Officials claim new program helping at middle school


By Benjamin Cohn

Leicester – Education officials from Erwin Middle School, Buncombe County and United Way sat down with the Tribune this week to discuss progress on an exciting new initiative being trialed in the area. The initiative is known by several names, including the community school project and Middle School Success Initiative.

Susanne Swanger, Buncombe County’s associate superintendent, spoke of the partnership between her county and United Way. We wouldn’t be having the successes of using this model if it weren’t for our partner,” [United Way] she said.

The second representative present was Laura Elliot, director of United Way of Asheville and head of Buncombe County’s Middle School Success Initiative. She spoke at length about the support United Way, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to issues like access to health care and financial stability, has been able to provide Buncombe County middle schoolers and the tedious research required to enact such a program.

“We’d certainly like to think that United Way has been a partner with the school system in different aspects,” she said. “United Ways across the country have been investing in education. We really started doing community school work in 2014.

“We did a comprehensive community needs assessment, and at that time there weren’t a lot of supports in place for middle school students. There was a lot happening with our elementary schools and high schools, but there seemed to be this drop off of supports in the middle school years.”

Swanger cut in to note Erwin Middle’s recent academic achievements, suggesting that success might be a result of the initiative’s success. “Our middle schools did well academically on the state assessments last year,” Swanger said.

“There’s a formula that predicts how a school will do or how students will do in comparison. Erwin went from not meeting [academic] growth [standards] to meeting [academic] growth [standards]. As a school, they were meeting where the state thought they should. That’s a great success indicator,” she said.

Chris Thompson, Erwin Middle’s principal said, “I was introduced to the middle school success network and that whole program and the purpose of that program.” Part of that program was having “…two AmeriCorps…” representatives in the school…” who were collecting data during the school year.

Out of all that research came the realization that what parents want, more than anything else, was the sense that they could connect directly with the adults helping shape their children’s lives every day at school. Parents wanted a more intimate, personal relationship with teachers and the ability to have direct conversations with them about all facets of their children’s lives.

“They did a lot of surveys, they did a lot of meet and greet with parents, they did a lot of the legwork to be able to go out in the community and build relationships with faith-based members, different organizations within the Erwin district,” Thompson said.

The plan itself is composed of what they call “four pillars of community schools,” and a helpful pamphlet explained what they looked like in action. Four pillars composing a community school model include “integrated student supports, active family and community engagement, expanded learning time and opportunities, and collaborative leadership in practice,” according to the handout.

United Way and Buncombe County’s plan will be expanded to other schools in the district if the program is deemed a success. According to representatives in last week’s meeting, that success is only a matter of time. It’s possibly already upon us.

Officials are definitely liking what they’re seeing at Erwin Middle.


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