Local organization works to help impoverished children

Category:  News
Wednesday, November 29th, 2017 at 5:16 PM

This article is part of the work being done in Journalism 504: Advanced Electronic Journalism. Here, students are analyzing Erie’s current comprehensive plan, Erie Refocused. 

As children walk into schools across the United States, many bring with them a sense of scholastic preparedness. Brand new backpacks, a plethora of school supplies and a fresh, updated wardrobe are all common hallmarks of a new school year. However, not all children are fortunate enough to be given the tools and support needed when it comes to their education. 

United Way of Erie County (United Way) is a local organization that strives to tackle the issues of poverty and education. More specifically, according to the “Erie Gives” website, United Way works to change and improve community conditions in an effort to reduce the city’s poverty and create a better way of life for its citizens. In addition to tackling poverty, the organization also works to improve student preparedness and comprehension when it comes to education.

“It’s our entire work,” Laurie Root, senior vice president of United Way, said. “Our overarching goal for the community is to reduce the number of individuals and families in poverty, but beyond that, [it’s] to give those individuals and families the resources they need to become self-sufficient.”

What started as a fundraising institution has steadily evolved into one aimed at putting forth various community initiatives in regard to the betterment of Erie. In light of the recent Erie Refocused proposal, Root acknowledges that United Way’s job remains the same, while working in parallel with the proposal.

Mike Jaruszeweicz, vice president of community impact for United Way, echoes Root’s sentiments. 

“I think it (the plan) has opened the lines of communication,” Jaruszeweicz said. “Where often times there’s a lot of different efforts working for organizations, prioritizing different needs, what Erie Refocused has done is really shed light on community-level issues, and it engages all partners in the community that are working in those areas.”

The parallel created between the Erie Refocused proposal and the work of United Way comes in the form of “community schools.” While still in the beginning phases, the model takes what Root and Jaruszeweicz refer to as a “two-generation” approach. The approach aims to create synergy between a student’s school life and home life.

“It (the two-generation approach) is something that is being much more widely acknowledged as critical to working with students,” Root said. “If you work with students in isolation of what’s going on with their family, then the effect is greatly diminished. Community schools are based on this two-generation approach, [in] which one of the outcomes is a more stable neighborhood, which is a very strong component of Erie Refocused.”

Jaruszeweicz emphasizes the concept of community schools as an “evidence-based model.” As part of the model, various organizations in Erie are aligned with selected “pilot community schools.”

“Part of that model includes a core group of partners,” Jaruszeweicz said. “That includes, of course the school, but it includes a corporate partner [as well].” He stated that the corporate partners in the community schools program serve as a resource of financial support, although the burden of finance does not fall solely on their shoulders. These core partners, or lead partners as they are often referred to, provide support when it comes to factors such as funding the salary of community school directors and addressing barriers to student success, to name a couple examples.

“That lead partner is really the core support organization for the school,” Jaruszeweicz said. “It can be a non-profit, it can be a university, in some cases we’ve seen even hospitals, or art organizations serve as that lead partner...they are the organization that’s going to provide the support to the community school director to make all of those connections.” 

In addition to lead partners, community school directors also play a major role in the community school program. Sonia Rios serves as community school director for McKinley Elementary. Rios serves as the bridge between community resources and parents, as well as between the community and the students. 

“We (community school directors) are interested in eliminating barriers to academic success,” Rios said. Rios went on to say barriers include anything pertaining to transportation, finances and medical resources, to name a few. Community school directors also aid in scheduling field trips and acquiring resources such as guest speakers, hands-on learning materials, and one-on-one programs for students.

When discussing the community school model, Rios echoed Root’s sentiments about the importance of teamwork, stressing that anything done in isolation of other educational factors further hampers student success.

“The main thing is just [that] you rely heavily on your leadership team because everybody brings a different expertise to the table,” Rios said. “Everybody has different resources and different people they know that can contribute to the project, or whatever is ongoing. So, we really use those partnerships and we leverage those to get what we need for our children and their families.”

Dr. Mary Jo Melvin currently serves as chairperson of the early childhood and reading department at Edinboro University and is a member of the leadership team for the community schools project. In regard to the relationship between student’s home lives and school lives, Melvin utilizes her role as leadership team member and chairperson in order to better train and equip future educators.

“We’re teaching future teachers that, now, you’re not only teaching the child; you have to learn how to work with the entire family,” Melvin said. 

Professor Robert Snyder, an instructor in the early childhood and reading department, as well as director of accreditation and program improvement in the school of education at Edinboro University, also spoke on the role future educators are playing in the community schools program. More specifically in regard to the Barton System, a reading program tied to dyslexia and severely delayed reading.

“Our students learned it here and now they’re taking it to McKinley and working with the McKinley teachers,” Snyder said. “So, it’s giving McKinley more manpower to be able to provide the specialized reading strategies to their students.” 

Still in its inaugural year, Melvin and others involved in the community schools program acknowledge the time it will take to begin noticing the impact being made. Despite numbers being unavailable at this point, Melvin acknowledges what could be considered a different type of win for those involved in the program.

“What we did find…these children start to believe in themselves,” Melvin acknowledged with a smile. “We interviewed them before this started and then we interviewed them at the end and they all said, ‘I can read! I’m a good reader! I know how to look at that word and figure out what it is!’ So, once you teach a child that he or she can, they definitely will.”

When it comes to the topic of education and Erie Refocused, Melvin seconds Jaruszeweicz’s feelings about teamwork playing a major role in the overall goal for the city of Erie and the surrounding areas.

“It takes a village,” Melvin said. “I think they have the key to success here, if we just keep pushing forward and knowing that it’s going to be little bit, by little bit, by little bit, and all those little bits will make a big difference.”

Rios acknowledged the gift of education and the importance of a strong foundation to further contribute to the creation of enriching, meaningful lives for Erie’s students.

“Education is not just books, it’s everything that contributes to making life worth living and having a good life and a meaningful life,” Rios said. “So, I feel like once you have a good education, a good foundation, there are so many more possibilities available for the individual and for Erie.”

Sarah Gillingham can be reached at eupnews.spectator@gmail.com.


Tags: united way, erie, news

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