Columbia Public Schools District plans community school

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 | 6:00 p.m. CDT; updated 12:11 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 17, 2013

COLUMBIA — All-white chicken bites. Green beans. Mashed potatoes and gravy.

Every week, the Columbia Public School District rotates its elementary school menu. All-white chicken bites are always on the schedule. Consistency is important.

For students struggling with school, knowing what they have on their plate — and which sides come with it — can be the preparation necessary to satiate their academic appetites.

But many students, all-white chicken bites aside, do not have consistency in other aspects of their lives. Peter Stiepleman knows this.

As an assistant superintendent of elementary education, Stiepleman believes a "community" school would help move that consistency from the lunchroom to the classroom. He wants to partner a new school with local agencies to provide students in at-risk situations access to academic, health and social development resources.

"Our perspective is that consistency matters," Stiepleman said.

The district struggles with three "gaps" in education: the achievement, opportunity and enrichment gaps. When Stiepleman noticed all three of these gaps affected the test scores of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, he decided it was time to figure out why.

What he found was inconsistency. Students who receive free and reduced lunch are often much more mobile than their peers. Many move from one school to another from year to year, leaving academic, emotional and social supports behind each time they relocate.

A community school would aim to keep those students in one place, Stiepleman said.

In its first year, the school would use a lottery system to form about six classes of pre-kindergarten age students from throughout the district. Each class would have about 15 students. Once those students are old enough for kindergarten, they would form the first kindergarten classes at the community school instead of attending their home schools.

"We know our community wants a different kind of option," Stiepleman said.

Ideally, the school would meet year-round — from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. — and would combine normal school hours with enrichment programs before and after class time. Students could attend the school until fifth grade, when Stiepleman believes they would be prepared to transition to middle school.

Building partnerships

Stiepleman believes that community partnerships would give students and families access to the same experiences that other children have outside of school.

"The idea for a community school is to create a hub," Stiepleman said.

Although the school is still in the preliminary stages of forming these partnerships, Stiepleman has spoken to a few organizations about his idea, including First Chance for Children, a nonprofit pre-kindergarten readiness program.

Executive Director of First Chance Jack Jensen believes his program would help families in the community school foster educational environments at home.

"We know that stress in a family's life greatly affects a family's ability to have those positive relationships with a child," Jensen said.

When families can't afford the essentials — food, housing and medical care to name a few — stress rocks the relationships between parents and their children. Jensen's crew of early education specialists trains families to cope with that stress. Whether that means the stresses of poverty or of a single-parent household, First Chance's "home visitors" act as mentors for family relationships that might struggle otherwise.

"It is about making sure that children have the proper nutrition and a warm, caring and safe environment," Jensen said "Those things need to continue in kindergarten."

Stiepleman also cited Fun City Youth Academy and Columbia College's Summer Expeditions program as organizations he would like to incorporate into the community of the school.

"Every kid should be entitled to that kind of enrichment," Stiepleman said.

Logistics of the school

In April 2014, the district plans to ask the community for a $50 million bond issue — a 4-cent property tax increase — to pay for a new elementary school on the east side of Columbia.

The new school would relieve overcrowding at Cedar Ridge Elementary School, which, at twice its capacity, has more students in trailers than in classrooms. If the bond issue passes, then Cedar Ridge students would move into the new school.

For Stiepleman, that plan means potential.

He wants to use the empty Cedar Ridge building to house the students from the district’s Title I preschool and gifted programs, which are located in the Eugene Field Elementary School. With those students in a bigger facility and another building available, the community school could move into the Field location.

“From a fiscal perspective on that, it’s really always about the condition of that facility,” Linda Quinley, chief financial officer for the district, said.

Both the Cedar Ridge and Field buildings are in good condition. There is no disadvantage to using an existing building, especially since school buildings are so difficult to repurpose, Quinley said.

However, the community school idea is still too broad and the April 2014 bond too far in the future for funding changes to reflect on the district’s operating budget, she said.

"The largest single budget item is transportation," Quinley said.

Because the community school would pull students from different neighborhoods in Columbia, the district would most likely use a lottery bus system to cart students to and from the school. Although the district already uses some lottery buses, funding them is more expensive funding regular bus routes. The district won't be sure of the exact cost of transportation until other community school logistics have been discussed, Quinley said.

Other costs are less ambiguous. An empty school building needs a core operating staff of secretaries, cooks, custodians and administrators to keep things running. All of these positions would have to be put on the budget, Quinley said.

"The time is right for the community to come together," Stiepleman said.

If the community approves the April 2014 bond issue, the district hopes to use the money to fund additional improvements to schools throughout the district as well as the new east elementary school.

Voters will also be asked to approve $40 million dollar bond proposals in 2016, 2018 and 2020 for other building and maintenance projects.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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