Decatur Township finds support from community center, school partnerships

One of the downsides of sitting on the edge of Marion County is that the Decatur Township school district often isn’t as looped into the support systems that help schools in other parts of town.

So it’s no coincidence that one of a handful of local supports, the Goodwin Community Center, is mere steps away from Stephen Decatur Elementary School and has built a strong bond with school leaders.

Although Decatur has relationships with programs that receive broad philanthropic support from United Way of Central Indiana, there is no dedicated United Way agency in the area. The district is small and far from the center-city problems those big organizations often focus on. So the district depends on neighborhood pillars like Goodwin to help provide some of the “wraparound” services — outside of the classroom help like food, medical care and school supplies — that many families need.

To continue to grow and provide such services, Decatur Township this year is the first district in Indianapolis to wholly embrace the work of an organization called Communities in Schools, which helps schools across the state establish and sustain community partnerships that wraparound supports come from.

When the kids are nourished and taken care of outside the classroom, all they have to worry about is learning once they come inside the school. It helps everyone, Decatur Township Superintendent Matt Prusiecki said, especially teachers who might otherwise be the ones providing food and supplies on their own.

“If you infuse these kind of supports, then teachers should be allowed to teach,” Prusiecki said. “Teaching is a very difficult job, and if these programs can help support them as far as how they can be effective educators in the classroom, it’s another reason why it’s a win-win.”

And the various meal programs, after-school activities and supply drives are not just one-time investments, Prusiecki said. It’s a way to ensure kids get the care that helps them finish school and ultimately earn a diploma.

“Getting a high school diploma, going through a K-12 process or a preK-12 process, I guess in some cases, some people may see that as a given,” he said. “You go to school, you get your diploma, and that’s it. But that’s not always easy for all families.”

Making sure hungry kids get fed

It’s not uncommon for some kids in Decatur Township to eat three meals a day at school, Prusiecki said. Through various programs, the district provides free breakfast, lunch and sometimes even dinner to any student who needs it, no questions asked.

“I joke that there is no such thing as a free lunch,” Prusiecki said. “But there’s a free dinner in Decatur Township.”

Still, the district wasn’t always able to devote this much effort to developing its culture as a “community school.”

When Prusiecki came to Decatur in 2013, it was still reeling from the state’s 2009 decision to institute property tax caps that limited dollars that could go to schools, he said. The district passed a referendum the next year, which helped stabilize finances and allowed school officials to focus on the new programs rather than focus almost entirely on scrimping, saving and cutting.

Now, many of their extra programs don’t really cost much extra money — most of the services are donated or come at a reasonable cost. The strategy is more about establishing the partnerships and finding ways to be more efficient with resources and existing funding.

That’s where partners like the Goodwin Center come in.

When kids at school confide to counselors they aren’t being fed, school officials direct them to the center. The students tell Executive Director Toby Salyers they were sent by the school, and he points them to the kitchen, where food is served by volunteers each day and a food pantry is open every week.

“We use the community to serve the community,” Salyers said. “It’s cyclical.”

Jim Grim, director of school partnerships with IUPUI’s office of community engagement, said limited funding shouldn’t be a primary concern for schools that want to build partnerships.

“Schools always worry about the funding piece,” Grim said. “I try to tell people not to think in terms of funding, but think in terms of resources, and that is because most of the resources come from the partners.”

For example, IUPUI’s Indy Learning Center provides tutors for IPS students during the day and after school. One student who’s worked with IUPUI tutors, Gillian Bundles, was the valedictorian at Broad Ripple High School.

Her tutor, Brian Knip, wasn’t just there to review notes or teach her physics formulas. The Mechanical Engineering major wanted to help Bundles achieve her dreams of becoming an engineer, too.

Knip advised Bundles to apply for an IUPUI engineering scholarship and even spoke on her behalf to the department’s leaders when they learned she’d missed the deadline. Later, he got to be the one to give Bundles the news that she’d received a full scholarship, which covered housing costs as well.

Bundles’ story illustrates the power of connecting kids to the community, said Tamara Manson, who works at the learning center. The college students can be teacher-like role models for the IPS kids, but also feel more like peers. The relationship can do a lot for a student who might need some guidance. She tells her tutors they might not even realize how much influence they have.

“If you make a difference in one student’s life, that’s one difference that wouldn’t have happened without you,” Manson tells the tutors. “You may not get to see that, but you are apart of it.”

Results are good for schools, students and communities

At the Goodwin Center, nothing is wasted — even the rainbow-colored tile floors in the preschool classrooms demonstrate cost-savings.

Salyers, the foundation’s executive director, laid the surplus tile himself. He bought it, sketched out the design and measurements, and when he found out it would take thousands of dollars from his scarce grant money to hire a professional, he decided to do it himself.

Most impressive of all? If he didn’t so proudly volunteer this accomplishment, you probably wouldn’t even have noticed. That’s how good it looked.

The center operates on a shoestring budget, but its work is vital to the schools and residents it serves, Decatur spokeswoman Suzanne Rothenberg said.

That’s not unusual for community schools’ partnerships — budgets are slim, but the results of the connections forged are certainly felt by students and schools. In some areas of Indiana, community schools programs have led to massive changes, like the one Vivian Ashmawi created in Richmond 15 years ago.

It has set the bar for what her organization, Communities in Schools, can do, and it creates high expectations for what Communities in Schools hopes to accomplish in Decatur Township as the two begin to work more closely together to further develop wraparound services in the district as well as establish the organization’s central office and expand fundraising efforts.

Ashmawi helped grow the Richmond schools’ relationships with mental health and Medicaid providers, as well as connect them with the local Boys and Girls Clubs and churches for after-school programs and food and supply drives. Prusiecki said he hopes to do similar things in Decatur by building relationships with dentists, for example, and expanding his schools’ counseling services.

Essentially, Ashmawi’s organization is trying to help level the playing field for kids at school who are affected at home by difficulties associated with poverty, which can lead to struggles academically.

Poverty levels in Richmond have continued to climb in the past eight years to as high as 70 percent of students who come from families who qualify for federal free and reduced-price lunch. To qualify, family income cannot exceed $44,600 annually.

Even as poverty has been on the rise, Richmond’s graduation rates have also climbed. In 2014, 92 percent of kids graduated high school. But as recently as 2006, fewer than 60 percent did.

Ashmawi said this is proof the programs work, because school test scores and graduation rates typically fall as poverty grows. The better results benefit not just the schools and students but the local economy, she said.

“Every dollar invested in Communities in Schools returns $11 of economic impact over a nine year period,” Ashmawi said. “So there’s value from a taxpaying standpoint for investing in Communities in Schools.”

The main cost of getting involved with CIS is hiring a staff member to coordinate the partnerships and programs, she said. That takes the work off the shoulders of administrators and teachers who already have full-time jobs.

But even strong supporters like Grim, Ashmawi and Prusiecki said one organization can’t do it alone, and change doesn’t happen overnight.

“As a community, we’ve got to let everybody know that this is everybody’s responsibility,” Grim said. “The learning and development of our children is not just the schools’ responsibility, it’s everybody’s responsibility.”

Measuring success might take more time than policymakers expect, Grim said, but the outcomes improve not just the schools, but neighborhoods and cities as well. That kind of success requires more than a singular focus on standardized tests or A-to-F grades, he said.

“When you’re changing systems, you’re talking about a three- to five-year full payoff, and I think that sometimes we aren’t patient enough for that,” Grim said. “People are so focused on the academic side that they are missing the forest through the trees.”