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Denfeld plans community school model

Students leave Denfeld High School Wednesday afternoon. The school district supports a plan to make Denfeld a full-service community school. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Denfeld High School has a room that offers free clothes and food for students. The school brings in dental and vision care, and has made it possible for students to get immunized nearby.

All that was done through partnerships with Maurices, Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank, Operation Grace, the Lions Club and the Lake Superior Community Health Center.

With those programs and partnerships in place, the school was ready to become a full-service community school, principal Tonya Sconiers said.

Many student needs are being addressed, but more can be done, and tying it all together helps get "the biggest bang for our buck," she said.

Research shows the model helps kids be more successful, and the move is intended to play a part in restoring equity between the Duluth school district's two high schools. Inequity is seen most sharply in graduation rates and the opportunities East students have to take more elective and high-level classes than Denfeld students. Denfeld serves at least 500 fewer students than East, resulting in less opportunity, and it enrolls more special education, poverty-stricken and minority students, meaning it has different needs.

Community schools exist nationwide, and there are already two within the district: Myers-Wilkins Elementary, with about 20 years as a community school, and Lincoln Park Middle School, which became one only recently. The schools aim to address all student needs — not just education — from the very basics like food and clothing to physical, emotional and mental health, social services and enrichment. The national model asks schools to meet with students, families and staff and first find out what their unique needs are, but it usually results in extended school hours and services.

Denfeld, with a consultant, has already held a first round of meetings, and will hold another today for families. The school received a $20,000 planning grant from the Minnesota Department of Education, and will apply for a larger grant to pay for things such as a site coordinator, who will work with Sconiers to coordinate services with businesses, agencies and colleges and universities. If all goes well, the school will be official in the fall of 2018, but can add new services before that. For example, students will be able to get sports physicals at the school in August.

"Denfeld is really ready," said Kathy Bogen, former executive director of the Grant-Nettleton Community School Collaborative, which started the work at the former Grant Elementary, now Myers-Wilkins. "What we're going to see at Denfeld is creating a high school that students and families are really excited about."

Myers-Wilkins families have long asked for the services, after-school programs and enrichment at their elementary school to be offered at the middle and high school level. So recent work has been about building a pipeline, Bogen said, and Lincoln Park and Denfeld were willing schools with many things already in place. Efforts are "ramping up," she said, because Minnesota was the first state to pass a bill authorizing funding for the model.

So far in meetings, health and wellness, including for physical, mental, chemical and preventive health, has been a big priority. People are looking for social and emotional learning opportunities, like learning resiliency and how to thrive during tough times, Sconiers said.

"We know there is some trauma that has happened to students in their lives," she said. "How do you cope with that?"

Students are seeking high levels of academic rigor and help with career paths that don't always lead to college. Community members would like to see the school open later at night for community use, said Matt Hoeschen, a board member with Duluth Full Service Community School Collaborative, which is replacing the elementary-based collaborative.

The school has strong support from alumni and business leaders, he said, who have a lot of pride in Denfeld and are looking to the future to make things better for kids and their families.

"Children certainly need to have strong rigorous expectations in the classroom," Hoeschen said, but it's hard to learn without emotional support and with basic needs unmet.

Some kids have the skills and family support to do well in school, he said, but that's not true of all kids.

"Our argument is, all those children matter," he said.

If you go

A focus group meeting for families is from 5-7:30 p.m. today in the Denfeld media center. Another meeting for community partners is from noon to 2:30 p.m. March 30, also in the media center. Meetings are also being held for students and staff.

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