Photo by Marcy Stamper

The hardships some students face include the need for counseling, food, and even winter clothing. Photo by Marcy Stamper

By Marcy Stamper 

When funds that helped students overcome circumstances that could interfere with learning were shifted in a last-minute state budget deal this summer, educators and social-service providers in the Methow began devising an innovative partnership to meet these needs.

Just a few weeks into his new job as Methow Valley School District superintendent in July, Tom Venable talked with staff, community members and Room One to see if there was a way to salvage the position that has helped students and families with socio-economic hardships and related emotional issues.

Last week the school district and Room One began recruiting a Youth and Family Social Worker who will be based primarily in the schools but hired and supervised by Room One, according to Elana Mainer, the executive director of the social-service nonprofit in Twisp. Being based at Room One will also allow the individual to serve children and families at other schools and those being home-schooled, said Venable. It will be funded entirely by local grants and donations.

The social worker’s responsibilities will be similar to those performed by Lois Garland, who was the school district’s student and family advocate for the past seven years. Garland was among the people Venable and Mainer interviewed to help design the job.

“We used dedication, creativity, and innovation to think outside the box – or re-create the box – to better fit our needs,” said Venable.

The social worker will provide direct services to make sure students’ basic needs are met, perform home visits to help families access resources, and provide crisis counseling, according to the job description. The person will also help run conflict resolution and alcohol- and tobacco-awareness programs and will coordinate with other social-service providers.

“We’re not trying to build a position, but a strategy to meet the needs of the kids,” said Mainer. “It has to be a position that fits the unique needs of the Methow Valley.”

Garland said the social worker’s responsibilities are very similar to the job she has done. “My biggest job was to connect people with resources. Sometimes it took a long time to develop the trust before they were ready to get extra help – then I could step back,” she said.

 

Funds shifted to reading, math

The Methow is used to being creative to provide for a full-time advocate for students. For more than 10 years, state funding for the program (formerly called Readiness to Learn) was awarded through a competitive grant process and shared with four other districts in the county.

But the funding covered only a part-time salary in each district, according to Julia O’Connor, director of Family Empowerment, which operates the Readiness to Learn program in Okanogan County. In the Methow, the gap has been filled with local grants for the past five years, said Venable.

The family empowerment advocates have served a crucial role in helping people navigate the social-service bureaucracy, said O’Connor. “These are some of the most disenfranchised people in our community – they’re used to hearing ‘no,’” she said. Having a professional advocate who can attest to the fact that someone is homeless, for example, helps that family get the services they require, she said.

While students and families in the Methow will continue to receive this support, their peers elsewhere in the county – and in much of the state – will see a different approach to intervention. The Readiness to Learn funding had been shifted to the Learning Assistance Program (LAP), which is geared to helping students attain basic proficiency in reading, writing and math.

Under new state legislation, 5 percent of each district’s LAP funds can be used for Readiness to Learn – in the Methow, that amounts to about $7,000, according to Venable. Moreover, the LAP money is much more restricted, geared primarily to literacy in kindergarten through fourth grade, he said.

Legislators believed the new approach could allow more districts to design programs to meet their needs, according to Ron Hertel, the former state supervisor for the Readiness to Learn program. Last year, 88 of the state’s 295 school districts got Readiness to Learn grants, he said.

While the state was able to fund almost all the schools that applied for grants, it involved a rigorous process of program design and documentation of needs and existing local coalitions, which may have been daunting to some districts, said Hertel.

“While people have been informed that districts have received around $1 billion more across the state, the reality is – in terms of real money – our districts receive less and are asked to do more with it,” said Venable. “The money is being used to backfill significant reductions over the last three to four years.”

O’Connor said many educators believe the Legislature reallocated the money to fulfill a Supreme Court directive to show they are taking steps to adequately fund basic education. “But if these kids are not appropriately housed and clothed, they can’t focus. This helps students deal with the basic needs so they’re ready to focus on learning – I believe that is basic education,” said O’Connor.

The new arrangement will not be adequate to address emergencies, said O’Connor. “You can’t say, ‘I’m really sorry you’re homeless or the power is off, and I’ll be back next Monday,’” she said.

Despite the extent of the need for social-service advocacy in the county, many people are unlikely to see much impact, said O’Connor. “We work with the most marginalized population – people don’t see the needs of these kids and families anyway,” she said.

Since the school year began, Garland has run into many people around town who begin to describe their needs to her. “It’s always shocking to them that the position doesn’t exist,” she said.

Still, Garland was encouraged by the new partnership between the school and Room One. “I think it’s going to be a great transition,” she said. “I do miss having the state and federal support – as far as our society goes, it would be good if they recognized the importance of this sort of program.”

“I feel honored that I’m in a community that said, ‘That’s not going to happen to our kids – and this is how we’re going to manage it,’” said Garland, who was in the process early this week of completing an application for the job.