In Brooklyn Center, a school by and for the community

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 18, 2012 - 12:59 PM

Evergreen Park, an elementary school in Brooklyn Center, has been remade for students' academics and family stability.

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At Evergreen Park World Cultures Community School in Brooklyn center, third-grade teacher Nikki Erickson enlisted some of her students as she sawed lumber for the frame of a mural project. Her helpers, from left, were safety team members Anthony Lee, Avan Thao and Aaron Endris.

Photo: Bre Mcgee, Special to the Star Tribune

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The Anoka-Hennepin School District intends to enlist the community in its remake of Evergreen Park World Cultures Community School in Brooklyn Center.

Students returning to school earlier this month found a revamped curriculum, as well as a food shelf, a clothing and school supplies bank and additional resources to help their parents get over rough patches in life.

In the spring of 2011, the school board approved a plan to leave behind the International Baccalaureate model, a European-based, rigorous, college preparatory program, which had been in place at Evergreen Park. This fall, the school is beginning to adopt a community school model that is based not so much on geographic boundaries, as is usually the case, but in working to incorporate the strengths of the entire school community, as well as neighboring institutions and businesses. It also works to increase neighborhood investment in the school -- eventually, school officials hope to become a home base for such services as English classes, legal help and medical and dental care.

The model remains a work in progress -- it's the first in the district -- but the hope is that the combination of beefed-up academics and family support will boost students' performance, which despite continual progress continues to lag behind district averages. The scrapped IB program didn't quite fit into state education standards, said school board Chairman Tom Heidemann, and wasn't serving students at the school.

"It is performance-driven, this change that we're trying to drive into Evergreen Park," Heidemann said. "We're trying to think outside of the box, in terms of what we need to do there to make sure everyone is successful."

'Ownership' for families

Much of the transition is being led by curriculum integrator Vanessa Wood, a former first-grade teacher at the school. She described the new academic model as collaborative, hands-on, more inclusive of volunteers and offering lessons that reflect and enhance the students' own lives. Sometimes that might mean inviting in an uncle's musical group, or a parent who has a story to share.

"We want families to feel they're a part of this whole learning experience, so they can take ownership, too," Wood said. "We think that will trickle down to the kids."

Last week, a group of third-graders was beginning work with muralist Jimmy Longoria's MuralWorks. The program assesses students to find their strengths, and breaks them into work teams. On Wednesday, the design team was busy with pencils and paper. The logistics team was working on a proposal to ask administration for permission to proceed. The safety officer was scanning the classroom for dangers and an equipment worker was passing out T-shirts, marking each student, "Mural Worker." The foreman presided over all, with Longoria's help, consulting a plan book and tentatively issuing orders.

The hands-on activity, Wood said, helps to foster a classroom community, sets the foundation for future teamwork and teaches students that there are different pathways to art.

"They can all be involved in art in ways that best suit their learning style," she said.

More than academic support

Beyond academics, the school is better set up than it was to offer support to students and families, Wood said.

At Evergreen Park last year, 78 percent of the student body qualified for free and reduced-price lunches, and 37 percent were just learning to speak English.

More than 72 percent were students of color, compared with an average of 22 percent across the district.

"The philosophy is taking care of the whole child," Wood said. "They can focus on their academic learning when you fill in the gaps in the other areas."

The audio-visual room shares space with shelves of gently used clothing and shoes for kids, adults and infants. Around the corner, an office is set up with shelves -- sparsely stocked for now -- with boxes of cereal, laundry detergent and canned goods. Social worker Sara Ferber has a stock of nondescript backpacks that students and parents can fill with groceries and return empty.

The school's website includes an appeal to the community to help keep the food shelf stocked with groceries and personal items.

One morning last week, LaQuinta Gant popped in to see Ferber.

Her daughter, Travion Manuel, a third-grader, started at the school last fall.

When Gant suddenly needed to change her living situation, Ferber helped her find a sponsor to help cover the deposit on a new apartment.

"It's a blessing," she said of the help from school. "I didn't know what I was about to do."

The added stability has a direct effect on Travion's ability to focus on her school work, she said.

"She see's I'm not struggling," Gant said. "She sees everything change, and we'll be in our own place this week."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

  • HOW TO HELP

    For information on how to partner with the school or contribute to the food shelf, visit startribune.com/a1715.

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