grades in core classes, has climbed 12 percent in three years.

The collaborative effort not only is improving outcomes for students, their families and communities, it’s also garnering national attention.

Recently, the Denver-based Daniels Fund awarded a $5 million grant — $1 million a year over five years — to the United Way of Salt Lake to advance the reach of its community school initiative, now in six neighborhoods.

“The more we have learned about United Way of Salt Lake’s intentional Collective Impact work at community schools, we have been increasingly impressed with the meaningful work they are doing to truly change lives and communities,” said Kristin Todd, senior vice president of the Daniels Fund.

The gift will be used help boost student outcomes by supporting academic programs and services at United Way community schools and provide funding to expand programs and develop additional community schools.

“This investment will truly change the trajectory for hundreds, if not thousands of low-income, at-risk children,” said Deborah Bayle, president and CEO of United Way of Salt Lake.

United Way of Salt Lake is a partner in 19 community schools that serve as hubs for families to access programs and services.

At Woodrow Wilson, community partnerships bolster the school’s academic goals through a wide variety of partnerships, Talbot said.

There are more than 30 languages spoken at the school of 735 students. The student body includes refugee children from all parts of the world.

While part of a principal's job description is to advocate for his students, Talbot said United Way has an extensive network of partners and ability to leverage programs and other help.

All my history in the Granite School District has been at Title I schools, but none of them have been in a partnership with the United Way. This has been a pleasant surprise for me, this being my first year at Woodrow. Having them build the partnerships with outside businesses, they provide so many resources to the families in need in my area. It’s just awesome to see,” he said.