Educating children during the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many factors that inhibit student growth. Whether those are lack of access to technology and necessities like healthy food and clothes, or poor social and emotional health, kids need to have their basic needs met before they can learn and progress.

Studies have shown that certain demographics of students — such as students of color, English learners, students with disabilities and those from low-income households — have been more affected than others by the pandemic. Tennessee students’ state test scores reflect that impact. Many of Tennessee’s students weren’t on track before pandemic-related setbacks, and as challenges continue to manifest, it may be even harder to get them where they need to be — especially with teachers who are spread thin.

One way to set students back on track could be community schools, public schools that rely on community members and organizations to serve the specific needs of students and their families both inside and outside the classroom. Community schools provide additional support, through partners and sometimes extra employees, that educators and school staff can’t always provide, such as assisting unhoused students and families or providing education and career support to parents. 

Community schools aren’t new to the Metro Nashville Public School system. Since 2012, the district has held an initiative called Community Achieves, which serves 34 schools by bringing in hundreds of partners to support students. Community Achieves director Alison McArthur says the district is planning to use COVID-19 emergency relief funds to reach an additional 25 schools. Community Achieves helps provide what are known as wraparound services to address a range of student needs, from basic necessities to academic enrichment and classes for parents.

Lydia Yousief is the director of Elmahaba Center, which represents Arabic-speaking communities in Nashville. She says that while the district tries to address its students’ needs, there’s a disconnect between MNPS and its families, and that MNPS has a “top-down” culture. 

“You could feed a bunch of kids,” says Yousief,  “you could do a bunch of vaccines, you could do a bunch of ESL classes, but you’re not going to get anywhere if you are not building a community. And you don’t build a community by [saying], ‘Here, let me give you something.’ It has to be mutual.”

“Our love language is service,” Yousief continues. “When you offer a service … parents and students should respond twice that fold. And that happens in spaces like churches and mosques, but it doesn’t happen in spaces like schools, and that’s because the service that you’re offering is condescending.”

To address some issues that the overstretched district can’t fully rectify for its diverse array of students, the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association — Nashville’s teachers’ union — is creating its own community schools initiative called Love and Vision. The initiative is a part of its parent organization NEA’s nationwide attempt to establish community schools. In addition to the NEA, MNEA is partnering with Elmahaba Center, Workers’ Dignity, Safer Schools Nashville and SEIU Local 205, the union that represents school support staff. 

The goal, according to MNEA organizing director Sara Duran, is to “bring more voices to the school-decision-making table by identifying and taking down barriers for engagement. We want our schools to become true neighborhood schools.” Love and Vision will work with MNPS’ Community Achieves initiative. 

“The work that Community Achieves does is invaluable,” says Duran via email, “and our goal is to add capacity to that work.”

In Love and Vision’s first year, MNEA is focusing on four pilot schools: Glencliff, Antioch, Whites Creek and Maplewood high schools. While these schools already have support from Community Achieves, Duran says the district’s lines of assistance are already established, and MNEA is working to further engage parents, staff, students and community members by asking, in Duran’s words, “What do you love about your school [and] community, [and] what is your vision for your school [and] community?” This engagement seeks to develop a “common vision” that can drive MNEA’s initiative further and create more community-driven schools that, rather than simply providing extra support, truly engage families.

Nashville’s students need all the support they can get to continue recovering from the academic implications of the pandemic. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to serve the needs of MNPS’ diverse body of students, the families and partners who work with them understand these needs both inside and outside schools. Initiatives like Community Achieves and Love and Vision — as well as the nonprofit Communities in Schools of Tennessee, which provides similar assistance to students in Nashville and throughout the state — give schools the opportunity to work together to create the best learning pathways for students. Those looking to get involved with schools can volunteer with Community Achieves, donate to Communities in Schools, tutor students and keep an eye on MNEA’s developing Love and Vision initiative. 

“It’s really, really simple,” says Yousief. “If you care for community members, parents or people who don’t even have kids there, they’re going to care for you.”

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