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Family Support Improves Children’s Academic Performance

February 4, 2013


Without their basic needs met—food, clothing, rent, emotional support—it is very difficult for a child to learn.

Taft Elementary School


Michelle Griffith

Like many parents of children attending Taft Elementary School in Redwood City, Laura Jiménez (not her real name) struggles to make ends meet. She works the graveyard shift, stocking grocery shelves, and then cares for her children during the day.

“It’s too much stress,” says the mother of three children. “I don’t get enough sleep.”

When she learned that her first-grader, Gloria (also not her real name), was having difficulty in class, Jiménez sought help from a mental health specialist at the Taft Family Center, a school-based family resource center (FRC).

FRCs respond to what the community says it needs and often work in partnership with other community agencies.

Taft is among a handful of FRCs that are part of an innovative strategy to promote healthy families and communities in a warm and welcoming community hub. FRCs, like Taft, offers students and family members on-site counseling, classes, leadership opportunities, home-visiting and links to services—all with the goal of promoting students’ school success.

Supporting families

As one of four Redwood City Family Centers, Taft is operated as a collaborative among city, county and nonprofits –  including the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center, Children’s Place, and Youth and Family Enrichment Services.

Connie Alonzo-Frisz, a mental health specialist and a San Mateo County employee based at Taft, began seeing Gloria once a week in a group therapy session. She also observes Gloria in class, and talks with her teacher about managing her behavior and helping her focus.

In addition, Alonzo-Frisz meets with Jiménez, giving advice on how to help her daughter and manage her own stress. With the specialist’s encouragement, Jiménez saw her doctor, who prescribed medication and therapy for stress and depression.

Now, Jiménez is getting involved with her daughter’s schoolwork and communicating with her teacher, asking what Gloria is doing in class and if she likes it. Jiménez also sought help from her boyfriend to care for her younger kids while she’s with her daughter.

“I listen to (Gloria) and sit down with her doing homework,” Jiménez says. “I never did that before because I’m always busy.”

Meeting needs, building trust

Rosemarie Perez, a teacher who helped write the 1992 Healthy Start grant that initiated the family centers, recalls how a lot of children came to school with basic survival needs.

“Without their basic needs met—food, clothing, rent, emotional support—it is very difficult for a child to learn,” says Taft Elementary School Principal Michelle Griffith.

FRCs engage families in a variety of programs and activities that build on their strengths and meet basic needs. Griffith says the family center helps with all those things—attendance, mental health, nutrition and parenting skills—that are needed for the child to succeed in school.

Meeting student and family needs “is a partnership between the school and the family center,” says Mirna Bonilla, site coordinator for the Taft Family Center.

The teachers refer kids to FRC staff if they observe problems.

The center “can get closer to families,” Perez says. “They have contact at a different level.”

One teacher recently referred a child to the center when she noticed that he seemed withdrawn and worried. On top of that, his clothing didn’t seem to fit anymore.

Through a local nonprofit, Bonilla provided new school uniforms.

“We address the basic needs first,” Bonilla says.

Afterward, the mental health specialist observed the child and referred him to counseling. When he revealed he was worried because the family didn’t have enough food, Bonilla says they called to talk to the mom.

“We know the family,” Bonilla says.

When the mom said her husband had lost his job, they started brainstorming with her about where to connect with other resources.

The family hung on until the husband got another job.

Achieving academic success

Annual evaluations of student progress show steady improvement.

For example, between the 2001-02 and 2002-03 school years, the number of students who rated as “far below basic” in language arts decreased from 42% to 30%; meanwhile the number of students at the “basic” level increased from 20% to 31%. Over the past three years, Taft’s Academic Performance Index increased 150 points.

Attendance has also increased to 95% and “parent participation is huge,” Griffith says. The family center is a “vital component to our school getting on the right track.”

Griffith adds that now “you can feel the school coming together.”

When children feel that “it’s safe to say, ‘I don’t have this,’ it makes them want to come to school,” Bonilla says.

The same is true for parents.

“I can (now) go to school and say, ‘I need help. I need advice. I don’t know what to do,’” Jiménez says.

The support for Jiménez and Gloria is paying off.

“My daughter has improved,” Jiménez says. “She’s learning about reading. She’s more enthusiastic. Now, when I check her papers, sometimes it says, ‘Excellent job!’”

Originally written by Melia Franklin.