DADE CITY — Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper is a believer in one-stop shopping when it comes to family court, so she was intrigued when she learned about a “community school” strategy that brings that philosophy to education.
Community schools go beyond the traditional educational offerings, providing support to families in such areas as financial literacy, mental health counseling, dental services and adult education.
Now Tepper is heading up a group that hopes to create such a “community school” in east Pasco, possibly opening as soon as January, smack in the middle of the 2014-15 school year.
“It’s not realistic to do it by this August and there’s no reason to wait until next August,” the judge said. “There’s no reason not to open mid-year.”
Many people might view all schools as community schools, but the community school movement is a particular way of approaching the needs of students, with several models existing on exactly how to pull it off.
Generally, community schools try to improve the chances students will succeed by adding resources that are known to help make that happen, according to the National Center for Community Schools. Those include increased parental involvement; extra learning opportunities through educational enrichment; consistent access to adult guidance and support; and ready access to medical, dental and mental health services.
Community schools can become the hub of a neighborhood. That’s what happens in New York City, which has more than 100 community schools, including about a dozen operated in a partnership between the New York City Department of Education and the Children’s Aid Society.
“It’s amazing what they show can be done,” Tepper said. “The families come in for everything. Their schools are open virtually all day every day.”
Tepper discovered community schools when she was approached by Ted Waller, CEO and founder of an organization called Healing Educational Alternatives for Deserving Students. Tepper was acquainted with Waller through a mutual friend, Jack Levine, who is a longtime advocate on issues affecting children in Florida.
Tepper, who deals with juveniles and troubled families on a daily basis, was a receptive audience as she and Waller discussed thoughts about educational and community needs in east Pasco.
The community school vision, where many services a family might benefit from are dealt with in one location, had echoes of something Tepper already was involved with. In 2012, she was one of six judges nationwide selected for Project ONE, an effort by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges to maximize judicial coordination of dependency, delinquency and family law matters.
The ONE in Project ONE is something of an overly stretched acronym, standing for “One family-one judge, No wrong door, Equal and coordinated access to justice.” The idea is to provide judges with guidance for supporting the needs of families and children regardless of which jurisdictional “door” of the courthouse they enter — family law, child welfare, family violence or juvenile justice.
Through Project ONE, Tepper meets every couple of months with about 30 to 50 stakeholders who represent various government agencies or organizations, such as the Pasco County school district, Farmworkers Self-Help, the Salvation Army and Sunrise of Pasco Inc.
In January, Tepper brought the community school idea before that group, with Waller on hand as guest speaker. They discussed the types of things they would want students to learn, such as creative thinking, problem solving, goal setting, financial literacy and responsible sexual behavior. They discussed possible support services, such as dental and physical health, couples counseling, grief counseling and nutrition education.
In late April or early May, group members hope to tour Evans Community School in Pine Hills, just west of Orlando. That school, previously known as Evans High School, adapted the community-school model used by the Children’s Aid Society in New York City.
A community school could be a traditional public school or a charter school, but Tepper said the east Pasco school more likely will be a private school.
A timeline developed at the January meeting envisioned forming a nonprofit corporation by April; identifying a location and hiring a principal by July; and hiring a staff and beginning to identify students by October.