KNOXVILLE (WATE) - An idea supporters say can keep Knox County kids in schools and out of prisons is getting attention in hopes of receiving more money to expand it.
The Community Schools concept is part of Knox County Schools' $35 million budget request.
Pond Gap Elementary School has served as a pilot for the University Assisted Community School Program.
The school system's budget request addresses the need to expand the initiative to three to five more schools, at an estimated $1 million a year.
Pond Gap Principal Susan Espiritu says it's working in her school. "We have seen tremendous improvement in our students," she said.
It's about meeting students' basic needs to help them reach their learning potential, involving parents and the community. "This is not a day care," Espiritu said. "This is not just an after school program. This is truly a program that focuses on removing the barriers to learning."
Knox County commissioners, school board members and school system staff participated in a round table discussion Wednesday, presenting the findings of the unique program.
It allows at-risk students to attend classes after school and provides services for their families.
"The real concept is that there are individuals and organizations throughout our community that are here to partner with us to provide support to our kids and our families so that our students can be successful academically," said Superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre.
A partnership with the University of Tennessee makes the program possible.
UT Professor Bob Kronick explained, "I've seen too many young people locked up too long. I've seen too many lives wasted that I'd rather catch them at five. I dreamed it up realizing by the time you work with kids in the department of corrections, it's a little late."
The community concept provides extended learning opportunities for students and offers family services like legal aid, help with job searches, GED programs, even dinner is provided regularly.
"We had a Habitat meeting the other night for families to learn how to apply for a Habitat house," Espiritu added.
Since the program was implemented at Pond Gap in 2010, school officials say research proves it's working.
"We have seen tremendous improvement in our students, in their motivation to want to be at school, in their self esteem, also in their academic achievement," Espiritu said.
School officials say they've seen a 34% drop in the absence rate, and a 72% decline in referrals for bad behavior.
Knox County commissioners will vote on the budget Monday.