When Lawrence parents enrolled their children in school this year, school district staff asked questions about the students, of course. But they also asked critical questions about the parents’ lives, needs and goals.
Do they have financial or educational goals? Do they need medical assistance? Would they like to enroll in English language classes? Earn the equivalent of a high school diploma? Attend a job fair? Talk to a career coach? Apply for home heating help? Sign up for health insurance?
The idea for the year-old center came after the Massachusetts Department of Education placed the poorly performing district into receivership in 2012. With 14,000 students, roughly half of high school seniors graduated.
The district took decisive, often difficult steps to rebuild schools, including expanding the school day and replacing half the district’s principals. It also peered outside of the school grounds to address one of the biggest impediments to learning: poverty.
Educators and the community partners recognized a direct link between the success of students in the classroom and the financial soundness of families at home. The poverty rate for children in Lawrence is 39 percent, more than twice the rates for the county and state.
Seizing the moment, a group of more than 30 community organizations proposed to the school district that the mission to support families with school-age children should be broadened to include all aspects of economic stability. And this effort could be housed within the Family Resource Center, which offers registration and school enrollment support.
Through the Working Cities program that the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston facilitated, partners in Lawrence designed the Lawrence Working Families Initiative, which was awarded a three-year, $700,000 prize to bring the idea to fruition. Today, the center serves as a connector, hosting events while also steering parents to opportunities available through a network of partner organizations.
“When parents feel secure with their own employment and livelihood, they are able to focus on the next crucial thing, which I believe is their children’s education,” says Jeffrey C. Riley, the state receiver and superintendent of Lawrence public schools.
When families visit the resource center, located in a renovated textile mill in the heart of the city, “parent ambassadors” greet them in a spacious, kid-friendly waiting room. Simple questions posed by the ambassadors often lead to discussions on everything from housing to employment or healthcare needs. Ambassadors serve as connectors, answering questions and guiding families to appropriate (or needed) services.
At the center, fathers and mothers also can meet a representative from the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center. They visit once a week and can handle health insurance enrollment or even schedule appointments with primary care physicians. If they need financial help, parents can schedule a consultation with a “coach” for more detailed, one-on-one discussions to address economic issues.
To build ties to local employers, the center has hosted three job panels that have been attended by more than 200 parents. It already has helped 32 people find work and connected 48 more to training and ESOL classes.
The hope is for communities to start reimagining the role of schools in the lives of families, says Jessica Andors, executive director of Lawrence CommunityWorks, a community development nonprofit that is the “backbone” organization working hand-in-glove with the schools on this effort.
While still under state receivership, the school district has seen an improvement in the graduation rate, which has risen from 52 percent in 2011 to 67 percent in 2014. Andors says children perform better when their families are healthy and economically stable. She calls the resource center “a tremendous window of opportunity” to help revitalize the public education system in Lawrence.