Seventeen years ago, the idea of community schools — turning schools into neighborhood and family resource hubs — filtered into the Lincoln consciousness.

It did so by way of a $100,000 grant to the Foundation for Lincoln Public Schools, which used the money to commission a study to gauge community interest in the concept.

“Resoundingly, everyone said ‘Yes, we want to see the community and district work together,'” said LeAnn Johnson, who a year later found herself co-director of Lincoln’s version of community schools known as Community Learning Centers.

Events happened quickly after the study: the LPS foundation piloted four after-school programs based on the community school concept at Clinton, Saratoga and Elliott elementary schools and one joint program combining three northeast Lincoln schools. The same year, LPS got a federal grant to start its own programs and administrators decided the foundation and district should combine their efforts.

They added programs at five more schools and hired Johnson and Cathie Petsch as co-directors of the new initiative.

Today, 19 elementary schools, six middle schools and one high school have Community Learning Centers that offer a variety of after-school programming and connections with community resources.

And beginning next month, Johnson will retire — four years after her co-director retired — and the CLC initiative will welcome the first new director since its inception. 

Nola Derby-Bennett, executive director of The Hub, which provides services to young people in foster care, involved in the justice system or who have dropped out of school, said she's excited about finding ways to promote even more community involvement in the programs and connect kids to the university.

"To help the CLC kids envision their futures," she said. "For them to see what’s available right here in Lincoln."

Derby-Bennett will be taking over an initiative that relies on many agencies working together to serve kids and has figured out how to become an integral part of the community, Johnson said.

“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve kept this through three mayors and three (school) superintendents,” Johnson said. “That doesn’t happen a lot, and that’s important."

She said she's also proud of how nonprofit organizations continue to work together.

"That’s what I’m most proud of," she said. "That collectively we’ve done good work.”

The initiative spent $2.05 million in 2015-16 in public and private money to fund the programs that served more than 5,000 students, all at high-poverty schools. 

It hasn't always been easy: The CLC initiative has survived the threat of losing federal grants and weathered disputes between the city and school district officials over who should pay for what, and how to best make sure it remains sustainable.

Each CLC works differently, but the overall structures are similar.

LPS provides the space for the before- and after-school programs for free and two years ago assumed the administrative costs, including the salaries of Johnson and her assistant. In 2015-16, LPS spent $294,000 from its general fund budget.

Ten different organizations act as lead agencies that run the programs. Supervisors are paid by the agencies, with federal funds and grants.

Collectively, the agencies spent $1.85 million, which includes fees charged to families, and child care subsidies. The city's Parks and Recreation Department is one of those agencies and spent $548,896 in 2015-16. 

That academic year, the CLCs used $213,492 in federal Title I money, $744,000 in federal grants and $198,000 in private grants.

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Unlike traditional after-school programs that rent space in some Lincoln schools, the CLCs try to connect their programs to what's happening in school, Johnson said.

There are homework zones and time for students who are struggling in a particular subject to get help from classroom teachers. Some focus on school goals such as literacy. 

Each CLC works closely with the school principal and has an advisory group that identifies issues important to the neighborhood — safe lighting, for instance. At Prescott Elementary, the outdoor classroom and walking track on the playground area double as a community space. Some schools have partnered with groups to offer free health screenings or dental checks. 

At Arnold Elementary's CLC, now in its 13th year, about 75 students are enrolled in before- and after-school programs and nearly 250 participate in the CLC clubs three days a week, said supervisor Dayna Krannawitter.

The clubs range from photography to makerspaces to a junior jobs club that teaches kids about different careers and takes them on field trips to local businesses.

The CLC sponsors several family nights and connects with a nearby family resource center to offer various family support services.

Krannawitter said it’s hard to describe her job.

“I think of the CLC as a partnership rather than one program,” she said, especially because each CLC is different. “That’s what makes it so challenging when you’re trying to educate the community about what we do.”

In the last year, CLC officials have devised a system to measure the effectiveness of the programs and partnerships. Ten schools are piloting the system, and it will be a key element for the CLCs moving forward with a new director, Johnson said.

“That will be used in the future to really tighten our contract with community partners and also provide accountability within the district.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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