by Julie Cadwallader Staub
Early Learning Challenge, Race to the Top Director
Elissa couldn’t believe it when she saw the phone number come up on her phone. Could it be? This mom whom Elissa had been reaching out to since October, when her son’s chronic absences from kindergarten first landed in Elissa’s in-box? There are so many barriers to accessing help for this family, from damaging experiences that the mom had in her own school experience, to a brush with DCF earlier in the family’s life. Elissa had called her frequently to try to create a connection and establish a relationship with this isolated family. Likewise, the school made numerous attempts to meet with the parents. Along the way Elissa helped Mom access WIC for a new baby, but the chronic absenteeism continued.
Now, it appeared that the tables were turned: Mom was calling Elissa—for the first time ever. The voice on the other end asked Elissa, a community health worker at The Family Place in St. Johnsbury, if she could come by to talk. Elissa did, and together, over time, they developed a realistic plan to address transportation, timing, and child care issues to enable the son to get to kindergarten on a regular basis. Two months went by on the plan, and the son didn’t miss another school day, except for doctor’s appointments. A consistent routine had been set up—and, Mom knew that she could call Elissa for support if needed.
This would be success enough, since school attendance correlates highly with high school graduation, and these habits are established early. But because Elissa is part of the Promise Communities initiative, she could do more than “only” open the door for this child’s educational future. She also connected the family to The Family Place, a welcoming, family-friendly space within St. J’s preK-Grade 8 school. There, parents and young children can participate in once-a-week play groups, featuring topics as diverse as applesauce-making, fire safety and babysitting. For dads, The Family Place offers a seven week father’s class, beginning with the film The Mask You Live In, a documentary that portrays how our current American culture defines and shapes our concept of masculinity. The Family Place is located adjacent to the school’s art room, and an art class for moms, with child care provided, is on tap for this summer. Parent education classes utilize a curriculum called “conscious discipline,” designed to promote social-emotional wellness in young children. These same “conscious discipline” techniques are taught and utilized by teachers in the lower grades at the school, and the child care centers in the community, so there is a high level of consistency across early childhood settings.
What are the ingredients of success in St. J for this Promise Communities initiative? Martha Hill, the coordinator doesn’t hesitate: partnerships with the school, hospital, and community agencies form the backbone of their success at The Family Place. Because of these partnerships, parents and children can access whatever is needed to support them–assistance with housing, food, parenting, child care, etc. “We can put all the puzzle pieces together,” says Martha, “whatever the family needs, that’s what we aim for.” And they have fun doing it. Most recently, by collaborating with the Lyndonville Promise Communities initiative and Building Bright Futures, they organized a trip to the Montshire Museum, a hands-on museum with over 150 exhibits on science, ecology and technology. Over twenty-five parents and children were able to go.
Promise Communities is a statewide initiative funded by the federal Early Learning Challenge—Race to the Top grant. The overall goal of the grant is to improve school readiness for children with high needs. The Promise Community initiative supports local communities working together to improve outcomes for children and families. It was modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, seeking to address all the issues that stand in the way of developing a thriving community that supports young children and families.
Each Promise Community in Vermont identifies a community coalition, which trains together in Collective Impact, Strengthening Families, Community Cafés, Appreciative Inquiry, and Results Based Accountability. These tools are used to gather community input and identify a community plan. Each community then receives a grant to support initial implementation and evaluation of their plan.
For more information about The Family Place, contact Martha Hill, Coordinator.
*Names and details have been changed.