The East Side is layered in nonprofits, each with their own mission, Herring says. Many are small and in need of financial support, and some saw the Wheatley Community School and its $2.2 million Full Service Community School Grant as a potential revenue stream.
The East Side has seen programs and funds come and go, said Herring, who previously led another nonprofit in the area. Few stick around to do the “deep, dirty, messy” work, she said. Because of this, community members (including those who lead nonprofits) view most services, including Wheatley Community School, as transactional. They have been conditioned to get what they can while they can.
Hoping to win contracts with the school to fund their own programs, each nonprofit offered something valuable, but Herring determined many of these services to be outside the scope of the Wheatley Community School mission.
Herring is not one to allow mission creep, and does not feel obligated to contract with nonprofits that have been left behind by other funders in the past.
“My five-year grant is not going to change 100 years of what happened here,” Herring said.
Even some of its earliest partners have at times made it difficult for Wheatley Community School to establish a distinct presence. The federally-established Eastside Promise Neighborhood and Alamo Colleges’ Eastside Education Training Center are both listed by the community school as partners, yet are tasked with demonstrating their own impact to stakeholders. Both are focused on student success. In that space, what should be cooperation can feel like competition, Herring said.
Citing East Side politics, Wheatley Community School director Tava Herring says it’s taken three years for the school to get on track. Bekah McNeel / Folo Media
“It was supposed to be an ‘everybody together’ thing,” she said, “but it isn’t always.”
A representative from the Eastside Education Training Center identified two potential areas of overlap — GED and English classes — and says the staff is not familiar enough with the community school to comment on how to improve the partnership.
EPN advisory council member Akeem Brown said the misunderstanding and miscommunication about the community school’s mission had impaired cooperation with EPN in the beginning. Now, he says, leadership at both EPN and the Community School have a better understanding of where their missions can complement one another. “We have the chance to get this right,” Brown said.
Whatever misunderstanding there might have been was further complicated by monumental changes in the neighborhood, said EPN spokesperson Mary Ellen Burns. When the San Antonio Housing Authority redeveloped Wheatley Courts, which sat adjacent to Wheatley Middle School, to become the multi-income East Meadows apartments, the majority of the Wheatley Courts residents relocated. The community that had participated in the planning of the Wheatley Community School was no longer living next door.
In light of those realities, Herring and the Wheatley Community School has seen the most progress in its service to adults. It’s actually a great place to start, she says.
During the Concordia sessions in 2014, the community tied the needs of students to the needs of the adults around them. Parents needed jobs and access to healthcare. Many wanted to improve their language skills, complete a GED, and become more financially literate.
So far, Herring has been able to deliver many of those services. The Communities in Schools of San Antonio team at Wheatley Community School effectively reaches into the neighborhoods to let adults know what resources are available. These services and partnerships are stable, Herring said, and more and more people are utilizing them. “If the money left tomorrow, most of our partners would still be here,” Herring said.
Becky Moore is one of those adults who has embraced the community school. She comes to campus regularly, often for hours at a time, and serves on the Wheatley Community School leadership council.
As a member of the community, Moore has been able to identify needs that might not fit into any nonprofit organization’s mission, but make a vital difference to her neighbors.
Once a month Moore hosts a “motivation group” for women in the neighborhood. Originally, she thought she wanted to host a support group for those with terminal illnesses. Then, she says, she realized that there was an even broader need to support women who “have to keep living in this world.”
Speaking Spanish, the women share their frustrations and struggles. Many are single mothers, some are recent immigrants, some fight depression. They bring gifts to encourage those who are grieving. Some ask for advice, others offer it as they share a potluck meal, play Bingo, and take part in other planned activities.
The group had been meeting in one member’s home, Moore says, but as friends brought friends, and more women were attracted to the safe and uplifting space, they outgrew the living room. The classroom at Wheatley is the perfect size for 10 women and their potluck lunch.
SAISD allotted one wing of Wheatley Middle School to house the services provided by the Community School partnerships. While she’s not handing out grant-funded contracts for programming, Herring is ready to offer space to anyone who wants to activate it. CPS and Select Federal Credit Union have used the space for classes and community outreach. Google Fiber helped Herring set up a computer lab to accommodate the wide variety of digital and communications needs.
This is a great start, Herring says, but not an end. Now she wants to see more student supports.
Success Story: Baltimore
In 2012, University of Maryland School of Social Work received a $500,00 Promise Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the same grant that created San Antonio’s Eastside Promise Neighborhood. It used the funds to set up community schools in five schools in Baltimore’s Upton/Druid Heights neighborhood. Together the schools are now known as Promise Heights.
Upton/Druid Heights was made famous in the wake of the uprisings following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Coverage highlighted the longstanding issues of unemployment and limited opportunity, with the average neighborhood family living on about $625 per month, and unemployment exceeding 60 percent. The average life expectancy in the neighborhoods is 68 years.
For those who care to look, community school director Henriette Taylor says, the pride and resilience of these storied neighborhoods shines through. The community has what it needs to thrive, so the key is to connect needs and resources. Schools, Taylor said, are natural places to bring everyone together, and the Promise Heights community school coordinators can “triage” issues efficiently.
“We are clearing the path for children who have economic challenges. So when they come into the classroom they have a full belly, they had a place to sleep,” Taylor said.
Infant mortality rates have fallen dramatically thanks to parenting and prenatal education programs. Promise Heights reported no infant deaths (down from a citywide 13.5 per 1,000 in 2009) and a 96 percent full term delivery rate for participants in the B’More for Healthy Babies program, more than eight points higher than the Baltimore city rate. Meanwhile, kinder-readiness and high school graduation rates have increased through academic supports and mentoring.