The Liberty Central School District, located in Sullivan County, is a rural district that serves approximately 1,600 students. With its unique geography, surrounded by mountains and other natural barriers, Liberty is an isolated community with a large population living in poverty. However, these challenges are no match for Superintendent Augustine Tornatore and the district’s leadership team, who are rolling out a district-wide community schools strategy.
Dr. Tornatore views the community schools approach as being central to the district’s broader vision, which is to prepare students to become the leaders of tomorrow. While academics must be central to student success, he knows that in order to be innovative thinkers, problem solvers, and drivers of the future workforce, students’ basic needs must be met. Dr. Tornatore shared, “I grew up in poverty myself and can speak to it first hand – without having the things your classmates have, you’re already at a psychological disadvantage. You think you’re not good enough. If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you worry. I don’t want our students to worry about having heat in their home or having a meal on the table. The only thing they should ever have to worry about is how well they’re doing in school.”
The Liberty team conducted a self-assessment that revealed a need for a coherent system of supports from academics to medical services to mental health support. They decided to ensure services are aligned with academic curricula and their existing approach to social/emotional learning, so all programs under the community school framework are aligned with what happens in the classroom and the work of district social workers and guidance counselors. Their analysis also revealed barriers to participating in services, such as parent and caregivers’ access to transportation and work schedules, thus providing the team with guidance on how to roll our services that are accessible to all (e.g., providing services in the school buildings after school with access to late bussing).
The district is building from its assets, which include a dedicated community and a can-do spirit that runs through every level of district staff. While they have some funding earmarked for community schools, they are focused on seeking grants to cover programs that wealthier districts can provide or for which more affluent parents can afford to pay. In fact, Dr. Tornatore’s goal is to remain under budget, offering programming while remaining fiscally conservative.
To accomplish this, the district has turned to shared leadership and responsibility with a wide range of leaders and community partners. “It takes a village, and I can’t do it alone. I think my passion for providing our students with everything we can has made it easy for people to buy in; we’re working with a wide range of community stakeholders including parents, students, government officials, teachers, and others,” said Dr. Tornatore. He recognizes that each stakeholder sees things differently, and that all perspectives are critical to the shared vision for community schools and for creating a strategic implementation plan.
Liberty is also taking advantage of the Community Schools Eastern NY Technical Assistance Center, which the team credits with helping them build their knowledge of the model, generating actionable ideas, and focusing on sustainable solutions that are not dependent on short term grants or programs. As Dr. Tornatore put it, “We’ve been doing pieces, but the Technical Assistance Center has helped us create a whole picture, for the whole district. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of this valuable – and free – resource?” At the end of the day, he reflected, it’s about creating the best possible experience for students, which requires using all available resources.