Family Resource Centers -- A Community Investment
Note: This story appeared in a recent edition of ‘Better Manchester Magazine.”
As director of the school district’s Family Resource Centers, Latasha Easterling-Turnquest was busy last year.
This year, she’ll be even busier.
Four more FRC coordinators were hired this summer, meaning 11 schools will have a full-time coordinator responsible for supporting families in a variety of ways with the overriding objective of improving student achievement.
“It’s a testament to the effectiveness of the program,” said Easterling-Turnquest, who in addition to having district oversight is also the FRC coordinator at Bowers Elementary.
Superintendent Matt Geary said that investing in Family Resource Centers is an important part of the district’s commitment to ensuring that all students will leave the school system prepared to be lifelong learners and contributing members of society.
“There must be an active, healthy partnership involving school personnel, families and community in order for all of our students to reach their potential,” Geary said. “Having an FRC in every building from the Preschool Center through Bennet will help us develop, nurture and sustain better relationships with families, and build a greater capacity throughout our system to support students and their learning.”
Funding for the programs come mostly from the district’s Alliance Grant, from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and from Title I -- which is a federal program that steers money to schools with high percentages of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on family income.
Easterling-Turnquest noted that FRCs might be especially helpful for parents or guardians who are single, or who don’t speak English, or who face other challenges -- but she emphasized that they serve all families.
“By adding staff we are increasing access, giving more people more opportunities to everything that we offer,” she said, and then referenced the adage about fairness meaning that everyone doesn’t get the same thing, but that everyone gets what they need. “By making our FRCs more accessible, we certainly believe we are moving toward more equity in our community.”
The new hires will work at Keeney, Highland Park and Washington elementary schools and the Preschool Center.
Returning FRC coordinators are Rachel Hyman at Verplanck, Adele Muraski at Robertson and Rene Bryan at Waddell.
Sean Webster will be full time at Buckley (he split time last year, also covering Highland Park) and John Fournier will be full time at Martin (he was also at Keeney) with Brittany Hall moving to Bennet Academy from Washington, where she’d worked the past few years.
“We have an excellent team and we’re excited to build on the success of last year,” Easterling-Turnquest said.
Every site has the same five-pronged approach. These components are: family engagement; outreach; playgroups; positive youth development; and resources and referrals.
What does the work look like? Well, FRC coordinators each run a “lunch bunch’, inviting the parents and guardians of K-2 students to visit at lunchtime, eating with their children while reading together and building literacy skills. On other days coordinators having ‘lunch groups’, eating with fourth- and fifth-graders, building relationships as students work on leadership skills.
Coordinators also collaborate, working – for example – with the district’s Adult Education department by recruiting parents and guardians for English Language Learner classes, GED classes, and so on.
They also get involved with partners throughout the community, helping with everything from hat & mittens drives to developing relationships with various faith institutions to publicizing and supporting programs run by the town’s Office of Neighborhoods and Families and its Youth Services Bureau.
More? Well, Easterling-Turnquest taught a parent leadership class last year, and other coordinators are expected to be part of when those classes resume this year.
It’s not a cookie-cutter approach, though, and coordinators are encouraged to work within their school community to do what makes the most sense there.
For example, at Waddell, FRC coordinator Rene Bryan took the lead in scheduling assemblies conducted by representatives of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization dedicated to protecting civil rights. Principal Kim Loveland said the anti-bullying program was part of Waddell’s comprehensive campaign to build a healthy and positive climate at the school.
At Buckley, FRC coordinator Sean Webster led the way as the school held a multi-cultural night, while at Robertson, Adele Muraski helped coordinate the FRC’s role supporting birth-to-three programming that included sessions held at night.
“Their flexibility and versatility have been especially helpful,” said Scott Ratchford, who oversees the district’s Family and Community Partnership office. “The work of the FRC’s is evolving, and will continue to do so. Parents, guardians and other caregivers have a huge impact on their children – on their academics, their health, their social and emotional development and more. By supporting the entire family we are improving the chances for our students to maximize their potential and realize their dreams.”
There has been an FRC at Washington for years, supported in large part by an affiliation with the Eastern Connecticut Health Network, but all the others are new. The 2015-16 academic year started with FRCs opening at Bowers, Waddell, Robertson and Verplanck, with the HP/Buckley and Martin/Keeney part-time programs starting later during that school year.
Easterling-Turnquest noted that FRC coordinators have much the same goals as teachers, school counselors and psychologists, administrators and others. “Working to support students and develop positive relationships with families is a team effort and we are most effective when we communicate and collaborate,” she said. “But everyone has different roles and responsibilities – and as FRCs we have the opportunity to really focus on this area, and build and nurture different kinds of relationships.”
By way of example, she said FRCs have been contacting faith-based groups such as New River Community Church to explore informal ‘adopt-a-school’ partnerships.
“We’re excited about this,” said Pastor Doug Rowse, whose church is on Woodbridge Street – about a half-mile from Bowers (which is on Princeton Street). “The mission of our church includes outreach and we are optimistic that we can help have a positive impact on families at Bowers.”
New River already has had an impact – donating 35 supply-filled backpacks to Bowers in July for distribution to families in need.
What else? Well, Pastor Rowse and Easterling-Turnquest say they have discussed having church volunteers help Bowers students with their homework after school.
“We’re committed to helping build a better Manchester,” Pastor Rowse said. “And we are open to any ideas that will help improve and strengthen our community.”
Easterling and Ratchford have met with representatives of more than a dozen other faith-based groups and say they have been well-received.
“It not about proselytizing,” Ratchford said, noting that all involved agree that there will be no efforts to attempt to convert families from one religion, belief, or opinion to another. “This is just one more way we can capitalize on the many resources in our town as we seek opportunities to deepen relationships and benefit our students and community at large.”
Measuring the value of the FRCs is difficult, because the centers are but one piece of the district’s multi-dimensional effort to support families in the interest of improving student achievement.
Nevertheless, Easterling-Turnquest said there is ample evidence that the FRCs are making a positive difference. Climate surveys given during the school year elicited many positive comments about the centers. A sample:
Lunch Bunch is such a wonderful program. I enjoyed getting to see my child during the week, having lunch with him, and enjoying an activity. My son (and I!) looked forward to it every month. Latasha is so engaging and great with the group!
Ms. Muraski was very nice, told interesting stories and was prepared and organized, Thank you! Purely wonderful program!
Love participating in school events, they’re always a lot of fun and an excellent way to engage in school fun/activities with family and friends! J
Great program - Mr. Webster is a great role model
Thank you for this opportunity. I enjoy/love feeling like I am a part of this school (partnership is important)
Those comments were from adults. Feedback from students, who were surveyed separately, was also positive. In response to the question of what they learned through their FRC, students said things like: “With teamwork you can accomplish more”, “Different cultures are cool”, “How to stand up for someone who is being bullied” and the always helpful “How to deal with stuff.”
School leaders say such feedback is encouraging, but that the goal remains seeing more students achieving at higher levels academically -- something that is affected by a variety of factors.
“It’s all connected,” said Geary. “Our schools need to be welcoming and inviting. They need to be safe and inspiring. Students need to receive excellent instruction challenging them to develop 21st Century skills requiring problem-solving, collaboration and critical thinking. We need to make smart choices so that students have the best resources that our community can afford. There’s a lot to this, and all of this work becomes more attainable as we involve and empower our parents and families.”
Added Easterling-Turnquest: “We try to build bridges, because we know we’re all in this together.”