Warm coat, full tummy, better learning; Boise wades in to new school program

Darryl Gerber, principal of Garfield Elementary, is bringing social services to the school this winter to help kids be ready to learn.
Darryl Gerber, principal of Garfield Elementary, is bringing social services to the school this winter to help kids be ready to learn.

Boise School District staffs have seen how poverty can interfere with learning.

Students showing up to school hungry, their clothes dirty or tattered.

Parents calling to say their child won’t be at school because of a doctor’s appointment. A one-hour visit means the student misses seven hours of school because of a parent’s work schedule or lack of transportation.

Boise School District is looking to start a program similar to one in Vancouver, Wash., which provides assistance such as food, clothing and medical care, to needy families through the schools to help students become better learners

Students move from school to school as their families are evicted or lose their homes, creating possible gaps in a child’s learning.

Families at home lack resources to help their children learn. Parents may not know what to do, or they might not have a computer.

Boise thinks of itself as a growing, upscale community, but the truth is that half the students attending Boise elementary schools are poor — a number that has risen over the past three decades. Boise also estimates that 984 of its students — 4 percent of its student enrollment — are homeless.

The ultimate goal is to (improve) student achievement.

Ann Farris, Boise High School area director

With a lack of money and resources comes a host of problems that affect children’s ability to concentrate and learn, school leaders say.

Boise schools intends to address those concerns by developing a new program called Community Schools that will partner with agencies and volunteers across the district to bring family-based resources to the schools to help meet student needs. The district is still putting the program together, but services could include providing clothing, food, medical assistance, immunizations and help for parents to be more effective teachers at home

“The bottom line is to have students come to school feeling safe, feeling healthy — physically (and) emotionally — so that they can perform in school and not have to worry about those other basic needs,” said Mary Ellen Frischmuth, a counselor at Garfield Elementary School, where more than 80 percent of the students come from low-income homes.

Garfield is one of four schools where the district plans to launch the Community Schools, and it expects to offer the program this winter, said Principal Darryl Gerber. Garfield plans a survey this fall to determine what needs to address.

The district will cover the cost for Community Schools coordinators at each school, which would range from $37,000 to $45,000 each.

Morley Nelson, Whitney and Whittier elementaries plan to offer the program in 2017-2018.

Boise Public Schools Foundation put up $20,000 in startup costs. The district will cover the cost for Community Schools coordinators at each school, which would range from $37,000 to $45,000 each.

United Way of Treasure Valley, which gave $50,000 to the district to start two in-school pre-kindergarten programs last school year, says it’s working with the district on the Community Schools program. United Way is helping bring together community resources that schools can use to help students do their best in the classroom.

“The object of Community Schools is to help remove barriers so kids can focus on their main job, which is to learn,” said Nora Carpenter, president and CEO of United Way of Treasure Valley.

While many families could get similar services through government agencies or food banks, Boise school officials think they can have a direct effect on families. “School is where families feel comfortable going,” said Lisa Roberts, an area director for schools in the Borah High School region.


The idea behind “community schools,” sometimes called wraparound schools, isn’t new to education. They are scattered in school districts across the country.

Vancouver, Wash., Public Schools launched a program of community schools in 2008 (after an initial one-school program in 1999).

Vancouver is a lot like Boise. It has 23,500 students (compared with Boise’s 25,600). The percentage of low-income students in Vancouver is 53 percent (Boise is near 50 percent).

Boise officials studied Vancouver’s Family Community Resource Centers to glean ideas for its own program.

12% The drop in the rate of students moving from one school to the next during the school year since the Family Community Resource Centers began in Vancouver, Wash .

Vancouver’s program came just as the recession hit and “we were really hurting for funding ... and more families were experiencing poverty, many for the first time,” said Tamara Shoup, the district’s director of the Family Community Resource Centers.

The Vancouver district has worked with partners, such as a local food bank, to provide a pantry for families facing food shortages. It started a fresh food pantry with meat, cheese and fresh vegetables.

Vancouver also brings dentists to the school so children won’t miss a full day for a short appointment.

Moreover, the district provides nights when parents can come and learn how to help their children at home. School officials are working with housing groups in hopes of keeping students in the same schools and reducing the moves that make it so hard for students to keep up.

Where transportation to school is a problem, the district began a human school bus. Volunteers pick children up at street corners and walk them to school.

Vancouver’s programs are in 14 elementaries, two middle schools and two high schools, Shoup said. The resource centers and affiliated programs cost the district $1.4 million a year.


An independent study of Vancouver’s program by Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, a Washington, D.C., education advocacy groups, says Vancouver is making a difference.

In a study 2016 study, Broader Bolder said :

▪ Failure rates for core courses in middle and high schools are down 31 percent from 2006-2007.

▪ The number of low-income students taking rigorous advanced-placement classes rose from 126 in 2006 to 367 a decade later.

Vancouver district leaders point to more successes since the program began in 2008:

▪  A 120 percent enrollment increase in middle school honors courses.

▪  A 16 percentage-point increase in the four-year graduation rate, to more than 80 percent.


The Education Trust, a nationally know advocacy group for improved education among low-income students, says community school programs might be making a small difference.

“Basically there is some modest effect,” said Karin Chenoweth, a writer in residence with The Education Trust who helps the organization learn about successes working with low-income and minority students.

She suspects schools that know best how to use the resources are getting some effect. Those what don’t are getting kids fed, she said.

Dentists can help with a child’s teeth, she said, but noted, “Dentists don’t teach children how to read.”

“That’s not saying they shouldn’t have those things,” Chenoweth said. But social service programs don’t replace a well-defined curriculum and strong teaching to help students, she said.

“We have an outstanding curriculum and outstanding teachers,” said Ann Farris, area director for the Boise High School region. “This is going to some of those areas impacting student achievement.”