Community Schools Offer Holistic Approach to Student Success

Published on December 20, 2021 in

Community Schools Offer Holistic Approach to Student Success

For the first two years of his life, he was known only as Baby Boy.

From doctor’s appointments to daycare, he remained anonymous – his huge grin, golden platinum hair and curious gray eyes defining him when his name could not. Born addicted to drugs due to his birth mother’s use during pregnancy, he was picked up from the hospital by his foster mother, Heather Johnson, at just 10 days old and not legally allowed to be named.

Next year, with an official birth certificate bearing his name in-hand, Isaiah Johnson will start kindergarten at Ann Visger Preparatory Academy in River Rouge where Heather, who has adopted him, works as an aide.

Ann Visger is one of five United Way Community Schools in the region. The schools, which receive grant funding and additional supports from United Way for Southeastern Michigan, act as resource-rich hubs for families in the community, offering extra academic and wraparound supports. Students and families can also access health and wellness resources, receive help with social and emotional learning, and more.

Heather, who recently brought Isaiah to Ann Visger for a movie night event, said she is excited for him to begin his education journey at the school. During the visit, other staff members greeted him with high-fives and hugs.

“Hi Isaiah,” they said. His smile widened.

“It’s like a family here. And being a Community School will make it even more so,” Heather said. “I appreciate that they’re going to take the time to understand what’s going on at home. Our family is different. I’m a single mom. I was a foster kid. He was a foster kid. They’ll understand our situation and be able to offer extra support if we need it.”


This fall, we launched our Community Schools initiative in River Rouge (Ann Visger Preparatory Academy), Southfield (Stevenson Elementary), Pontiac (Herrington Elementary and Pontiac High School) and Hazel Park (United Oaks Elementary), kicking off the pilot year with exciting community events. The initiative includes $1.15 million total in targeted grants to the schools, impacting nearly 2,500 students and their families.

United Way understands that success in life begins with education. Yet many students lack access to the resources needed to make it to graduation day and beyond.

“We’re proud of the positive impact we’ve had on education in Southeastern Michigan throughout our 100-year history, with programs covering the full spectrum from birth and early education to college and careers,” said Tonya Adair, chief people, equity, and engagement officer of United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “Community Schools will continue to build on that foundation, equipping parents, students and educators for a lifetime of learning.”

Based on our ALICE Report, our initial focus for Community Schools is on neighborhoods with a disproportionate number of families who struggle to meet their basic needs. Research shows children from low-income families tend to be 12 to 14 months behind their classmates in pre-literacy and language skills when they enter kindergarten, which decreases their chances of graduating high school and finding success in careers.

Addressing all of the factors impacting student success — from the living room to the classroom — stabilizes the student’s environment and gives them a better opportunity to thrive now and into the future,” Tonya said. The Community Schools initiative helps create student success hubs that are full of resources and support. The result is a safe, supportive climate focused on academics, wellness and engagement.”

Through grant funding, each Community School employs an onsite coordinator to facilitate the formation of strategic partnerships with corporate sponsors and community groups.

At Stevenson Elementary School in Southfield, for example, Coordinator Porsha Eubanks saw a need for students to have access to positive male role models that they might not have at home. She reached out to the Southfield Alphas – members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, who will soon visit the school weekly to interact with students. It’s about noticing the need and making the connection,” Porsha said. We’re looking at grades but we’re also looking beyond that to see how we can really improve a student’s life in a lasting way.”

It’s about noticing the need and making the connection.

Ka’Mara Steele (left) and Selena Steele (right) enjoy movie night at Ann Visger Preparatory Academy in River Rouge.

School as a village

When talking about the need for Community Schools, Porsha references her favorite idiom: It takes a village to raise a child.

“A Community School really is that village where every single person is invested in a child’s success,” she said. “That’s how things used to be. I’m glad we’re getting back to that.”

Community Schools are based on a successful national model that builds on the understanding that healthy, thriving communities value PRIDE: ensuring students are prepared for positive development; have families that are resilient and interconnected with local businesses, corporations and advocacy stakeholders; diverse in thought and representation; and engaged with community partnerships. In River Rouge, for example, Ann Visger is partnering with local dentists, optometrists and other organizations to ensure students are ready to learn without any hinderances.

In addition to the grant funding, Community Schools receive access to other supports like book distribution through United Way’s My Home Library program, literacy fairs, the annual Community Schools Conference, backpack drives, social navigators, technology and connectivity. Caregivers are also encouraged to join a Parent/Family Community of Practice – a safe space designed for parents and caregivers to understand how to best support their children both academically and personally.

Since needs vary by community, Community Schools abstain from taking a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, each school is tasked with completing a needs analysis that “provides a bird’s-eye view into where a school’s assets lie, and also where their needs lie, so that administrators can be intentional about where they spend their grant dollars,” according to Kenya Abbott Jr., program director for United Way’s Community Schools initiative.

At Ann Visger, academic as well as social and emotional needs are the top priorities. In its first semester as a Community School, it hired a literacy coach to ensure more students are reading at or above grade level, distributed more than 200 books, and provided social and emotional supports to 45 students. An additional 32 students received mental health supports.

Addressing the gap 

Students at Ann Visger were behind the state average in literacy and math before the pandemic, which further intensified existing inequities among Hispanic, Black and economically challenged students. 

Teachers and administrators are optimistic that the Community Schools model, which has been credited with helping to reduce the achievement gap in other states, will help get local students and families back on track. In some Community Schools, graduation rates have risen by as much as 21 percent.  

We know the model works,” Kenya said. In Michigan, where 60 percent of Black households and 48 percent of Hispanic households are below the ALICE threshold, there are certainly more areas where Community Schools could make a positive impact. We’re taking the lessons learned during this pilot year and exploring ways to expand. Our goal is for any school that wants to be a Community School to be able to do so.” 

Tarence Wheeler, director of corporate and community affairs for River Rouge School District, said that partnerships and compassion are a winning mix for Community Schools everywhere. 

United Way’s partnership with Scholastic, for example, will ensure every child attending Community Schools can build a library at home brimming with their favorite topics – from science to fairy tales to Black history. Other programs like ParentPowered – a research-based text messaging tool offered to Community Schools families – provide parents with easy-to-implement ideas to engage with their children. 

In 2021, Pontiac School District became the first Community Schools district to receive corporate investment through United Way’s partnership with Bosch. The investment focuses on building STEM skills and provides funding for a social navigator to assist students and families overcoming barriers. 

Additional investments from corporate and private donors will help to expand the Community Schools footprint across the region and lower the number of ALICE households over time. Donors can fund schools at scale, like Bosch, or can fund specific efforts such as investing $25,000 for a parent room at a school. 

Meeting every need 

Partnerships with community-based organizations and donors help to ensure basic needs are met so that students can focus on the curriculum.  

When we look beyond test scores and homework, we understand that there may be other issues going on – it could be a lack of food, it could be a lack of stable housing – whatever it is, we can bring in the right resources to address it and give that child a chance,” Tarence said. At the same time, we have to understand that poverty itself is exhausting every day. We can alleviate some of the anxiety parents and students face by acting with empathy and understanding. Community Schools can offer a place where parents can ask for help without being criticized or judged.”

Families at Stevenson have access to the Neighbors Helping Neighbors Food Closet at the entry of the building. At Ann Visger, 140 families receive food boxes weekly from Forgotten Harvest. Pontiac High School offers an on-site clothing closet for youth and families. 

For families like Heather and Isaiah’s, Community Schools offer hope. 

You realize that coming from a certain place or being in a certain place where you need a little help doesn’t limit your potential,” Heather said. You can still do something great with your life.” 

Find out more about how our programs and partnerships are helping children thrive by clicking here