Connecting the Dots
In Southern California's Lake Elsinore area, the area's namesake also happens to be the community's biggest headache. The town is divided by--you guessed it--a big lake. For those on the wrong side, often without transportation, access to county services used to seem impossible.
Those services "might as well have been on the moon," says Linda Sanford, a family nurse practitioner on special assignment for the district. "Many of our families are in survival mode"--in need of the basics: food, housing, transportation, childcare and clothing.
Getting families that help--and in turn helping students get to school ready to learn--was the organizing principle behind the district-wide Community Connections program. What better place than a school to connect with families?
"We link families to services or organizations to achieve family stability," says Sanford, director of the program since its 1996 launch. "The only direct service we provide is linking." Through the program, families in crisis learn of services to help them find jobs, get medical attention, arrange childcare and more.
Community Connections began as a seed of an idea back in 1991, soon after the state of California instituted Healthy Start, a program designed to help families access services. Sanford and then-Assistant Superintendent Sharron Lindsay attended a Healthy Start conference and were quick to see the potential. And the district already had some connections to service agencies in place, through its Students At-Risk Advisory networking system.
Five years later, with $400,000 from the state and nine community partners, CC was officially born. Today, more than 60 social services, county departments, charitable organizations and businesses are part of the collaborative.
Instead of trying to "fix" families, the program works with them to rectify overwhelming situations so that the children can go to school. "We all need that kind of help sometimes," Sanford says, adding that it's the community's responsibility to provide a safety net that allows the whole community to flourish.
The program had only three schools in its purview at first--those with the highest free and reduced-priced lunch numbers--and only two staff members. Sanford says they wanted to start small to ensure a job well done. Families were referred to CC when a child had slipped in grades, attendance or behavior. Sanford took a baseline reading of those three factors at the beginning of the relationship with the family and another 60 days out.
It wasn't long before she started seeing definite improvement. Sanford took that evidence to the school board and said, "We're making sure they're walking in the door ready to learn; let's expand this."
The concept isn't new. Community involvement exists in districts throughout the U.S. What's unique about CC is how well it works. The complete commitment of the Board of Trustees, the superintendent and individual schools is crucial, Sanford says. Lindsay, who is now superintendent, explains that the district has always worked to strengthen community ties. "We don't operate in isolation," she says. Schools are just one aspect of the wider community and total educational environment.
Onward and Upward
Since its inception, the program has completed more than 35,000 "acts of advocacy," with self-referrals becoming the norm as word has spread. Seventy-five percent of the families helped have gone from "in crisis" to "stable." Student gradepoint averages increased within 90 days for as many as half of the kids in the program.
Now district-wide and with a team of 10, the program frees teachers and administrators to do what they are hired to do: teach and administrate. Dorri Meal, principal at Butterfield Elementary School, said at a community meeting that CC allows her to be "an educator instead of a social worker."
Program growth comes at a cost, however. "A patchwork of funding," which includes money from state, local and private sources, now keeps Community Connections running, Sanford says. With California's budget crunch, promised money has not been delivered. She has gotten creative with her own budget by, for example, not hiring an assistant, so more hours of actual support work can be provided.
It's ironic, says Sanford, that right when more people need their services, the money is drying up. But, she says, CC has made perseverance a habit, and she says she feels sure the program will ride out the current budget cuts. She is looking into turning CC into a completely non-profit organization so that it can better raise funds for itself.
The 90-Day Wonder
More than program numbers, it's the individual families that demonstrate Community Connections' true colors. Take, for instance, the single mom with two kids--one in school, one too young for school--who was out of work, had no means of transportation and was having trouble getting a job. The school-age child was becoming a discipline problem, so CC was called in to help.
"Everything that could not be right was not right," Sanford remembers. A stalled bit of paperwork, languishing for lack of a paid processing fee, was holding up the tidal flood of services and attention for which the mom and her family were eligible.
CC found a donor to pay the fee, and the trickle turned into a stream. A donated car came in (the program's tax-exempt status makes it simpler to offer tax write-offs as donor incentives). The car needed work in order to run, so Sanford's team found a community member to donate the repairs.
Overall appearance had also worked against the mother. A CC staff member who also happens to be a beautician put in some time and effort to help. In addition, dental appointments were set up, medical insurance came through and a Head Start slot was found for the younger child. Mom was helped with job placement, and she landed employment.
Within 90 days, there was a complete turnaround. The school-age child began doing demonstrably better in school, and Mom was ecstatic.
It was as simple as removing a single barrier and letting the mother know that she had the power to better her situation, that there was a community around her that would help her family through its current trouble. "It doesn't take much," says Sanford. Even small steps "give people hope that they can change things." Program staff act as coaches for families to advocate for themselves. "We don't want to create a bunch of co-dependents," laughs Sanford.
Bells and Whistles
Six years into its life, the program is creating a little buzz outside district boundaries. This past school year, it was one of two district-wide winners of the California School Board Association Golden Bell Award for excellence in education programs.
Judged by state Department of Education staff, teachers, assistant superintendents for curriculum, and superintendents, the Golden Bell gets hundreds of school and district program applicants each year. Out of seven weighted criteria for the award, number one is that the program show that it makes a demonstrable difference in the school and district community.
Community Connections seems to have that down. Evaluations and tracking are on-going. Eight out of 10 students who have been assisted by the program show improved attendance, and three out of four show decreased disciplinary actions. "We obviously believe we're making a difference," says Sanford. "When it all works, it's a thrill. We're addicted to that thrill."
Rx for Community Outreach Anywhere
Linda Sanford, nurse that she is, likens her district's Community Connections structure to a nursing care plan. To set up a similar program in your own backyard, the program director suggests asking the same types of questions that would be asked of a family seeking healthcare. For example:
Elizabeth Crane, email@example.com, is a contributing editor.