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School plans family centers on 3 campuses

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| March 17, 2009 12:00 AM

The vision is a comfortable room near the main entrance with sofas, a play-area for small children, coffee and cookies, parenting resources and, most importantly, a smiling face with time to visit and listen.

It’s all part of the Libby School District’s plans to staff family resource centers at the elementary, middle school and high school to cultivate relationships with parents and the community.

“Some parents are intimidated by school administrators,” board member GelaRae Koehler said. “It would be a welcoming place where parents feel like they can ask questions and be heard.”

The three full-time AmeriCorps positions will be paid for through Missoula-based nonprofit Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development and $16,500 that the district will provide. 

In the district’s long-term planning process, coined “Carving New Directions,” the board named community involvement as its top priority.

WORD representative Claire Hibbs-Cheff was helping the board determine if its parent policy follows federal guidelines when she mentioned that her organization had a well-established program to help raise community involvement in schools.  

“This was like a miracle,” Libby superintendent Kirby Maki said. “Here we are working with someone who actually brings something up (that will help us reach) our No. 1 goal.”

Hibbs-Cheff introduced the family resource center program to Libby School Board last fall and gave her first presentation on the subject to the Troy School Board last week. She offered examples of activities that coordinators have organized at the 40-plus schools that have participated in the program, adding that what the coordinator does “all depends on what your focus is.”

“Just having a warm body that is welcoming has a tremendous effect on bridging the gap between parents and schools,” she told the Troy board. “When districts and schools partner with community and parents, it truly boosts student achievement.”

Schools do what they can to promote parent involvement, said Maki, but with no one person assigned to the task, it’s difficult to carry out.

“We do have a volunteer list and staff doing community nights, parent nights,” Maki said. “There’s just a million things that take a lot of time to organize that that person would be responsible for.”

In addition to organizing events, a coordinator for the high school could develop a newsletter to keep parents and senior citizens informed of the school’s activities, Libby High School Principal Rik Rewerts pointed out.

Coordinators could form relationships with parents who have not traditionally been involved in the school.

“There are some families that for generations have not had a positive experience with formal education,” said Jeanne Moon, WORD’s family resource center program director. “Maybe they, rightfully so, hold a negative attitude for it. It would be (the coordinator’s) job to build a working relationship with parents.”

“We have a good core group of parents that are interested,” Rewerts said, “but we want more than that core group. We want hundreds of parents to be interested.”

The coordinator would be the point-person for parents to go to if their child was having trouble in school or at home.

“We just want to be open to parents – parents’ ideas on how we can help our students achieve better,” Rewerts said, “and in some cases, how to make some of our kids feel more comfortable at school.”

Moon believes the new positions could increase the number of volunteers and business contributions.

“There are so many resources in the community that can add to education that are untapped,” Moon said. “The volunteerism goes up a lot. Many businesses that want to contribute one way or another, but oftentimes there’s not a person in the school to coordinate things like that.”

So far the Libby School Board has asked principals to locate a space for the parent resource center and to list tasks that they would like to see their center coordinator perform.

Moon has not seen so much enthusiasm from a school district before.

“This (positive reaction) is much bigger than usual,” Moon said. “We’ve had schools jump on board quick but it’s usually one school, not an entire district. The school board is pretty well grounded in what they’re headed out to accomplish.”

WORD will help the district start recruiting AmeriCorps members in May, but the district will have the final say in hiring.

“The best members are people in the very community that they are serving because they have an understanding of community,” Moon said, “its strengths, its needs and its resources.”

If the program is successful, the district will have the option of applying for the grant a second year. But because the program has a limited capacity of working with 16 schools at one time, a second year may not be possible.

“I think if it was successful we would want to find a way to come up with the money,” Maki said. “We would hope to get the grant for another year, or find another avenue to be able to fund it.”

The Troy School Board at its last meeting indicated that it planned to discuss the issue further.