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Offering Help Where It’s Needed, School and Home

When Rosalba Cruz was facing eviction from her mobile home because she was behind on rent, her daughter Anahi noticed she was stressing out.

The fifth-grader at Alpine Elementary School suggested someone who might help. “There’s a person that speaks Spanish at school,” Anahi told her mother. “Why don’t you go talk to her?”

So Cruz talked to Ruthy Paulson, the bilingual point person at Alpine for Kent School Services Network, an in-school hub of social services for students and their families.

It turned out Anahi was right: Paulson could help. She stepped in with the Kent County Department of Human Services to restore Cruz’s cash assistance from the state, providing enough funds to cover November’s rent.

Thanks to Paulson and the newly established KSSN program at Alpine, parents like Cruz get help they need so their children can give their best in class. With high percentages of low-income and Spanish-speaking families, Alpine launched the program this year to help meet needs such as nutrition, clothing and counseling – needs which, if unmet, often hinder children in school.  

“Hopefully the work we’re doing is taking that stress off the kids and helping the parents deal with the obstacles, so the kids can focus just on the academics,” Paulson said.

For Cruz, Paulson has helped reduce the obstacles of raising six children by herself. When Anahi senses her anxieties, Cruz said, “She doesn’t focus on class. The teacher sometimes tells me, ‘What’s going on at home? Your daughter’s mind is somewhere else.’”

Tears flooded her eyes as she told of her children’s father being deported five years ago. “Ever since, it’s been hard for me,” she said.

Bringing Services Right to School

  1. KSSN was launched in 2006 under the leadership of the Kent County Family and Children’s Coordinating Council in collaboration with Kent ISD, Kent County, Grand Rapids Community Foundations and several community organizations
  2. It brings essential health and human services to students and families in their schools, such as counseling, health care and financial aid
  3. It aims to increase student achievement, reduce absenteeism and improve parent involvement
  4. Partners include the Kent County Department of Human Services, Spectrum Health, network 180 and several foundations
  5. Participating school districts include Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Godwin Heights, Grand Rapids, Kelloggsville, Kenowa Hills, Kentwood and Wyoming as well as Kent ISD specialty schools
Source: Kent ISD

Paulson, a community school coordinator, and Kate Beckett, a mental-health clinician, are a dynamic duo for the kids and families at Alpine Elementary. Since joining the school as KSSN staff last fall, they have teamed up to provide everything from cooking and parenting classes to counseling and clothing for students.

Alpine is the latest school to join KSSN, a non-profit operating in nearly 30 schools in eight Kent County school districts. By bringing health and human services people into the schools, KSSN can help families overcome the barriers of poverty that can affect student achievement, such as poor health, malnutrition and lack of transportation.

Many such services are needed at Alpine, where about 75 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Set amid rolling farm fields in northwest Kent County, the school serves a mix of low- and middle-income families, many of whom speak Spanish at home. Each fall the children of migrant workers swell its enrollment to about 400.

Jason Snyder has seen the needs grow in his six years at Alpine as principal and seven before that as a teacher: more poverty, more homelessness and transiency, more single parents. He worked to bring KSSN to the school after seeing how students’ problems at home were making things harder for them in class.

“We have a lot of things in place to meet the academic needs of students,” Snyder said. “But we really struggle to meet these social, emotional and behavior needs, as well as family needs. If kids don’t have those basic needs met, they’re not going to be ready to learn.”

From Counseling to Cooking

“The number of (students with) behavior issues in my office has dramatically declined,” Snyder said. “It’s freed me a lot more to focus on being an instructional leader. ”Snyder worked with Superintendent Gerald Hopkins to secure the $35,000 needed to start the program. It meant giving up some academic support services, Snyder said, but adds they are now reaching more students with special needs and behavior problems.   

Kate Beckett, the mental-health clinician, deals with many of those students with behavior issues and other problems. A therapist with Family Outreach Center, she meets with children to talk through their problems, whether it’s acting up in class, anxiety about a family move or grief over separation from a parent. She’s worked with a whole class on conflict management and is forming a small counseling group for girls.

“The ultimate goal is to nip issues in the bud before they become big crisis issues,” Beckett said. “My goal is for those kids to not need me.”

When necessary, she also meets with parents either at school or at the home.  She tells them, “We’re going to work together and make this better for your child.”

Edith Martinez began attending the YMCA cooking class after Paulson offered to watch her children so she wouldn’t have to pay a babysitter. A single mother of five kids — three of them attending Alpine — Martinez recently moved here from Chicago, only to find she didn’t have enough money to clothe them for winter. Paulson helped her get coats, gloves and boots from a school clothing bank.

Warm Clothing Makes a Difference

“If they’re learning to eat healthier food, they’re going to be more alert and ready to learn,” Paulson said. 
Meanwhile, Paulson oversees an army of allies to help both students and parents. She coordinates volunteer mentors from Kids Hope USA and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, community partners such as Walmart and Chemical Bank, and recently brought in a YMCA cooking class for parents. They learned to make nutritious meals for under $10 and got to take home the ingredients. She is also planning a healthy-eating and fitness program for students run by MSU Extension Service.

“Now I feel good when they go to school,” Martinez said. “They can play outside and they don’t have a problem.”

She also plans to register her daughter Adian for Girls on the Run, an international program for girls’ fitness and self-esteem that Paulson is bringing to Alpine. Martinez hopes it will help Adian overcome her shyness, adding, “If she makes friends, she can learn more.”

Martinez counts on Paulson for support as she works toward passing a high school equivalency test and getting a good job. “She always has something for you when you need help,” she said warmly of Paulson.

Rosalba Cruz counts on Paulson too, as she tries to help her children succeed in school while struggling financially. Without a computer at home or working knowledge of the social service system, it’s not easy.

“She’s a big help,” she said, motioning to Paulson. “I’m really glad she’s here.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.


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