November 01, 2019

Innovation Fund expands community schools in Rome and rural districts

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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Caption: NYSUT EVP Jolene DiBrango; Dolgeville TA's Brandi Mosenthin; Waterville TA's Jeff Lenard; Rome TA's Robert Wood; and AFT President Randi Weingarten.

21st century unionism looks a lot like a village

The impact of the rise in poverty on students has left public school teachers as “first responders,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said on a visit to a high school in Rome yesterday.

Through the AFT’s Innovation Fund, she announced $350,000 in further support for the community schools wrap-around programs that kicked off here four years ago. The funds will bring resources to more schools in Rome, and to the smaller, rural neighboring Oneida County school districts of Dolgeville, Waterville and Webb.

Some families here struggle to meet basic needs because in some cases, there are no grocery stores to get food; no medical care; and job opportunities have thinned.

Driving the roads as she has during the past 40 years, “it’s hard not to see what has happened,” Weingarten said. “New York State is beautiful, but you also see homes collapsing, main streets not bustling, farms that look like they’ve seen better days — if they’re still around.”

Waterville Teachers Association president Jeffrey Lenard, looking forward to the help for families that the AFT funding will provide, knows that scene first-hand. In the 1970s you could live in Waterville and go to a department store, you could shop at two different grocery stores, and you could visit two drug stores, Lenard explained. Now, there is no department store, and it’s a 15-minute drive to the nearest grocery store. Some families do not own cars, and even if they do, when weather hits in this Snow Belt, it can be difficult to get food.

Failing economies hurt families, and teachers have been working to help them “without really having the resources,” Weingarten said. Revitalization starts with the children, she said.

The Innovation Fund steps up to change that in key areas across the country, including the People Project in St. Lawrence County.

With the input of fresh AFT funds, the non-profit Rome Alliance for Education can hire more school-based staff to get even more students and families help with dental care, mental health care, food for empty bellies, and housing when there are no roofs overhead. Staff already in place have been working directly with community agencies and providing resources at school such as computer labs for families, parenting classes and showing families how to prepare and share a meal. More than 200 kids have taken part in summer programs.

“This is what 21st century unionism is,” said Weingarten. “We, my friends, are the village.” She called the Rome community schools program “first in class.”

Rome Teachers Association President Rob Wood said that five out of 10 schools in Rome are now community schools, and the program is lifting up families for basic functional needs. He looks forward to doing even more with the additional funds.

“Don’t stop me now!” he said with a big grin.

He thanked AFT and NYSUT for help getting the program off the ground.

“What do union leaders do? The same thing people with big hearts do. We start looking for a solution,” he said.

“It’s often said that it takes a village…in this case it takes the city of Rome,” said Jolene DiBrango, NYSUT executive vice president. “We’re so proud you are a model for what is possible.”

Help first came to Rome with an initial $200,000 Innovation Fund grant to help them enact their detailed plan to create community schools with more help for students.

Before that, “I almost felt as though I was an independent contractor,” said longtime English teacher Joe Eurto. Finding services for students facing hunger, homelessness, family strife, addiction, mental illness and trauma could be daunting.

But then Eurto, who was a secretary in the Rome TA, was able to attend an AFT conference with RTA President Wood, thanks to support from NYSUT. It was during the last session that they began to see a way to change the lives of their students whose basic needs were not being met.

With support from the AFT, they formed a team of union teachers, community leaders and school administrators, and spent the next year and a half researching the best plan to create a community schools program.

With AFT funding, they formed the non-profit Rome Alliance for Education and hired executive director Melissa Roys. This organization, which Eurto oversees, has enlisted the aid of 52 businesses and community agencies to meet the needs of students and their families. Several hundred families have already been directly supported, Roys reported.

The AFT money is used to hire educators to meet with businesses, agencies and community groups to link families with resources. Food insecurity, mental health and housing are the top needs, said Amanda Jones, director of counseling services at Rome. With the community schools approach, now there are partnerships in place where helping agencies can meet families right at school.

In nearby Waterville, the news of help from the AFT is welcome.

“We have a caring closet for clothing, and a snack cabinet … but this will give teachers the opportunity get to the root cause of some of these issues,” said Lenard, who leads the 83-member Waterville TA.

Helping a student with broken glasses whose family does not have money to pay for new ones; being able to provide educational programs on vaping; providing parenting classes, and making groceries more accessible are all on Lenard’s wish list.

Because Waterville is so rural, “We’re disconnected; this will help us make connections,” said Lenard.

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