Grant funds will help Austin schools add services for needy students

Three years ago, Victor Garcia was on the path to dropping out of school. His father was just killed in the Mexican drug trade. Central Texas gangs were looking to recruit boys like him. He didn’t care about his academics.

Victor, now an 8th grader at Webb Middle School, is running for president of the student body, making good grades, and wants to go to University of California-Berkeley or New York University.

He said he found help at Webb through mentors who pushed him to focus on his academics, and Breakthrough, a nonprofit program that provides social and academic support for future first-generation college students starting in middle school.

“Webb has teachers that care for students a lot,” he said. “They give up their time to make sure that students are successful.”

Webb Middle School and the high school it feeds to, Reagan, are models of ‘community schools’ that don’t just offer an education, but also access to a web of social services for families that have needs with health, jobs, housing, and even education and language classes for parents who need better skills to support their children.

Victor shared his story before dozens of district officials and their partners on Tuesday during an announcement that the district plans to expand the community school concept to 13 other campuses.

The district’s largest labor union, Education Austin, and advocates Austin Voices for Education and Youth have recently received a $180,000 grant to implement the model at all schools that feed into Reagan High in Northeast Austin.

“This is big because you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the nation that is going about community schools like we are — looking to go from pre-K all the way up to 12th grade providing support for kids as they enter school and exit school,” said Ken Zarafis with Education Austin.

About 4,000 community schools exist across the country with a handful in Texas, said Allen Weeks with Austin Voices. The model gained traction over the last two decades with the goal of keeping students in school and engaged. School districts partner with area businesses and nonprofits to provide the services to families that need them.

“Everybody takes shared ownership of the success of the school,” Allen Weeks said. “All of that richness together has the resources for a school to succeed.”

The latest grant is from the two national education labor unions, National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. It will pay for direct support and three new staff positions to organize and plan the rollout of the model at other campuses. Education Austin and Austin Voices will continue to look for funds to help fully implement the model over the next two years.

Tuesday’s announcement was also a celebration for Reagan and Webb, which were under the threat of closure in 2007.

Since then, Reagan’s graduation rate has climbed from 47 percent in 2006 to 82 percent in 2014. Webb Middle School also earned five out of seven distinctions from the state last year for performing better than its peers on state assessments.

Ninety-seven percent of the 700 students at Webb are low-income. Half of the students are also English-language learners, and many come from single-parent homes. On campus, that means students who are less likely to show up for class, and parents who are likely to be less involved because they are working multiple jobs, said Webb principal Raul Sanchez.

Thirty-five community partners work to eliminate those barriers at the school, and teachers are expected to mentor students.

“Having that kind of mentorship and sense of belonging is important,” Sanchez said. “It creates an environment that supports their will to want to come to school.”

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