By Deb Risden
Eight El Paso County Colorado District 49 schools receive Title I funds, which are federal dollars that supplement state funding for schools. Title I resources are allocated based on poverty rates of students in the schools and school districts.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, Title I was developed “to ensure economically disadvantaged children receive a fair, equitable and high-quality education, by helping to close academic achievement gaps.”
The eight schools in D 49 that receive Title I funds are Evans Elementary School, Falcon School of Technology, Odyssey Elementary School, Remington Elementary School, Stetson Elementary, Ridgeview Elementary, Springs Ranch Elementary and Horizon Middle School.
One of the requirements for the funding set by the Colorado Department of Education is that schools maintain a family and community engagement program with a goal of increasing academic achievement.
The D 49 family engagement program has many facets, one of which is employing a family engagement liaison who works directly with families, teachers and school administrators to bridge a gap between the school and the family.
Karen Parks, a family engagement teacher on special assignment, said, “The goal of the liaison is to be able to come in and support and be side by side with our families so they can support their children.”
The schools conduct family engagement events that are academically focused, such as math and reading nights, back-to-school nights and public library resource nights. “Parents who attend school literacy nights or math nights will get an idea of the curriculum taught and what their children do in school,” Parks said. “We want them to come away with skills to help them at home with their students. This is when we want to work alongside (with) and really help families. We don’t want to be a separate entity. They are their child’s first teacher, and we want to partner with them and support that.”
Parks said much of the work done by liaisons involves providing resources to a family. “If a family is struggling, we can remove that barrier so they can focus on getting their child to school and supporting them,” she said.
Stephanie Ramirez, a family engagement liaison at Falcon Elementary School, said being a liaison starts with getting to know the families so she can be aware of a need when it arises. “I know these parents, I know their struggles, I’ve talked with them,” Ramirez said. Needs can range from food insecurities, rent or utilities payments, housing and transportation issues, to name a few. The necessities include learning resources and helping the family become familiar with the curriculum.
Ramirez said she observes students when they come to school. She notices if a child isn’t wearing socks or a coat on a cold day, if their shoes are too large for their feet, if they are wearing the same clothing two days in a row or lacking in general cleanliness. Ramirez said she will call the parent and offer to fill a need like providing a winter coat. “Most of the time they accept the coat. Sometimes they say they forgot it in the car and will borrow a coat,” she said.
Liaisons keep some resources in their schools like coats, gloves, boots, toiletries and school supplies, all provided through donations. Other needs are met through partnerships and collaborations with organizations.
Woodmen Valley Chapel has been a long-time supporter of D 49 schools. “They are amazing,” Ramirez said. “They bring me weekly food bags full of cereal, snacks, fruit cups and spaghetti noodles before the weekend so they have food to eat at home.” During the holidays, church members provide toys and gifts for families in need.
The schools also conduct parent workshops and host after-school programs for students with working parents who are not at home when school is out. Girl Scout troops have conducted programs after school. Care and Share Food Bank has provided cooking classes. There is also an art club and a Lego club. “Anything that keeps the students here at school, occupied and engaged,” Ramirez said. “A lot of our parents appreciate that because some of them do work far away in the Springs and spend a lot of time commuting.”
Schools also receive donations from local businesses and individual families. The district has a listing on the CarePortal, which is an online platform that connects people in need with resources like church groups. Ramirez uses the CarePortal when she knows of a specific need such as grocery cards, gas cards, bus passes, furniture, propane, firewood, help with a utility bill or auto repairs. The liaisons will work with homeless families to get hotel vouchers when shelters are full.
A family resource center was opened on the Horizon Middle School campus in April, where families can go in person to pick up clothing and food. Care and Share Food Bank has established a food pantry at the location.
Lauren Stuart, Sand Creek Zone community liaison, said, “We are currently unable to open this school year due to a lack of inventory; however, we will be open for one hour every week for food and clothing, by appointment only.” Stuart said they hope the center will soon be able to increase hours. “We are getting creative with filling the pantry because we know we have families in need,” she said. The pantry typically offers nonperishable food items, drinks, produce, eggs and milk — depending on availability. They have clothing from baby through adult sizes. The family resource center needs donations, and an Amazon wish list can be found through a link at https://www.d49.or/CRC.
Ramirez said many people have never heard of a family engagement liaison. She said the liaison staff is well-trained, receive strong support and work together as a team. She sees the difference firsthand with students and their achievement levels. “Growing up, I didn’t know if my parents had that support at the school that I went to. This job overwhelms me with joy,” Ramirez said. “I’m there to remove any type of educational barrier they may experience.”
The district welcomes individuals or businesses interested in partnering with them to help families in need. Anyone can reach out to their local school and speak with the liaison or an administrator if there is no liaison. Karen Parks oversees the program for the district; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or assistance.
Being a liaison starts with getting to know the families … to be aware of a need when it arises. “I know these parents, I know their struggles, I’ve talked with them.” Needs can range from food insecurities, rent or utilities payments … transportation issues … . The necessities include learning resources and helping the family become familiar with the curriculum.
Stephanie Ramirez, D 49 family engagement liaison