During a week of snow days at Alpine Elementary this winter, teacher Brooke Johnston leaned on Kent School Services Network to help feed many of her students at their homes.
“We had so many back-to-back snow days this year, which made me worry for my students because I know how hard it was to get out to a grocery store to get food,” said Johnston, a third-grade teacher. “I also know that extra days home meant extra expenses for families, so I was worried that some kids from our school would be hungry.”
Johnston contacted the school’s food service director, but they hadn’t delivered any food because of the weather. She then called Alpine’s KSSN coordinator, Stephen Lovell. He suggested reaching out to a local church that gives students bags of food for the weekend.
Remembrance Church coordinator Julie Wilson was happy to help.
“She gave me close to 200 bags of food,” said Johnston, who began knocking on doors at a local trailer park with her family and kindergarten teacher Amy Sherwin. “Families were very grateful for the help and the students were excited to see familiar faces. If they didn’t need food they still thanked us and suggested other people in the park who might need it.”
In a nutshell, KSSN, a community-school coalition, provides the basics for children so they can get on with the job of learning new things. This includes clothes, food, money and relationships.
“It is good to not carry these burdens alone, and it frees me up to teach the students to the best of my ability,” Johnston added.
From Basics to Partnerships
Johnston’s story was shared at a recent gathering of community school directors from about 50 communities across the country. The directors were participating in a Coalition for Community Schools retreat on May 1-3 at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.
Alpine Elementary is one of 45 schools in 10 districts across Kent County utilizing Kent School Services Network, helping families with everything from food and health care to counseling and financial assistance. KSSN met more than 6,400 basic needs in 2016-17 and leveraged more than $500,000 in services, donations and volunteers, according to its website.
Amber Fox, director of Integrated Supports and team lead for KSSN, said they often see improved attendance for students as well as academic gains.
“In many of the schools we partner with, the coordinator has been able to find resources to support basic needs, and has now moved on to bringing in partnerships to increase family and student engagement, supporting staff wellness, and increasing access to out-of-school time activities such as after-school programs and summer camps,” Fox said. “All of this helps teachers to focus on what they do best – teach.
“It also helps to support a more welcoming environment for parents, who are then more likely to engage with the school.”
Alpine’s KSSN program was highlighted at the recent retreat of the Community School Leadership Network (CSLN). Fox said one of the reasons the school was featured was its location. Many of the CSLN visitors come from rural or suburban communities similar to Alpine.
The other reason is Principal Jason Snyder, “an incredible leader,” according to Fox.
“In this work, principal buy-in and leadership is one of the most important factors in the success of the community schools strategy.”
Variety of Services
Stephen Lovell, Alpine’s KSSN coordinator, shared with his visitors some of the programs that have proven successful for the school’s students and families. They include:
- Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students): A volunteer program where dads or father figures can come and help support students during the school day.
- Attendance Celebrations: To help recognize hard work and promote positive attendance at school.
- Feeding Walker Kids: Donates close to 100 bags of food every week to students who sign up for additional food support.
Lovell said he is most proud of the relationships KSSN builds with students and families.
“I think it was a great opportunity to share a snapshot about our school and how we are all working together as a team to help support our families,” Lovell said of the community school gathering. “One of the best parts is the support I get from the principal and teachers here at Alpine Elementary, so I was happy to showcase our work to the other directors.”