Florida’s 2nd community school in Pensacola (PNJ)

Florida’s 2nd community school in Pensacola

 Principal Holly Magee recalled sitting in the C.A. Weis Elementary School cafeteria last year, feeling dejected and a bit overwhelmed by all of the issues weighing down the students, their families and the community as a whole.

Marcia Nowlin, Escambia County School District Title I director, stopped by Weis that day and spotted Magee sitting in the cafeteria. The first-year principal voiced her concerns about the school, and Nowlin promised to assist her in changing the culture.

That assistance came when non-profit Children’s Home Society, which initially targeted Warrington Middle School as a community school, changed their focus to Weis after discussions with school district administrators.

Thursday morning, Weis held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate its transformation into a community school, and Magee stood on stage and spoke of the wonderful opportunities that await the school. About 100 spectators attended the ceremony. The crowd included Mayor Ashton Hayward, County Commissioner Lumon May (District-3), Rep. Clay Ingram (District-1), Rep. Mike Hill (District-2) and Rep. Doug Broxson (District-3).

Weis is the second community school in the state. Evans High School in Orlando transformed into a community school in 2012 and improved its grade from an “F” to a “B” and its graduation rate increased from 60 percent to 80 percent.

The community school model prioritizes health, growth and learning, community engagement and safety.

Weis is located on the west side of Pensacola and received a state assessment grade of D in 2014, C in 2013 and B in 2012. Magee said about 600 pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students attend the school. Every student is on free or reduced lunch.

“Education is our top priority, but there are so many hurdles before that education can happen,” Magee said.

Magee embraced the system after what she describes as a life-changing trip last summer to four community schools in New York. She felt inspired after seeing how the schools put all the pieces together and implemented programs that students and parents considered relevant to their lives.

Weis is in the process of completing a health clinic, behavior clinic and two exam rooms in the school. Magee said the health clinic will ideally be completed next month. There will be a physician and therapist available at the school.

A dental van is already visiting the school on a frequent basis, and behavioral therapist Cora Burke is seeing students as she waits for the clinic to be completed.

Magee credited Burke for positively influencing three brothers at the school with a history of losing their tempers. She said one of the children approached her Wednesday morning after a girl hit his brother in the back of the head.

“He said, ‘My brother’s really mad. I want him to calm down.’ That might not seem like a big deal, but that’s enormous,” Magee said. “Last year, that would’ve been a big brawl with all three boys getting involved.”

“If they can be consistent with this and keep it going, it’ll change the whole community,” said McCall, who played three songs on the piano at the ribbon-cutting ceremony and plays each day during the lunch period. “You see some of the parents here today who probably don’t know what community school means. Them being here, that’s a start.”

Children’s Home Society and the Weis staffs will focus on extended learning programs next. Students in after-school care will participate in teacher-instructed activities related to their classroom studies. Programs and computer access will be available for adults.

“The computers are one big step,” said Ashley Parish, a mother of three children, two of whom attend Weis.

The University of Central Florida receives state funding for the program and partners with community entities to offer services at the chosen schools.

Tim Putman, executive director of Children’s Home Society, mentioned Escambia Community Clinics, Escambia County School District Title I, Sacred Heart Hospital, the University of West Florida, the city and county among its partners.

“It’s not about one organization. It’s not about one entity,” Putman said. “It’s about us doing it together.”

UCF awarded Weis $150,000 in state funds for the next eight months. The university awarded Weis another $75,000 Community School Planning grant that required the school district to provide $25,000.

“I love it. I like the colors,” said Makayla Middleton, Parish’s fifth-grade daughter. “I can’t wait until it’s done so I can go play with it.”

Middleton is one of about 20 students in the Owl Chorale. They arguably stole the show at the ribbon-cutting ceremony with their performance. They sang, “Knowledge is Power” and “Put Your Hand in My Hand” and drew a standing ovation from the crowd.

Parish said the culture at the school is trending in the right direction, and she credited Magee for her positive influence on students and their parents.

Unlike two years ago, her daughter wakes up each weekday morning excited about school.

“Every time we come here we get to learn in fun ways,” Middleton said.