Community School

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Community School



If you are in Dundalk on a Monday morning and hear loud music and see students and teachers wearing t-shirts featuring inspirational quotes, you are probably near Sandy Plains Elementary School, and witnessing “Motivational Monday,” organized by community school facilitator Whitney Leonard.

What led Leonard, a former special education teacher, to her current position was a desire to “dive into all the extra stuff” she was doing for her students – minus the academic piece. 

Leonard joined the Sandy Plains Elementary School staff in August 2022. Last year, she says, was a “big relationship year.” She continues, “I leaned into the things already going on in the building and tried to infuse the community school strategy into them. I didn’t want staff to feel like this strategy was an extra thing they had to take on.”

Leonard describes the Dundalk community as “very tradition-centered and very proud.” The community, she says, “has a lot of ideas. They know what they need but not always how to get it. They want the community to be better.”

The community is also very diverse and has recently seen a large increase in its English language learner population. “These new students and families bring refreshing new perspectives,” Leonard says. “We are working to ensure that they feel welcomed.”

The Sandy Plains community needs assessment revealed its largest needs to be out-of-school time programming for students and making needed resources more accessible to families. Leonard is working to expand out-of-school options such as additional clubs and athletic activities. 

Families in the area, Leonard says, have a lot of financial needs, and some are dealing with substance abuse issues. “Mental health is a huge issue, too,” she says, “especially post-COVID.”

Leonard refers families to multiple community organizations for assistance. The Community Assistance Network (CAN) often helps with housing. Leonard has brought in experts to assist families in applying for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other government benefits. (This year, she is looking for opportunities to bring these experts into the school to provide support.) She then follows up to be sure that the issue is resolved. “Sometimes the assistance families need is simple,” she continues. “They might need to make copies of documentation or print forms. They might need a checklist to help them be sure they have completed everything properly.”

Changes have been made to the school’s food pantry to better serve families. Rather than distributing already packed bags, now families can select what they want and need. “We also established a partnership with H&S Bakery,” Leonard says. “We were giving away food items like hot dogs and peanut butter without bread to eat them on. H&S Bakery now donates 150 loaves of bread to us each month, and if we have any leftover, we pass it on to a nearby church.”

Other key partners in Sandy Plains community school initiative include the PTA, Stanley Snacks for School Kids, Baltimore Hunger Project, Girl Scouts of Central Maryland, Eastern Assembly of God, and Pizza Hut. Leonard says that families are thankful for the additional support. Last year, a nearby apartment development managed by Southern Management Property Group also got involved, hiring school staff to provide afterschool tutoring in math and reading. 

“Overall,” Leonard says, “the school climate is much more welcoming and community-centered. I love my job, love my school. My principal gives me the autonomy to do what I need to do, and my coworkers make it easy. They are all in, and they get it.”