Danville family liaisons 'help bridge the gap between home and school'

DANVILLE — At the start of the school year, Patty Juarez saw a young Hispanic mother, whom she had met the year before, walk tentatively through the doors of East Park Elementary School. She remembered the woman spoke very little English.

Juarez, a native Spanish speaker, greeted the woman and her son, a kindergartner, and then presented her business card.

"I told her if she ever needed help with anything — communicating with her son's teacher, translating papers that her son brought home — to call me, and I would be there for her," Juarez recalled, adding that put the woman more at ease.

Since then, Juarez has met with the woman on several occasions to help translate information such as the school's report card, help her fill out an application for tutoring services for her son, even accompany her and her son to a local eye clinic to make sure the boy's glasses fit correctly.

"We want to do whatever we can to help parents and make them feel comfortable in the school environment so that they can be involved in their children's education. When parents are engaged, that's going to help the children be successful."

For the past year, Juarez and Brittny Woodard have been serving elementary and middle school students in the Danville school district, many of whom are at-risk, and their families as the district's Title I family liaisons.

The district reinstated the positions, following a long hiatus, with federal Title I funding allocated to schools with a high number of children from low-income families to ensure that all students meet rigorous academic standards. A portion of Title I funds must be spent on parental involvement.

Family liaisons help foster a relationship between the home and school in a variety of ways, said Diane Hampel, the district's educational support programs director. Among other things, they help create a welcoming and supportive environment for parents, interpret when there are language and cultural differences, provide parents with information on school- and community-based resources — including transportation, food, housing, health or mental-health services — and help them get those services so that their children are able to learn and flourish.

"They help bridge the gap between home and school," Hampel said, adding teachers, administrators and other staff do that as well but don't always have the time and flexibility that some situations require.

"Our family liaisons can make calls home or home visits. They can sit down with parents and talk with them," she said. By doing so, they get a feel for any underlying issues and the students' needs "so we can determine how to support the child."

And at every step, the liaisons try to convey to parents the vital role they play in their children's academic success and encourage them to be involved by checking their kids' homework every night, checking on their progress at school on a regular basis, reading with younger children, talking to older children about college and career interests and getting involved in school activities.

Woodard works with families at Meade Park, Liberty, Edison and Garfield elementary schools and North Ridge Middle School, while Juarez works with families at Southwest, East Park and Cannon elementary schools and South View Middle School. They also mentor elementary school students, and Juarez works with Danville High School students in the Hispanic Leadership Council.

Hampel said both Woodard and Juarez are Danville High graduates and were family advocates for the East Central Illinois Community Action Agency's Head Start program prior to coming to the school district.

"They already had a lot of contacts and positive relationships with families, which we felt was really important. And Patty has definitely been a resource for our Spanish-speaking parents," Hampel said.

Now based in the district's new Family Resource Center in the basement of the Jackson Building, at 516 N. Jackson St., the liaisons spend their mornings making weekly rounds at their schools, where they check in with the principal to see what they need to help with.

One of their main duties is assisting with attendance problems.

"A lot of time, a teacher is trying to reach a parent, but their phone isn't on or they're not responding to letters," said Woodard, who goes to the home — sometimes multiple times before ever making contact with anyone — to find out what's going on.

"Sometimes, the student isn't getting up in time and misses the bus," Woodard said. "The parent is at work, and the student doesn't have another way to get to school. In that case, we'll give them a ride to school — and an alarm clock."

But other times, the situation is much more complex. It could be poverty, a family crisis or a parent or child experiencing a health or mental-health issue.

"Right now a lot of families are struggling," Juarez said. "They don't have money for food. They might not have coats. If their child misses the bus, they don't have gas to take them to school. They might not have a car. And if they don't have phone service, they can't call the school to let them know."

Woodard and Juarez work to build trust with parents and then work with them to determine the factors that are interfering with the child's performance at school. Then they let school officials in on what's going on and refer the parents to food pantries, thrift shops, doctors and dentists that take medical cards and community agencies that provide programs and services to address their needs.

"Then we follow up with them to make sure they're getting the services they need," Juarez said, adding that research shows that children who lack basic needs are at higher risk of academic failure. That puts them at great risk of dropping out of school.

In the afternoons, Woodard and Juarez staff the Family Resource Center, which is open from noon to 3 p.m. on school days.

It's another location to serve parents, Hampel said.

"We want to build it up," she said, adding parents can meet with Woodard or Juarez. They also can drop by to get information on school and community-based resources and use the bank of computers to check their children's grades on the district's website or access educational resources online.

"We also hope to offer some workshops in the future," said Hampel, who would like to cover topics such as helping children learn to read, homework assistance and behavior problems.

Resource center holding open house

An open house for the Danville school district's new Family Resource Center will be held from noon to 3 p.m. Jan. 7-11.

The center is in the basement of the Jackson Building, 516 N. Jackson St. It is staffed in the afternoons by Brittny Woodard and Patty Juarez, the district's Title I family liaisons.

Parents and other community members are welcome to stop in to meet the family liaisons, learn what services they provide and see what the center has to offer.

For information, call Woodard at 444-1005 or Juarez at 444-1007.

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