Food delivery. Free clothes. IT support. Community schools are stepping up in the pandemic.

This week, we’re having a conversation with Paula Oxoby-Hayett. She’s a community school coordinator at Enos Garcia Elementary in Taos, New Mexico.

As Oxoby-Hayett says below, there’s a ton of promise in the community school strategy. Especially during a pandemic, with more and more families struggling to make ends meet.

And research backs her up. Not only are community schools improving student educational outcomes, but they’re also reducing racial and economic achievement gaps.

JEREMY: Enos Garcia is a community school. How has that helped students and the community during the pandemic?

PAULA: Enos Garcia Elementary has been a community school since 2019. This allowed us time before the pandemic to implement the strategy. We could establish relationships with students, families, and providers.

Families told us how they were doing and how we could support them through a survey we did in August 2020. We partnered with a faith-based organization to start a backpack program where families get supplemental food once a week.

Even though the school building is closed, we still have our clothing bank. When families need clothing for their children, they tell us the sizes and we create packages for them to pick up.

COVID has severely impacted our families financially. Our survey showed that 25 percent lost their jobs, while 40 percent had their hours reduced. We know those statistics are even worse today.

We partnered with multiple organizations to help families pay their water, internet, and other bills. We’re helping them fill out applications for housing support. We partnered with the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque to offer free basic computer/IT support classes for families twice a week. We provide ESL classes to our parents.

JEREMY: What does a typical day look like as a community school coordinator?

PAULA: There’s not really a typical day. Before COVID and during COVID. I spend most of my days reaching out to the community and creating partnerships with nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies to bring resources to our students and families.

I also reach out to families to understand their needs, hopes, and dreams. Even now when our school is doing remote learning, I meet with families on Friday afternoons to deliver food.

Some time also goes in analyzing data and then working with my community school council to agree on priority areas. We want to know how well we are doing, so we reach out to families for feedback. The council includes teachers, staff, school leadership, nonprofit organizations, elected officials, business, and parents.

JEREMY: That sounds like a lot. What’s your favorite part of the job?

PAULA: Working with families and students. I love that my job gives me the opportunity to be a champion for equity in education.

I live in a poor rural area where children don’t have the same opportunities as others. I strive so that they can have the same opportunities. That goes for their families as well. I want them to have a voice in the education of their children.

I love that my job allows me to see the whole child. We don’t just see a student. We see a child, we see a family, we see social emotional, housing, food, and mental health needs, and we build those supports through partnerships.

Equally important is that we see strength. We see the strength that our families bring, we honor it and make it a part of the school.

JEREMY: You seem excited about the community school strategy. In your opinion, what makes it so special?

PAULA: I think the answer lies in the “how” not so much the “what.” This is not a top to bottom strategy. We actively listen to what our community, teachers, students, staff, and parents have to say. To avoid duplication and inefficient use of resources, we look within our own community first to find the resources we need.

The community school strategy has four pillars: that family and community engagement, plus integrated student supports, extended learning time and opportunities, and collaborative leadership.

Sometimes this way of “doing business” seems slower than a handful of people making all the decisions. However, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have community buy-in.

The school belongs to the community, it belongs to the parents, teachers, and students, so it needs to represent their dreams and vision.

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