Program seeking to find, support, spread family-school partnerships

RYAN QUINN | Gazette-Mail
Jenny Anderson of Try This West Virginia speaks Tuesday at Charleston’s Grace Bible Church to representatives of various organizations who are forming a coalition to support family-school partnerships. Stephen Smith, director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, an anti-poverty nonprofit that will be part of the new coalition, said the idea will be similar to Try This. He said the new coalition will identify and publicize effective strategies that students’ family members can then — through grant funding and training provided through the new coalition — begin implementing in schools.

West Virginia organizations are teaming up and searching across the state for effective school-family partnership programs, such as fatherhood engagement initiatives, with the hope to spread successful programs and strategies to new schools through funding, training and publicity.

West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition Director Stephen Smith said his anti-poverty nonprofit is spearheading the creation of a new, still-unnamed multi-organization coalition. He said about eight to 10 organizations — including the West Virginia Parent Teacher Association, the West Virginia University Extension Service, Legal Aid of West Virginia and others — came together to make the coalition’s first meeting happen.

That meeting, held Tuesday in Grace Bible Church on Charleston’s West Side, which has an existing community schools pilot program, drew about 40 representatives from multiple counties and various organizations taking part in the effort. The groups include teachers unions, the state Department of Education, the Education Alliance, WV Free and the American Friends Service Committee.

Participants discussed how to move the effort forward and heard presentations from several individuals about their local programs.

Smith said his organization thinks the best way to fight poverty is to get more “everyday people” engaged in that fight on both the local and state policy levels. He said for the last six to eight months, his group has been hearing from partners and others that “we collectively as parents and community members need to take more responsibility of what’s happening in our schools.”

“We can’t leave it up to just the Legislature or put everything on the back of teachers,” Smith said. “We have to do our part as parents and community leaders, and that means getting organized, it means not just showing up for pizza night, but also making real suggestions and real contributions and building new programs in our schools for our kids.”

He said the Pennsylvania-based Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation has provided, as part of a larger grant, $50,000 for a “starting pool” of mini grants, each about $2,000. The grants will go to groups led by family members — in partnership with teachers, school administrators and others — who want to start initiatives in partnership with their schools.

Over the next year, the coalition will be seeking more funding for mini grants from companies and community foundations.

Smith said a subgroup of the coalition will accept grant applications from these family members and decide how to dole out funding, with the first grants going to initiatives in the 2017-18 school year.

But Smith and Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association teachers union, said there are good projects already out there and not much need to “reinvent the wheel.” Smith said the focus for the first year, starting now, is finding those good ideas in order to provide them to families who want to help their schools but perhaps don’t know how to start.

Smith said he expects people to start initiatives even without grants if they’re presented good ideas, so he wants to gather a “menu” of perhaps 25 or more strategies that can be published online and made public in other ways, with accompanying training provided by coalition members to family members on how to carry those ideas out.

“We should just focus on burning up the highways, traveling around the state, finding out all of the great stuff that parents and grandparents and students and schools are doing collaboratively already, start telling those stories, looping those stories together into a guide, training each other on all the great stuff that’s already happening, and then — come next school year — be ready to offer mini grants and advocacy and technical assistance to those parents,” Smith said.

He said those who’d like to share ideas can send them to stephen@ourfuturewv.org.

Among the ideas showcased Tuesday were the Parent Mentor Program, which puts mentors — who can include parents and other relatives of students, like grandparents, or people who don’t have children but want to help them — into West Side classrooms to aid students and teachers.

West Virginia PTA President Janelle Sperry spoke about the community’s creation of an outdoor science and nature center at Bunker Hill Elementary in the Eastern Panhandle’s Berkeley County. She also spoke about Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students), a national program she helped expand to Berkeley’s Mill Creek Intermediate and Musselman Middle.

She said the program seeks to get fathers of students, and other male figures in their lives, to make at least a one-day commitment to come to schools and help out during bus loading, lunch time, gym and in other situations. With enough dads each giving a single day, there can be a father figure present each day of the school year.

“The kids feel safer because they have that male presence, and it definitely decreases bullying,” Sperry said. “… Sometimes people think stereotypically PTAs are for women, and that’s so not the case.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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