The Cedar Rapids Community School District’s school board voted in March 2012 to close Polk Elementary School at the end of the 2012-13 school year.
But the building's doors never shut to students. More than a year after the facility’s final use as an elementary school, more than 100 students receive services daily from community organizations within Polk’s walls.
The school, at 1500 B Ave NE, has found another life as Polk Alternative Education Center, where the Boys and Girls Clubs of Cedar Rapids, Tanager Place and the Young Parents Network have provided programming since the 2012-13 school year.
Starting in 2012, the trio of not-for-profit organizations combined forces to operate as YouthPort and serve the areas surrounding Polk and well as Taylor and Hoover elementary schools.
“It is essential to that neighborhood,” said John Tursi, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Cedar Rapids, about the Polk center. “It was essential to keep something in that neighborhood, … to keep something as a focal point for that neighborhood.”
When discussions of closing some buildings began in 2011, heads of the organizations started talks with district Superintendent Dave Benson about using the space.
Polk’s Associate Director Deb Scott said that keeping the facility in use was about more than just the people who lived around the building.
“Our unique services in there blend with the unique needs of the community,” she said. “We talk about the Polk community and that’s where the idea started, but it’s really the Cedar Rapids community.”
A typical day at Polk – programming is available Monday through Friday during the academic year, including portions of school vacations and in the summer – begins with 30 to 50 Boys and Girls Clubs participants meeting at the building between 7:30 and 8 a.m. for activities before the district transports them to their schools. All the Boys and Girls Club children are Cedar Rapids Community School District elementary students.
From 7:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., learners who have special needs begin classes, as do district kindergarten through grade 12 students who have received short-term or long-term suspensions from their schools.
Cedar Rapids paraprofessionals and teachers handle the instruction, while therapeutic services are available from UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital and Abbe Center staff members. Tanager Place employees do referrals and address students’ and families’ mental health issues.
“It’s a complete look at the family and their needs,” added Joan Hackbarth, director of community relations for Tanager Place.
The Boys and Girls Club students return to Polk between 2:45 and 3 p.m. Until 6:30 p.m. they have access to homework help, a computer lab and a gym.
The 80 to 100 afternoon participants each receive a free hot meal every day. On Thursdays, Young Parents Network feeds another 80 to 100 parents at 5:30 p.m.
From 6 to 7:30 p.m., the mothers and fathers attend group sessions on various parenting and lifestyle topics while their children are in child care.
“These families transition out of their work with us into an entity that’s committed to their students having academic success,” said Brian Stutzman, executive director of the Young Parents Network.
The school district maintains Polk, which means that the YouthPort organizations are not responsible for the cost of custodial salaries or building repairs.
“It allows our organizations to spend money on programming and not upkeep,” Tursi said.
Representatives of the YouthPort organizations agreed that Polk’s previous incarnation as an elementary school allows the building to be versatile enough to support such diverse programming.
Stutzman, who said Polk is “an ideal facility,” and Hackbarth also spoke of the building’s intangible benefits such as morale and access to volunteers. She called Polk a “bloodline” for the area.“It was a well-trusted space,” Hackbarth said. “To have those doors open throughout the day is a huge safety factor, goodwill, so many good things for the neighborhood.”