ETAC Region Updates
DISTRICT IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Making the Call: Creative thinking, backed by action, is bringing critical services to Saranac Lake School District families
As anyone who has spent time working in a classroom can attest, an overlapping of duties (and expectations) oftentimes falls to a single person. A classroom teacher can wear numerous hats: first responder, counselor, resource contact, caregiver, and instructor—all simultaneously. Shouldering so many responsibilities can not only make teaching difficult, but troubleshooting a nuanced crisis can also mean spending many extra hours or days of research and outreach to find the right connections for the students and families who need help. Even with a robust school counseling team, the ability to provide support is sometimes stymied by limited access to or knowledge of resources—a major hurdle for schools whose students come from the far corners of the large, rural geographic region of the Saranac Lake Central School District.
“For many of our families, basic needs are difficult to meet,” says Erika Bezio, SLCSD’s community school liaison who has worked in many capacities during her 15+ years with the district. “I’ve been a classroom teacher. When a family is faced with not knowing how to pay medical bills and their child has to come into school unmedicated, you can tell. And not knowing how to help or who to call?—That’s what we’re working to eliminate.”
In this rural school community, the gaps in supports aren’t just metaphorical: A food-shopping round-trip to Walmart for a family of five using local buses costs $40 and takes two hours—and that’s all before buying groceries. At an Adirondack Birth to Three Alliance meeting last year, where county providers and state and local agencies convene to share their services, a local pediatrician who serves almost all of the district’s children lamented: “I have 20 minutes for a Well Child visit. I have to see if and how the child is thriving. I don’t have time to ask if the family’s food or housing is secure. Even if the family told me ‘We need help,’ I don’t know who to call.”
At SLCSD, a combination of the community school approach, innovation, and action is working to allow teachers to focus on teaching and counselors to focus on guidance, while also connecting students and their families in the rural three-county district (geographically, the largest district in New York State) to crucial supports. And knowing “who to call” all started with listening.
Last year, District Superintendent Diane Fox and the local teachers’ union identified a common drive to provide wraparound mental health and other daily-life supports for students and families that weren’t yet planned for in this Community School Model. The district serves over 1,100 children in Franklin, Essex, and Clinton Counties (~400 families), bussing students to school from a span of 600 square miles. Almost half (43%) of SLCSD students come from economically disadvantaged homes, and the effects of poverty—low attendance, low academic performance, emotional and physical health problems—almost always show up in the classroom.
When Superintendent Fox and the teachers’ union solicited ideas from the school district during a series of Community School info sessions to help families from the community, Erika Bezio quickly stepped up. Fox gave Bezio the planning project with a vote of confidence and carte blanche. Before long, what Fox and Bezio initially conceived as a “year for exploration” and research into possibilities quickly turned into a fully operating initiative.
Soon after Bezio undertook planning, Lee Rivers, director of Community Connections of Franklin County (formerly, the Office of Mental Health) attended a monthly community school meeting. Listening to the district’s needs to provide service referrals to families and offload myriad duties from teachers, Rivers saw a way to bridge the gap by providing an in-kind, full-time family advocate from his network. Within her first two weeks of working with the school, the new family advocate and direct responder, Linda, was working on 12 critical care cases.
Since the initiative’s start, Superintendent Fox has continued support, and the United Way, the Cloudsplitter Foundation, local food pantries and private donors have provided critical funds to meet the various family needs that Linda quickly addresses.
“If we get a call from a parent or family that needs help with housing, insurance, filling out paperwork, or finding rent money—we turn to Linda. And in that introduction is the opportunity to provide mental health supports, because Linda can also directly refer families,” says Bezio. What’s more, because Linda is fully equipped and solely dedicated to making these connections and referrals—and not being pulled away from other duties such as teaching—she can advocate or help with paperwork for any family, without compromise.
Bezio shared another example of Linda’s full and swift assistance: “We had a family move here from Brooklyn with no car, clothes, or even food. Just an empty apartment with a TV. Within 72 hours, they had clothing, food, and beds for everyone—all from Linda’s connections with places like the Salvation Army, local thrift stores, and our local food pantry being helpful and welcoming. We saw this family, who were so grateful, shine.”
So what’s the next part of this community school district’s dream?
“We’d like to work with our local independent hospital to open a school-based clinic here on campus. We know there are a lot of challenges and that the roadblocks are significant, because of the red tape and paperwork on the hospital’s end. But ‘red tape’ is just a barrier—not an impasse. At the same time that our barriers are significant, our celebrations are huge! For example, we didn’t have a YMCA in the district until they opened one this spring. And now their before-school and after-school programs have opened registration for the fall.”