Annette Garcia sits with her two children in the main office of Walton School, in Cleveland’s Clark-Fulton neighborhood.
It’s January, and she shivers from the frigid weather outside — so different from her native Puerto Rico. She’s been in Cleveland for only a few weeks, having come to stay with her sister after losing her home and most of her belongings in Hurricane Maria, one of the most damaging storms in Caribbean history.
Now, surrounded by signs and posters in English and a room bustling with friendly-seeming but unfamiliar people, she feels uneasy and alone.
“The only thing I’m thinking is, ‘I want to make sure my kids are safe,’” she says. “After all they’ve gone through, that’s all I care about: finding a place that’s safe.”
The office door opens, and in walks a mustachioed young man with a pencil tucked behind his ear. He smiles, tells Garcia in Spanish that his name is Ismael Lara. He makes a self-deprecating joke about how much shorter he is than Garcia’s 14-year-old son, then hands each of her two children a new backpack.
The family follows Lara to his desk, where they talk in broad terms about the family’s needs. He asks about their housing situation, whether they need clothing and food.
It’s not what Garcia expected. This is school, after all: a place of books and classrooms and teachers. Yet here she is, talking about her life to a man she’s just met, a man who listens and takes notes and genuinely seems to care.
Garcia says she feels reassurance — even a tentative sense of calm — for the first time since the hurricane.
“I’m thinking, ‘OK, maybe this is the right place,’” she says. “‘Maybe this is the place my family will be safe.’”
Walton School is one of 25 schools in Cleveland that follow the community wraparound model of public education. The Coalition for Community Schools defines a community school as “a public school – the hub of its neighborhood, uniting families, educators and community partners to provide all students with top-quality academics, enrichment, health, social services and opportunities to succeed in school and in life.”
Community wraparound is an evidence-based strategy that blurs traditional boundaries between schools, families, and communities. While the overarching goal is to give every child the best possible education, wraparound acknowledges that this can only happen when kids are surrounded by families and neighbors that are on strong footing themselves.
Schools must therefore serve not just to educate children, but as resource centers for entire neighborhoods.
In Cleveland, many of the barriers to effective education have their roots in poverty. Cleveland has the highest childhood poverty rate in Ohio, and the second-highest childhood poverty rate in the nation. When families and neighbors struggle to afford food, clothing, and housing; when they lack well-paying jobs; when they struggle with physical and mental health issues — those problems can keep students from attending class, let alone graduating high school, going on to college, and finding a well-paying job.
“If we think about what it takes for our kids to have access to the same education that [others] have, it means disrupting the really persistent issues that come with poverty,” says Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD).
In some cases, families’ needs are acute and crisis-driven, as in the case of Annette Garcia. In others, services are of a more day-to-day variety. For example, students receive ongoing tutoring if they need it. Work training programs and job fairs give parents and community members access to new economic opportunity. Weekly food markets provide on-site access to fresh produce and healthy recipes.
This interactive webpage presents an honest, midstream accounting of how wraparound works, how it has evolved, and recommendations from staff and partners about how it could improve. Along the way, families share stories of how wraparound has affected them — in ways both large and small.
Like wraparound itself, this page is driven both by data and by the stories of real people. It’s designed to be useful and illuminating not only to educators in Cleveland and across the U.S., but to anyone interested in how urban schools work and how they are striving — alongside systemic obstacles — to provide a better future for the students who attend them.