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Exit Strategy panel

(L-R) Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Nathan Beck, Nancy Hanks, Sonia Spencer, Jon Anderson and David Hart participated in a panel discussion about the state of Madison's community schools at Cuna Mutual Group on Friday.

After almost two years of programming, Madison Metropolitan School District leaders and community partners came together to discuss the state of the district’s “community schools” program and the plans for its future.

The conversation centered around Mendota Elementary School’s program. Mendota, along with Leopold Elementary School on Madison’s south side, are Madison’s two pilot community schools.

The program started in the 2016-2017 school year and brings together neighborhood centers, families, students, service providers and other groups to identify the community’s needs. Ideally, the school becomes a hub for families and community members to address those needs.

Forward Theater partnered with the Madison Metropolitan School District and the United Way for the panel, hosted by CUNA Mutual Group. Forward Theater’s latest show, “Exit Strategy,” focuses on a neighborhood school in Chicago that is slated to close at the end of the school year and how teachers, students and community leaders cope with the news.

The panelists were Nancy Hanks, chief of elementary schools for MMSD and Sonia Spencer, community schools coordinator at Mendota. The panel also included Pastor Jon Anderson of Door Creek Church and Pastor David Hart of Sherman Avenue United Methodist Church. Both congregations are among Mendota’s community schools partners. Nathan Beck, coordinator of out-of-school time for the city of Madison also participated in the discussion.

Forward Theater’s artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray moderated the panel, asking participants to share how schools can build strong partnerships with community organizations.

Spencer said she “hit(s) the pavement” to recruit partners, a skill she honed in the first five years of her career at Mendota as the school’s parent liaison. Assessing the needs of students and their families, Spencer uses community partners to get kids and families what they need to be “available for learning.”

Community schools partners provide students and their families with clothing, food, donations and other resources.

Door Creek's Anderson said over 1,000 congregants have volunteered at Mendota and Door Creek’s other partner schools in McFarland and Sun Prairie. The church has also donated $50,000 to financially support the program.

“I’ve grown to become a huge fan of community schools,” Anderson said.

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Hanks said “the desire is there” to continue the community schools program, but before it expands, the district wants to be sure future schools have the partners and staff they need to be successful.

“It’s not cheap. It is also very talent dependent,” Hanks said.

Audience members asked how schools balance high expectations for student academic performance with the realities of poverty many students face. Hanks said it is impossible to divorce the two.

“If you are not paying attention to culture and climate and the needs of students, you are playing a losing game and setting both the school and the community up for failure,” Hanks said. “The potential is there, but the opportunities are not evenly distributed in this community. We can do something about that so folks can actually live into their full potential. That goes for both the scholars and the adults in their families.”

Exit Strategy runs through Sunday at the Overture Center.