Howard Bishop Middle School embarked in fall of 2016 on a path toward becoming a “community partnership school,” leveraging an array of resources to meet the needs of students.
“We don’t want any child to fall between the cracks,” said Howard Bishop Community School Director Dr. Tarcha Rentz. “We’re helping our students’ parents and grandparents and their brothers and sisters.”
Howard Bishop Community School, located at 1901 NE Ninth St. in Gainesville, is the first community school in Alachua County and the 11th in Florida. The Alachua County School District is partnering with the Children’s Home Society of Florida Mid-Florida Division, the University of Florida, Santa Fe College, the Alachua County Health Department, local churches and other community groups.
“We’re helping extend the village,” Rentz said. “This is a grand opportunity to tap all the resources we have in the community.”
The community school office is called the Nest.
“Students and parents are dropping in all the time,” said school board member April Griffin. “Rentz is phenomenal, and she’s building trust with everyone.”
In its early months, the community school’s accomplishments include:
• Providing counseling for students, parents and teachers from a mental health therapist
• Offering mentoring from community members
• Establishing a girls’ club
• Feeding students with snacks provided by the Bread of the Mighty Food Bank
• Sending home backpacks each weekend with food from Catholic charities
• Making clothes available to families through a clothes closet and through vouchers at the Family Treasures Thrift Shop, operated by the Children’s Home Society of Florida
Principal Mike Gamble said this type of help enables teachers to focus on teaching.
“Until now, they’ve spent part of their time serving as social workers,” he said. “We’ve had teachers take kids to Wal-Mart to get glasses.”
Building Bridges for Success
Children’s Home Society raised funds for Rentz’s salary. The organization also provides the mental health therapist, and it is planning to add a second therapist with Medicaid payments covering the costs.
“Our mission is building bridges for the success of children,” said Executive Director of the Mid-Florida Division Jennifer Anchors. “The community school fulfills that mission, and we’ve made a long-term commitment to it.”
The Gainesville project follows the lead of the first community-centered school in Florida at Evans High School in Orlando, which Children’s Home Society of Florida helped open in August 2012.
Since then, Evans has cut disciplinary incidents in half, tripled its International Baccalaureate diplomas and raised its graduation rate by 15 percent, noted “Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools,” a report prepared by the Center for Popular Democracy.
Responding to Community Needs
Rentz’s background prepared her well for her position, Gamble said. She grew up in Gainesville, taught in the area and received master’s and doctorate degrees in education from the University of Florida (along with training in educational leadership from Florida State University).
Most important, Rentz is responsive.
“She listens to people about their needs,” Griffin said.
Rentz discovered a big need early on: many of the Howard Bishop students hadn’t met the requirements for certain vaccinations to enter seventh grade.
“These are the kids who most need to be in school because they are at high risk educationally,” Gamble said. In response, Rentz arranged for UF College of Nursing students to administer shots at the school.
“This avoids a lot of headaches of having to call parents about getting the vaccinations,” Gamble said.
Another example of responsiveness came about when Rentz realized that some students were arriving to school too late to get their free breakfasts. The solution? Provide the snacks from the Bread of the Mighty Food Bank.
“The students can concentrate better in school because they’re not hungry,” Gamble said.
A Wider Net
The Howard Bishop project is part of multiple efforts to improve the area of Northeast Gainesville between Main Street and Waldo Road.
Other organizations involved include:
• Rawlings Elementary School, which has a broad outreach to the community and is a fine arts magnet school
• The Fearnside Family Services Center, operated by the school board, which provides Head Start services and voluntary pre-kindergarten. It is also the headquarters of the Parent Academy.
• The Library Partnership, a collaboration among the Alachua County Library District, the Partnership for Strong Families, the Florida Department of Children and Families, Casey Family Programs and other organizations
• The Gainesville Regional Office of Catholic Charities
For the past two years, Faith Mission, an outreach of Trinity United Methodist Church, has also been serving the community.
Its programs include LOF — Leaders Overcoming Through Faith — noted Director Ward Simonton.
LOF started out as an outreach to boys who were playing basketball on the mission’s property. It has grown to include a program that provides mentoring, academic enrichment, work skills training and field trips throughout the community, Simonton said.
Many LOF participants are Howard Bishop students.
“We work with the community school in serving some of the same students, and together we help them reach their potential,” Simonton said.
The services to the community need to be sustainable, Simonton said. “To build trust, you must be consistent, day in and day out,” he said. “You can’t break your promises.”
The Howard Bishop Community School is raising funds and seeking grants so it will have ongoing funding and can expand its programs, noted Anchors of the Children’s Home Society. The goal is $310,000 annually.
Current funding includes $30,000 from the Alachua County Commission’s Community Agency Partnership Program and $10,000 from Cox Communications, and statewide advocates are seeking support for community schools from the Florida Legislature.
Aaron Bosshardt, president of Bosshardt Realty Services, is heading the fundraising drive for Howard Bishop. He became interested in community schools because he’s on the board of the Children’s Home Society of Florida.
“We’re looking for people, both volunteers and donors, who believe in helping Gainesville and particularly East Gainesville,” he said. “This cutting-edge project is the most powerful thing that you can do in transforming the city and community.”
Photography by Allison Durham