Longtime teachers often say there’s only so much they can do to help kids inside the classroom when there are struggles at home, but a growing program in Manatee County is making a difference in both.
Manatee Elementary in Bradenton has been transformed by a new Community Partnership School model that brings together nonprofits to offer not just academic help, but overall health and wellness options to kids and their families.
And this year, Daughtrey Elementary has joined the effort.
The main goal is to make it easier for Title I students, most of whom come from economically disadvantaged families, to keep their focus on education by offering critical services to students and their families on the school’s campus.
Manatee Elementary, one of the oldest schools in Manatee County, serves 586 students from pre-K to fifth grade, and a majority living within walking distance.
Now instead of students missing school for a doctor’s appointment or coming to class hungry, the partnership provides mental and physical health care on campus, as well as a food pantry.
Designed by The Children’s Home Society of Florida and the University of Central Florida, the model brings together five core partners in a long-term agreement to provide on-campus services.
At Manatee Elementary, those partners are the Children’s Home Society of Florida, the School District of Manatee County, MCR Health, Manatee County Boys & Girls and the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.
They collaborate with the school to help students overcome learning barriers like poverty, food insecurity, a lack of affordable healthcare and mental health care. And they frequently bring in other community support to provide opportunities for students to succeed both inside and outside of the classroom.
“I don’t look at this as helping one student at a time. It’s a generational approach,” said Renita Houston, Community Partnership School Director at Manatee Elementary. “It doesn’t just stop with the students. We reach the whole family.”
She attended the school when she was younger and wished the school had those services when she was there. Now, she’s paying it forward and plans to make a lasting impact on students and their families.
Manatee Elementary has been operating under the learning model for the past three years thanks to grants and donors.
The model is partially financed by a $7.1 million dollar grant shared among 15 new community schools around Florida, as well as contributions from the Manatee Community Foundation and its donors.
The Conrad and Ruth Ann Szymanski Fund of the Manatee Community Foundation awarded a grant of $20,436 last year to support Manatee Elementary, and the Syzmanskis often volunteer their time at the school’s food pantry.
Food on the table
Out of the 36 community partnership schools across Florida, Manatee Elementary is one of the few selected to have a food pantry on its campus.
The pantry is funded by United Way, and is stocked weekly with items from Feeding Tampa Bay.
It helps not just students and their families, but also the surrounding community. And rental assistance is also available for parents and community members.
Letitia Marshall of Bradenton often shops at the pantry and has a daughter who attends Manatee Elementary.
“Since you all first announced this program, I’ve been coming every week,” Marshall told Feeding Tampa Bay in a video interview. “It provides food on my table, and I thank God for the canned food, poultry, vegetables and cereal.”
Some of the school’s parents don’t have cars, so they can walk to the pantry, Graduation Enhancement Technician Vanessa Goldsmith told the Bradenton Herald.
“Some parents can’t get to the grocery store, but we’re here for their convenience to help fulfill their needs. It’s just awesome,” she said.
Goldsmith is raising a granddaughter who attends the school and sees the benefits from the partnership.
“When my granddaughter is sick, she’s treated onsite at MCR (Health), and when she’s old enough she’ll go to the Boys & Girls club on campus,” Goldsmith said. “It’s convenient for myself and other parents. Parents have told me they appreciate that we have this program.”
Health care access
The model also helps faculty at Manatee Elementary better cater to the needs of each student and allows them to shape a plan for academic success.
“One student could be performing low in academics and need expanded learning,” said program director Renita Houston. “Another student could be performing above grade level but lacks health care.”
Doctor visits were once the primary reasons students would miss time in the classroom.
“We want our students to stay in school so they can learn,” Houston said. “Anytime a student is uprooted from the learning environment. It’s disruptive to their learning focus.”
Through the partnerships, Manatee Elementary has provided health care in vision, dental, behavior and overall wellness to students and community members.
As the school’s graduation enhancement technician, Goldsmith is responsible for ensuring students are in attendance and she said she has seen a decrease in medical-related absences since MCR Health established two onsite clinics.
“If the student has a headache, toothache or stomachache, parents can still bring those students to school and treat them on campus,” Goldsmith said. “It’s a good thing because those would be excuses for why a child would be absent.”
Keeping students in school can be challenging, while retaining teachers to teach is another struggle.
“Staff retention isn’t the best at Title I schools,” Houston said. “The idea is to get teachers in and develop them so they stay.”
Houston believes the partnership with the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee could create incentive opportunities for teachers to boost retention.
“We’re working on a teacher leadership academy with USFSM,” she said. “Teachers interested in getting their graduate degree in education can do it right from our campus.”
The teacher leadership academy would pilot at Manatee Elementary and could extend out to other schools and teachers.
Houston is proud to bring the community partnership model to her former elementary school and make a lasting impact on the kids’ futures. She’s awarded six students college scholarships prepaid by Take Stock in Children because of an opportunity presented to the school through the partnership.
Most partnership schools offer:
Onsite access to health and wellness services
Onsite food pantries
Cultural enrichment activities
Parent resource centers