“At first glance Bennington appears to typify New England life at its best,” Sue Maguire wrote, in her introduction to the book she and Joy Dryfoos wrote together, Inside Full Service Community Schools. (1) Dryfoos was a life-long educational consultant with a long-term interest in adolescent health, preventive interventions, and high risk youth. The two met after Maguire had long been working at Bennington’s Molly Stark Elementary School – first as teacher, then as Principal. Maguire describes the context for her work.
“…(T)here is another part of Bennington. Molly Stark School is in an isolated area of the community not typically seen by tourists driving through town. Its student population of nearly 380 is considered large by Vermont standards. The school is literally located on the other side of the railroad tracks…” she wrote, adding that this was actually how people talked about it. When I visited, fifteen years ago, I was told that some of the children rarely saw “downtown Bennington” – which is no more than a mile away.
As a new teacher, Maguire recalls, she had great ideas.
“Two and a half decades ago, I came to Vermont to teach fifth grade… I was ready to change the world for kids. I thought little about poverty or its ramifications because I truly bellieved it didn’t matter; I could make education the ticket for a happy and productive life for all kids, whether rich, middle class, or poor. Through my training, I had learned that teaching consisted of high standards, strong curriculum, and solid instruction delivered by a caring teacher. All these years later, I know that I hadn’t learned enough.”
After being at Molly Stark for a few years, and raising her own two children, Maguire began to understand what tremendous opportunities they were having. She and her husband read to them incessantly, took them on all kinds of trips and outings, were constantly preparing them with relevant vocabulary and social skills for new experiences and discoveries and encouraging them at every turn. The result?
“They entered school healthy and eager to learn. They knew education was important in our family and they thrived….What I slowly came to realize is that not all children have lives filled with these basic supports and opportunities. Far too many kids exist in a world without stimulation. Many live in a constant state of chaos and are isolated from everything beyond their own neighborhood. They don’t go to parks and museums and librairies, they don’t eat in restaurants, and they don’t make regular visits to doctors and dentists.”
Very frequently Maguire encountered heart-breaking troubles in her students’ families. She references, for example, a mother who calls two days before school opened to say that the family has been evicted, and are living in a car without an address, but can she still register her kids? A boy wanting desperately to join the after-school running program doesn’t have sneakers. Two young children have nearly burned down their apartment while their mother is out. With her help, a boy gets to a dentist for the first time and, after he’s had seven teeth extracted, he tells her he’s never before “known what it was for his mouth not to hurt.”
As Maguire understood how many things block a child’s chances for academic, social, physical and emotional growth, she began developing a full-service school – before she’d even heard the term.
“The services and opportunties we developed at Molly Stark happened because they make sense for kids and their families.” Solutions, for Maguire, were obvious.
“Through collaborative partnerships with a wide range of service providers in our community, we… tried to create the opportunities that most of us would expect and demand for our own children. Along with quality instruction, our school offers extended-day and extended-year services, health and social services, and parent education and support – the things we believe that children need to do well in school and that families need to live productive lives in their community.”
Maguire is as certain as ever that education is the critical ticket. Even today, looking forward to mentoring principals when she eventually retires, she is not about to stop educating – and leading by example.
“I am now working with the children of children I taught years ago, and I continue the search to find what it is that might make the difference for this generation and the next.” (2)
Sue Maguire has given me permission to quote extensively from this introductory passage, which I think describes the context for the full service school model in a way that is relevant in communities all over the United States. Inside Full-Service Community Schools was published by Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, California, 2002.
(2) The term, “Full Service Community School” is, today, commonly abbreviated again to “Community School.” But today it is possible to build a much stronger program, under that name, than ever before. The clearinghouse for resources and information about the Community School is the Coalition for Community Schools (c/o Institute of Educational Leadership, 4301 Connecticut Ave. NW Ste 100, Washington, DC 20008 Tel: 1-202-822-8405. Access their website; www.communityschools.org. Email: email@example.com).