North Side Community School – a Community of Support

The YouthBridge YEP (Youth Engaged in Philanthropy) STL! program provides a platform for area students to learn about and impact programs or projects serving children and youth. The group annually reviews and awards grants totaling $10,000 to multiple local nonprofits. This month, we highlight YEP STL! grantee North Side Community School.

“Quality education is the start, but not the end,” says Sara Paracha, Director of Development at North Side Community School. “Community is in our name and it’s what we have created here – a community of support for parents and students helping to address the external factors that may keep a child from being successful in school and life.”

A year into her role at North Side, a public charter school primarily serving the Walnut Park and Penrose neighborhoods of North St. Louis, Paracha has witnessed this spirit of community rise to the occasion during an unprecedented time. “Our children, families and the neighborhoods where they live have needed our support more than ever, and we’ve been there,” she says. When forced to go virtual after Spring break in 2020 and for the first semester of the 2020-21 school year, North Side continued to offer breakfast and lunch daily, not just to students, but to the entire community. The school provided weekly professional development to teachers to help them effectively deliver curriculums virtually. And, to make the transition to distance-learning as easy as possible, it equipped students with school supplies, Chromebooks and hotspots.

A grant through the YouthBridge YEP STL! program provided for 70 mobile hotspots, says Paracha. The youth-led YEP STL! program evaluates and provides annual grants to youth-focused nonprofits to support the areas of basic needs, mental health and education, including helping to bridge technology gaps for students. “We’re grateful for the support, and I really liked the concept of students helping their peers and learning leadership skills in the process,” she says.

Even as students have returned to the classroom, North Side has continued to pay for hotspots for middle school students, who each also have made extensive use of the Chromebooks provided by the school. “It’s been such a valuable tool for them in developing their typing, research and presentation skills,” says Paracha. The individual devices are the latest in a long line of resources the school has secured to help close the student achievement gap since opening its doors in 2009.

Frustrated by the lack of stability and opportunities for low-income St. Louis City students, who routinely had the lowest testing scores in the state, the founders of North Side Community School sought to offer a new education methodology based on regular personal attention, family involvement and developing students’ personal qualities and accountability. Beginning with 51 Kindergarten and first grade students in 2009, North Side has since added a new grade each year, currently serving close to 500 students from preschool through eighth grade on three campuses. As a public charter school, tuition and transportation are free, but the involvement of at least one devoted family member is non-negotiable.

“It’s really the core of our philosophy – the idea of a consistent support system for each student – and that includes a family committed to reinforcing the encouragement and accountability students have while in school,” says Paracha. It’s why North Side keeps its service area to a 5-mile radius, so that it’s easier for families to be present, and one of the reasons, in addition to more individualized classroom instruction, that it insists on small class sizes – no more than a 15:1 student to teacher ratio – so that teachers can get to know students and families on a personal level. “We have a parent on the Board, a really active Parent Organization and regular communication with parents on student victories as well as areas for improvement, so we’ve had great success in truly partnering with families,” she says.

Extended schools days filled with social and emotional enrichment, experiential learning and unique academic opportunities such as coding and book clubs have combined with rigorous, personal instruction to create “well-rounded students,” says Paracha. While these students regularly outperform those in nearby public schools in MAP (Missouri Assessment Program) testing, she says the emphasis isn’t really on standardized tests but on each student’s individual goals and potential.

“In preparing for our virtual gala last year, I had the opportunity to interview a former student who is doing well as a junior in high school,” she says. “He told me about what a ‘handful’ he was but that North Side never gave up on him and cheered him on. He now volunteers at the school to help other kids ‘like him’ he says. That is what it’s about.”

If you would like to donate or have any questions about this organization, please contact Allison McDonald.