Bridging the Gap Between School and Community

From left to right: Marrero, Angela and Villalobos sign agreements during the home visit. 

Vanessa Marrero prepared for an important job one Tuesday in January. In leopard kitten heels and a beige trench coat, she grabbed a folder and hopped into a waiting car outside of John O’Connell High School.

She was heading to a student’s home in the Bayview to talk to his mom. As a community school coordinator, Marrero had Carlos’ records in hand.

Half an hour later, inside a small apartment furnished with a light lime-green couch, two school certificates tacked to a wall and family pictures in heart-shaped frames, Marrero began the conversation with Carlos’ mom, Angela, in Spanish.

He isn’t in trouble, she reassured Angela. No, this was going be a different kind of visit.
Marrero was there with Jose Villalobos, the school’s parent liaison, to connect with Angela — to tell her about the resources available to her and her son, and to discuss Carlos’ grades and attendance.

Marrero’s job was created last year as part of several reforms at the city’s underperforming schools funded by a $45 million district-wide School Improvement Grant, which will continue through the end of the 2012-2013 school year. Six community school coordinators work in the Mission District, each earning about $60,000 a year.

A coordinator is responsible for a variety of parent and community engagement efforts, Kevin Rocap, the executive director of the School Improvement Grant, said in an email. This involves managing the work of various community-based organizations, including after-school and mental health partners that work at the schools.

The improvement plan aims to turn the school into a one-stop shop of sorts, more than just a place for academics. If students and families – even community members outside of the school – need food, there will be a food bank. If they need counseling, there will be counseling services.

It’s about rethinking how to build a school that supports students, parents and the community, said Brian Fox, the coordinator at Mission High School.

The coordinator is key, say many. Each plays a slightly different role, because every school is at a different stage when it comes to community engagement.

For Fox, formerly the director of strategic partnerships for the San Francisco Education Fund, the job means overseeing the curriculum of an advisory program for Mission High students preparing for college and careers. He also works directly with teachers: along with a college and career counselor and a coordinator from the college-prep program GEAR UP, Fox holds Monday meetings to review lesson plans and discuss common problems.

Carlo Solis, who is a coordinator at Cesar Chavez Elementary, attended Buena Vista Elementary School as a child and later worked as the director of an after-school program there. At Chavez he spends his time evaluating partnerships with community-based organizations. For example, he oversees workshops for anywhere from 20 to 60 parents on topics like enrollment and puberty. Solis also opens up the school to the community; recently he hosted a free haircut day for the neighborhood, organized by City College students.
And then there’s Marrero, a former social worker who worked at Horace Mann Middle School for five years. At John O’Connell, she runs a breakfast club every Tuesday morning, cooking omelets and other dishes for any student who’s at school half an hour before the bell rings.

Since she began working at John O’Connell last April, she has led a mentoring program for at-risk youth, hosts school tours and hangs flags in the atrium to represent students’ different cultural backgrounds. She also meets with families in their homes. Since the school year began, Marrero has visited more than half of the homes of the 91 ninth-graders.

Read more at Mission Local