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MN school sees gains when kids' art, social needs take center stage

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Lydia Kumbo, 10, and Nixzmarely Chavelas, 10, hang up origami butterflies.
Riverside Central Elementary School student Lydia Kumbo (right), 10, and Nixzmarely Chavelas, 10, hang strands of origami butterflies in the window of Cafe Steam in Rochester, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Soft-spoken fourth-grader Tsedenia Bezie earned a lead role  in Riverside Central Elementary School's spring production of "The Jungle Book." It'll be the 9-year-old's first time on stage, and she admits memorizing lines can be a challenge. But she's undaunted.

"I keep practicing every day," she said over lunch recently in the school library, where she was rehearsing.

Tsedenia's tenacity is a precious bit of gold to teachers at Riverside, a Rochester school serving mostly at-risk students struggling with poverty, hunger and homelessness — and all the emotional and physical challenges that follow.

Classroom instruction alone isn't enough to meet the needs of many students here. So, Riverside's leaders have embraced a nationally recognized arts initiative, together with a full-service schooling model where education, health care and other student and family needs are met under one roof.

The idea has caught the attention of DFL Gov. Tim Walz, a former teacher, who's pressing now for more money from the Legislature to expand full-service schools. Some observers believe it could help close the state's yawning achievement gap, although it's succeeded in some schools and come up short in others.

Aria Urban, 11, Tsedenia Bezie, 9, and Michelle Allen, 11, practice lines.
Students Aria Urban, 11, Tsedenia Bezie, 9, and Michelle Allen, 11, practice lines for a production of "The Jungle Book" with Riverside arts teacher Leslie Meyer.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Riverside leaders, though, say their approach is delivering results for kids and their families that can't necessarily be measured by a test score. 

The point of getting kids performing "The Jungle Book," for instance, isn't to churn out a bunch of Broadway stars — it's to cultivate perseverance through memorizing lines, to teach time management and to foster good communication skills, said Leslie Meyer, Riverside's arts programming coordinator.

"We want students to be well-rounded citizens to go out into the world and do anything they want," she said.

'Oh, my God. It's the principal'

Riverside became both a full-service community school and an arts-focused school around the same time in 2016. School leaders say they made the changes because what they were doing before for kids wasn't enough at a school with more homeless students and students on free or reduced-price lunch than any other elementary school in Rochester.

Teachers were focused mostly on improving math and reading scores, but to no avail, said reading specialist Sharon Faunce.

"We were missing some really important aspects," she said. "We have kids in crisis, we have kids with trauma, we have kids that come to school hungry. We have a lot of other needs that we need to meet with these kids before we're really going to be able to get them ready for what's next."

Two of those basic needs are food and clothing, which are available for free now in the school's resource room. It's helped kids and families in need at home, said Chantell Ladd, a parent who was picking up some necessities recently at the resource room.

She was also at the school to pick up a certificate of merit for her third-grade son, who was being recognized for improvements in reading and behavior, which became an issue as she was going through a divorce a few years ago.

"I'm really proud of him this year. He's done magnificent," Ladd said. "I get so many calls. When the phone used to ring, I'd say, 'Oh, my God. It's the principal. What did he do now?' Now, I know it's for a good day."

And Ladd said life at home has been easier because she feels supported by the school as a parent. She gestures across the room to Lida Casper, who coordinates all the community school's programming.

"She's been there for me in my darkest moments, and she didn't even know it," Ladd said.

'Story behind the number'

School leaders adopted Turnaround Arts, a national program from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts created in 2011 as part of an effort by then-first lady Michelle Obama that's now in more than 80 schools across the country.

Riverside has received roughly $11,000 from Turnaround Arts largely to train teachers on integrating arts into learning. That money is phasing out as the curriculum Riverside has developed gains momentum.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker visited the school in February to get a closer look at how the two programs are working in tandem as a strategy to improve outcomes for students.

  Ricker said there are many ways to measure the success of a school like Riverside, including higher attendance rates and fewer disciplinary actions. 

Disciplinary problems are down at Riverside; attendance remains slightly below most other elementary schools in the district.

"Attendance is just a number," she said. "But when you hear students describe why they love coming to school, that's the story behind the number."

Ricker said the idea is to get kids and their parents engaged with school by providing support and activities they would have trouble accessing elsewhere.

Research shows the strategy can pay off. A recent study of arts programming at several Houston schools found the proportion of students receiving a disciplinary infraction dropped 3.6 percentage points compared to students in the control group. Students' writing scores went up, as did their ability to empathize. 

Casper, Riverside's community schools coordinator, said she often gets questions about why the school is providing free food and adding curriculum like yoga or ballroom dancing instead of doubling down on academics.

She reminds skeptics that kids born into middle- or upper-class families get music lessons, camping trips, vacations to new places and other important learning experiences outside school that many Riverside families can't afford.

Part of a community school's job is to fill that hole, she said, describing it as a "6,000-hour learning gap" between kids from low-income families and financially secure families.

An open mind and a wide world view are basic human needs, just like food and shelter, Casper argued. "We're building people for our community. We're building people for the future. We're building skills for life," Casper said.

Success and struggle

Barely three years into the experiment, Principal Matt Ruzek said he's seen a dramatic improvement in student discipline. In the 2016-2017 school year, there were 1,395 disciplinary referrals. The following school year, there were 981 referrals; this school year, only 421. 

Students here still struggle academically. According to state data, Riverside students score lower on state math, science and reading tests than most other elementary schools in the district.

Ruzek said it's unrealistic to expect that test scores will improve overnight because the kids are already behind their peers.

"We know that as adults we don't function that way," Ruzek said. "If you wanted to pursue another career, you wouldn't say, 'well, I've only got one year to figure this out.' You would give yourself all the time necessary to acquire that position."

Ruzek said another persistent challenge is attendance, which hinders academic success.

Efforts to boost attendance have led to some unique strategies at Riverside, like licensing a group of teachers to drive school vans to pick up kids who don't have stable homes.

The school is also working with public health partners to assist kids who live in homes with mold and ventilation problems, which can lead to chronic illness that keeps them out of school. 

Ruzek gets most animated when talking about individual students who have become more confident in themselves and engaged in school since these programs started.

"What we're starting to see now is that students who have been with us for the three years are showing tremendous growth and gains in regards to their willingness to participate in activities," he said.

Lida Casper, Lydia Kumbo, 10, and Aliyah Jackson, 11, put up art.
Community school site coordinator Lida Casper (left) works with Riverside students Lydia Kumbo, 10, and Aliyah Jackson, 11, to put up origami butterflies at Cafe Steam. The installation is part of a community art project in Rochester, Minn., with Art4Trails that is funded by a Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council grant.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Snowshoes and origami

On a recent day, the new experience was snowshoeing.

Many Riverside fourth-graders have never snowshoed before, so a naturalist from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources explained how to get them on.

This type of activity is a hallmark of Riverside's approach — bringing in community partners, like the DNR, to provide students with an experience or service that might be hard for them to get otherwise.

Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center are partners, too, providing access to health care services on site.

Mayo nurse Kristina Hesby coordinates the Mayo program. She said partnering with Riverside made a lot of sense for Mayo because it helps the hospital provide more health care to the community, but also because it advances Mayo's goals of growing Rochester.

"By investing in these kids, we are investing in the future of this entire community," she said. "We want them to stay here and live here. We want them to enter the workforce in our community."

Origami butterflies hang in the window at Cafe Steam in Rochester, Minn.
Origami butterflies hang in the window at Cafe Steam in Rochester, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

On a Friday afternoon, Riverside fifth-graders were hanging hundreds of carefully folded origami butterflies in the window of Cafe Steam coffee shop in downtown Rochester.

In a few weeks, the butterflies will be collected and stored in a time capsule that's part of a permanent sculpture inspired by Riverside students. The statue will be installed along Rochester's bike trail and will depict a person launching a paper airplane into the air.

The effort is the product of another community partnership that supports public art. It's also designed to teach perseverance and instill an array of life skills that can't be found in a textbook.

Lydia Kumbo, who's 10, said it's been a labor of love for her and her co-artists.

"We would stay inside during recess to help, we would do it at home," Lydia said. "You have to fold a lot of things. There's a lot of steps to do."

Aliyah Jackson, who's 11, said she hopes her string of butterflies leaves an impression on people who see it "that we're one big community."