District provides basic necessities
Vancouver, Washington
Kathleen Vail
October 1, 2017

Just before 8 a.m., the courtyard outside Washington Elementary School is tranquil. On this February morning, the only sound is the soft rain pattering through the pine trees that tower over the school. 

Voices break through the stillness. Around the courtyard perimeter, groups of children appear. They splash through the puddles pooling up on the concrete sidewalk. Behind them follow volunteers—parents or community members—clad in blaze orange and yellow vests and holding umbrellas and safety flags. 

Washington Elementary School has one of the highest poverty levels in the Vancouver, Washington, school district—90 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. In the Rose Village neighborhood plagued by gang violence and illegal drug use, the walking school bus is a safety necessity. It’s also one of the many ways the school takes care of its students.

Less than a month after an historic and uncharacteristic winter storm in the Pacific Northwest closed schools, the snow and ice have melted but the chill remains. Bundled in puffy coats and toting bulky backpacks, the students line up at the school door. For many of them, the first stop is the first brightly lit office on the right.

Elizabeth Owen is waiting to greet them. “Did your new glasses come yet?” she asks one girl. The girl shakes her head. “No, not yet.”

The students troop through the office, marking an attendance chart. When they reach 10 straight days, they get a sticker or a pencil—an enticement for coming to school with the walking school bus. Then they head to the cafeteria for breakfast. 

Owen is the coordinator at Washington’s Family Community Resource Center (FCRC). She plays a pivotal role at the school and not only knows these children—she also knows their families. She is the point person to marshal resources to get food, clothing, medical care, and even housing assistance to students and families.

“I see my role as a bridge between the whole family and the school,” she says. “Not only do we care about your child, but we care about your whole family and we feel like your child will be more successful in their education and in their life if we help the whole family get the resources that they need.”

Washington Elementary is one of 18 schools in Vancouver with an FCRC. The centers, staffed with full-time coordinators, are in schools with poverty levels of 60 percent or higher of students receiving free or reduced-price meals. 

The centers follow the community schools model, based on the idea that students learn best when they’re well-fed, have medical and dental care, wear clean clothes, and have a stable home. In a perfect world, these things are provided by their families. In reality, the afflictions of poverty—homelessness, hunger, drug and alcohol addiction—can prevent them from doing so. Community schools step in to help families find these resources.

“We have so many kids that come from challenging circumstances,” says Washington Principal Patrick Conners. “We know if they come into the classroom and they don’t have those basic needs met, there’s little chance for them to be successful during the school day.”

Demographics change

Vancouver School District is across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. Half the district’s 24,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The students are a diverse population, with 92 different languages spoken, including Spanish and Russian. The district has 35 schools in total.

“I like to describe Vancouver as an urban/suburban system. We have a higher concentration of students affected by poverty and mobility, a toxic combination that negatively impacts student achievement,” says Superintendent Steven Webb. Webb, a finalist for the 2016 national superintendent of the year, has been the district’s leader for nine years. 

Vancouver has seen significant demographic changes over the past decade. As the cost of living increased in Portland, families moved north to Vancouver. The percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals increased from 39 percent to a peak of 57 percent during the height of the recession. The number of English language learners has doubled. 

The district began operating FCRCs in 1999, according to Tamara Shoup, director of Vancouver’s Family Engagement and Family Community Resource Centers. In 2008, the school board and district revised their strategic plan. One of the primary goals was family engagement. 

“And we took a look at what our students’ needs were and where some of the challenges were, and decided to really scale up our Family Community Resource Centers throughout the district,” Shoup says.

The full-time coordinator is an essential part of the centers. Teachers are the first to notice when a child comes to school sick, hungry, or distracted. Instead of trying to figure out how to help families themselves, teachers can depend on the coordinators to come up with solutions. 

“We can’t have our teachers dealing with hunger issues, mobility issues, clothing issues,” says board President Dale Rice. “If they are dealing with that, they are not dealing with education.”

The coordinators work with community and private charitable organizations and businesses. At Washington Elementary, Owen hosts a fresh food pantry from the local food bank twice a month. The food bank brings fresh produce, dairy, and meat for parents who come to the school and “shop” through the selection.

Community organizations, churches, and private businesses donate clothing, coats, shoes, boots, personal care products like deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, and laundry detergent and cleaning supplies—all of which Owen makes sure get to families who are in need. Kids can take home a food bag on the weekends “to help them bridge that gap between Friday and Monday, when they may not have as much food at home,” says Owen. 

Mobility is a big issue in Vancouver, and affordable, stable housing is increasingly scarce. The centers serve as a housing resource for families, putting them in touch with community and social services.

One of the district’s performance indicators is mobility. In schools with the highest percentage of poverty, the district found that wraparound supports for families and students have decreased mobility by 12 percent. 

Webb attributes other positive results to the centers, including the narrowing of the achievement gap between white and African American students. Also, graduation rates have risen from 64 percent in 2010 to 80 percent in 2016.

“For every dollar the district invests, we net four dollars in return on that investment,” he says.

Resources on wheels

The bright green and yellow Dodge Ram ProMaster van backs up to the loading dock at Eisenhower Elementary School. Nicole Loran-Graham jumps out and pulls the door open, revealing racks of clothing and bins of supplies and canned and boxed food.

Counselor Jessica Bodell comes out of the building. She and Loran-Graham confer about which supplies to bring inside. Deodorant is on the top of the list. 

Eisenhower Elementary School has 570 students. With only a 40 percent poverty rate, it doesn’t meet the threshold for a full-time center. But, as Principal Jennifer Bleckschmidt points out, the school has about 250 students who need services. 

The district has been strategic about growing the FCRC program, being careful not to expand too quickly without building capacity. “One of the lessons learned as we’ve scaled our community schools work is to go slow, to go fast,” says Webb.

In 2014, the district expanded the FCRC program to schools without a full-time coordinator—by going mobile. The mobile unit, with Loran-Graham at the helm, serves schools like Eisenhower. “We really do have a pocket of students with high need, and so—without the services of the mobile FCRC—we would not have the capacity to be able to meet those students’ needs,” says Bleckschmidt.

Loran-Graham establishes contacts within the schools—a counselor, a principal, or even a paraeducator—to figure out which families need help. “How can we build capacity within the school, so they can help families when they come and ask for help?” she says.

This contact is critical in schools where poverty may be hidden. “When you’re at a school where there is not a high concentration of kids in poverty, you can feel very isolated and alone in that experience,” says Shoup. “You may be ashamed to reach out and feel vulnerable.”

Loran-Graham also helps the whole system of FCRCs. When a large donation comes in, she holds pop-up stores for center coordinators, counselors, and teachers to pick up supplies that they need for their students. 

She serves as the point person for community charities, foundations, and faith-based groups who want to donate time, supplies, and food. If one school has resources they can’t use, she’s able to channel the items to other schools. 

The van itself is an ambassador: It’s hard to miss. In addition to its bright colors, the sides of the van are festooned with the program’s logo and phone number. “I like to drive on side streets, through neighborhoods, because the van is a billboard,” says Loran-Graham. “I try to drive really slow too, so they can make sure that they see the numbers to call if they need to.”

“You cannot look at that van and not see hope and happiness,” says Bleckschmidt.

‘If not us, then who?’

The Coalition for Community Schools estimates that there are about 5,000 community schools in the U.S. Several large urban districts have adopted community schools as a reform strategy including New York City, Chicago, and Baltimore, among others.

In each place, the community school model of wraparound family services is adapted to the needs of the individual neighborhood. 

The community school philosophy is increasingly being embraced. However, some still question whether schools should be in the business of taking care of nonacademic problems and concerns.  

Webb’s answer: “If not us, then who?”

Decades of research, he continues, have shown a relationship between poverty and student achievement. If schools are held accountable for student achievement, then they must figure out how to remove barriers to student success systemwide. 

“If a child is hungry, it impacts their ability to learn,” he says. “If a child does not know where they are going to sleep tonight, it impacts their ability to learn.”

Kathleen Vail (kvail@nsba.org) is editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal.