The Independent, Ashland, Nov. 3, 2016
Silver anniversary for student success
Family resource centers across state celebrate 25 years
BY MIKE JAMES
WESTWOOD - A girl knocked nervously on Brenda Hale’s door one recent morning at the Fairview Family Resource and Youth Service Center.
She felt untidy and disheveled and didn’t want to go to class without some additional grooming.
Hale asked her a couple of questions, then went to her supply closet and dug out a hairbrush and deodorant.
Hale spoke to another child that day, a boy who was unhappy because his friends had asked him to share his snacks. He couldn’t oblige because he got the snacks in the weekend backpack program that sends food home with children who don’t get enough to eat at home.
The backpack’s contents would be pretty much all the food in the house between Friday night and Monday morning. Every granola bar he handed out to a pal would mean a grumbling stomach over the weekend.
Hale sees a lot of kids like that, children whose families can’t afford basic foods and amenities most others take for granted.
She finds out what they need, whether it is a notebook, pencil, toothpaste, a pair of socks or a coat, and sends them on to class.
Parents also come to Hale. They need information about health care, family counseling and other social issues.
She also oversees afterschool activities where kids immerse themselves for a carefree hour or so in drama, art, cooking and other pastimes.
Hale’s center is one of 823 in Kentucky, where family resource and youth service centers have been an essential element in improving schools for 25 years. The centers were created under the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 to serve schools where at least 20 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Schools across Kentucky are celebrating a quarter of a century of success in lifting the state’s schools from near the bottom of the barrel in terms of academic achievement to a model other states look to in designing their own systems.
At the same time, they are looking ahead at new challenges in an ever-changing social environment where new barriers to education crop up continuously.
The centers have evolved since their inception, when they were mostly concerned with helping children with the basic necessities — clothing, school supplies and the like. “We work with them to get all the tools they need for success, clothing, school supplies, social support,” Hale said.
“It has changed to so much more. We provide after-school programs that enhance what they learn in the classroom. We have become part of the planning process on the education level,” Hale said.
Centers also have taken on a crucial role in crisis intervention, said Ashland Family Resource Center coordinator Geri Willis. Drug abuse, alcohol abuse and homelessness plague more families than ever and children bring the resulting baggage to school.
“I’ve seen an awareness from teachers and administrators regarding all that kids bring to school, the trauma, the stress, the heartache, and how it impedes learning,” Willis said.
A recent study at Crabbe Elementary, where her center is located, showed faculty are looking for better ways to deal with children’s stress issues. Teachers are training to help students with trauma issues.
A key to the centers’ success is what regional program manager Doug Jones called a “paradigm shift” that brought together schools, government, business, community and faith institutions to work on gaps in education. “We changed the way business was being done and brought groups together, got people talking,” he said.
The result was collaboration on finding resources to meet children’s needs, he said.
The Fairview Center couldn’t do what it does without the help of the community, Hale said. State funding mainly pays salaries; grants, donations and volunteers make it possible to offer after-school enrichment, fill weekend backpacks and provide other help.
The centers are closely connected with other community organizations; center workers attend community meetings and serve on boards so they keep up with resources available to children and families, and who to call to get them.
Kentucky’s system is under observation by 15 other states looking to establish similar services, Jones said.
The centers are likely to be around for a long time because as soon as one problem is addressed more crop up. “The constellation of need has changed,” Willis said. “We have more single parents, cohabiting parents, blended households, grandparents and relatives as parents, same-sex families, and we have to be able to respond differently.”
What won’t change, according to Hale, is that the centers will remain places any student — parents too — can walk in and find a trustworthy adult they can confide in.
At a 25th anniversary gathering of family resource and youth service supporters earlier this week, Fairview High graduate Erica Cordle told listeners her college career — she will graduate from Morehead State University in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in social work — is a direct result of help she got from the Fairview center. “I am who I am because of the family resource center. I owe them my success and all my future endeavors.”
The product of a broken family and drug-addicted parents, Cordle ate at soup kitchens and never had a bed of her own until college, she said.
But teachers and family resource workers knew her needs and met them, from jackets in the winter to school supplies for class. “I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to tell my teacher my parents couldn’t afford it and I wasn’t embarrassed in front of my classmates,” she said.