Collaboration Conversation: How Partnerships Create School-Wide Impact at Title-I Schools
Bellshire Elementary School in Tennessee was struggling the way so many of our schools are struggling across the country: low attendance, high staff turnover, fights, and low test scores. A new principal joined with dreams of moving Bellshire from crisis to competency. But what does it take to truly help turn a school around? You guessed it: Community.
Find out what happened at Bellshire in this fascinating conversation between James Gibson, Communities In Schools® (CIS®) of Tennessee site coordinator, and Dr. Donald Black, principal of Bellshire Elementary School.
CIS: What was it like when you both started at Bellshire?
Principal Donald Black: I began my role as principal of Bellshire Elementary in 2018. Walking into this new role, I knew the school was facing a number of challenges. Students were struggling to read at grade level, fights were frequent, and attendance was low. School staff were also impacted by conditions and as a result, turnover was high. Bellshire was an environment with no consistency or security and there was a cry from the community for support.
CIS Site Coordinator James Gibson: Principal Black and I understood the challenges facing the school and knew we needed a strategy to change the entire culture at Bellshire. We also knew this type of school-wide impact would not happen overnight. It was important to us to think through a long-term plan because what we saw were long-term issues.
CIS: How did you start the process of guiding this school back to health?
James Gibson: Our strategy prioritized relationship-building and creating a safe environment, hoping that would lead to more academic progress, like improving test scores.
Principal Black: We knew that Bellshire needed a collaborator to not only case manage students, but case manage the school. We started to approach the problems we had with the whole child and the whole school in mind.
James Gibson: For CIS, we know that every school is different but there are patterns we can look at across our work to find solutions. In the 2021-22 school year, CIS worked in 3,270 schools and sites across 25 states and the District of Columbia. I myself came from CIS in Detroit where I worked for nine years before coming to Tennessee – so I try to look at the CIS model, my professional and personal experiences, and tackle problems from that perspective.
Principal Black: James helped us understand the CIS model so that we could use it to help Bellshire. It’s all about building relationships with parents, students, staff, and the community while also finding community resources and organizations to plug into schools. And that’s really what we needed.
CIS: So what happened? What did you start to do at Bellshire?
James Gibson: At Bellshire, I manage a caseload of 38 students who receive more individualized support. All our students have attendance problems, and most of them are working on improving behavior in school. Students haven’t seen success in education before, and it is my job to encourage them and also bring resources into the school to support their development. During a typical day at Bellshire, I connect with parents to talk about any issues at home. Filling in gaps to ensure children have their basic needs met is also a large part of my role; making sure students have clean uniforms, working utilities at home, or access to food is a critical part of school engagement.
Principal Black: James operates from a place of seeing the whole child. It’s not just about the child that shows up to school or, in most cases, doesn’t show up to school. We can’t control what happens outside our doors, but James shows us how to take it into account when we’re working with students. Now, one of our main rules is to not make assumptions about our students or any issues they may be facing. It is up to us to do our best to support them and connect them and their family members to resources. While students may face challenges at home or in the community, we want them to look forward to coming to school and building a safe community at Bellshire.
CIS: How is Bellshire doing today? How do you feel when you reflect on your work?
Principal Black: As principal, I have seen changes at Bellshire over the past five years. Test scores have stayed steady, and attendance rates have gone up since the pandemic. According to CIS data, chronic absenteeism dropped from 41% to 36% over the course of the 2021-2022 school year. When we look at our attendance data, it’s important to remember that it’s not just a number, it’s families, it’s students, it’s children who need support. The culture has also changed at Bellshire. Students are no longer fighting. They know how to access their social-emotional toolkit and communicate with teachers if they have a problem. The number of students enrolled at Bellshire has also increased. I don’t know where Bellshire would be if we had not partnered with Communities In Schools.
James Gibson: I’m really proud of everyone at Bellshire – the students, their families, the staff. As a site coordinator, I believe this is the work I was meant to do. I see myself in my students because I grew up in similar circumstances, living in a tough environment and lacking resources and parent engagement. We do this work because we love kids, and we love to see young people unlock their potential and succeed. It’s important for me to focus on building more programs for male students. The CIS team has recently launched a mentoring program for third-grade boys, and in a few months, fifth-grade boys will take a field trip to Fisk University and Tennessee State University.
Now that the school culture has improved, we are committed to exposing students to the culture in their communities and connecting them to supportive and caring adults who are invested in their success.