Washtenaw GSC working to create Family Resource Center

Washtenaw GSC working to create Family Resource Center

A new Family Resource Center is being planned in Washtenaw County to help the area’s newly consolidated school district promote success from cradle to career.

Although still in the early stages, leaders say the center is desperately needed as the county’s child poverty rates continue to climb with no economic rebound in sight for one of the state’s hardest hit communities.

“Parents are really struggling to meet their family’s basic needs,” said Margy Long, director of the Washtenaw County Success by 6 Great Start Collaborative. “Teachers are using their own resources to make sure students are being fed. Families who were middle-income are now in part-time service jobs with very low pay. They need our help.”

In the past decade, nearly 14,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in Ypsilanti. The community of about 30,000 had the state’s sixth highest rate of young children (0-5) living in poverty at 23 percent in 2012, up from 14 percent in 2005, according the latest Kids Count in Michigan Data Book produced by the Michigan League for Public Policy.

The stress is particularly and painfully evident in the schools.

“We had a fairly new teacher tell us about a little girl in her classroom who she was sure wasn’t getting much to eat at home on the weekends,” Long said. “The teacher said she tried to talk to the mom but she wouldn’t take any food. Other teachers told her they don’t even ask the parents, they just put food in the students backpacks.”

A discussion about children coming to school hungry took place during a two-day retreat in the summer of 2012 when leaders gathered to plan the merger of Ypsilanti Public Schools and Willow Run Community Schools – two districts plagued with significant financial issues and low academic success – into the newly established Ypsilanti Community School District.

The retreat, hosted by the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and attended by more than 125 community, business and faith leaders, parents, students, and educators from early to higher education, became the birthplace of the Washtenaw County Family Resource Center.

“Everyone really wanted a cradle to career learning focus for our students and that includes families outside of the school buildings,” Long said.

“There was unanimous support for a resource center to help families meet basic needs and gain awareness of child development and parenting supports available to help them and their families succeed.” 

Soon after the retreat, a $40,000 grant awarded by the Washtenaw County United Way and Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation funded an 18-month study to lay the groundwork for the center. The collaborative reviewed resource centers around the country, looking at best practices and outcomes, and visiting several sites. Staff also held focus groups with parents, educators and community leaders to access the community’s needs.

A common thread they found among successful family resource centers was that many were based on the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework. The research-based initiative aims to develop and enhance five characteristics, called protective factors, to help keep families strong and promote child development.

Rather than categorizing families based on risk factors, the Strengthening Families model focuses on supporting the protective factors that aid all families when they experience setbacks.  Long said the model aligned perfectly with the Collaborative’s goals so they decided to use it as the framework for their family resource center.

The initial study and development phase has helped determine that the center will serve as the hub of information about services available to families in Washtenaw County, including prenatal care, early care and education, family supports, employment information, job training, networking opportunities, health care for all ages, social development, and more.

Now, Long said, organizers will be talking to community partners, organizations and potential donors to secure the initial $350,000 she estimates for initial implementation.

It’s likely to be a phased-in approach, starting with a mobile family resource center to engage residents in their own neighborhoods, said Scott Menzel, Washtenaw County ISD superintendent.

“Getting parents and families to a central location could be a barrier to participation for some,” he said. “We can reach the most kids and families with a mobile resource center first and then maybe we establish multiple locations after.”

Menzel said he is hoping to see something in neighborhoods as early as this summer.

“We are here as a community saying we are committed to giving every child the best start possible and continuing to support them as they move through the school system to help them succeed,” Menzel said. “We welcome anyone who wants to join with us in this effort to partner, contribute or support us.”