Impact Feature Issue on Volunteerism by Persons with Developmental Disabilities
Linking Schools, Families and Communities in Montana: The Hardin Parent Center
Paraeducators Janice Eckman, Davene Big Lake, and Ruth Harris fulfill a unique role as a link between the schools and the families in Hardin, Crow Agency, and Fort Smith, Montana. Hardin borders the Crow Indian Reservation, and Crow Agency and Fort Smith are on the Reservation. Janice, Davene, and Ruth are staff of the Hardin Public Schools’ Parent Center, a program that works to draw parents into the educational process. Begun as a part of the Even Start Program, the Parent Center has been in its current configuration as a Title I funded facility for four years. Janice is the Parent Involvement Coordinator and Davene and Ruth are Family Advocates.
Family Fun Night, Family Game Night, and Books for Bingo
The Parent Center organizes several Family Fun Nights (FFN) and Books for Bingo (BFB) events for elementary students and their families and Family Game Nights (FGN) for elementary, junior high, and high school students and their families. According to Janice, the purpose of these activities is to, “build a positive bridge between home and school. A time for families to come to the school when the child is not in trouble and it’s not related to sports.”
The FFNs for elementary schools are staffed by school personnel, including teachers, who are stationed at activity centers that promote academic and cultural skills. There is a theme for every FFN. When the book The Very Hungry Caterpillar was the theme, an art project was to create egg carton caterpillars and tissue paper butterflies; the science station illustrated the life stages; and for a nutrition activity the families made banana, apple, and raisin caterpillars and celery, peanut butter, and pretzel butterflies. One of the centers is always designed to allow participants to make their own snacks for the night. The Student and Family Advocates work well together planning these special events. Remarkably, one FFN had 350 people in attendance, this in a town of about 3000. Janice attributes their success to getting the students involved. Once a family attends, they realize what fun it is and want to return the next month.
The FGNs for the middle schools and high schools also draw a large crowd, since many families have been through the elementary grades and FFNs and consider it an important time to be together as a family. There are a large number of board games available and the families who attend choose games to play for the evening. At the end of the night, the games are given away as door prizes. BFB began as a way for the Parent Center staff to encourage families to read together with participants playing bingo and choosing a book each time they win a game. Janice revealed that each participant “wins” and goes home with at least one book.
Many of the games used for FGN are donated by local businesses, which, in addition, donate supplies for FFNs and books for BFB. Area businesses and service organizations also donate cash to purchase books, games, and supplies. Janice, Ruth, and Davene have been instrumental in developing relationships with individuals, businesses, and service organizations in their community that strengthens the Parent Center’s success.
Evangeline and Paul Pryor and many of their seven children have been attending FFNs, FGNs, and BFB for five years. Evangeline said, “We went because we felt our family got closer and had fun together.” For each of these activities an adult must accompany all students, as the purpose is to promote the importance of family in the educational process.
The Parent Center also offers classes and study groups for parents. The calendar for Parent Groups is set at the beginning of the year and the topics and scheduling are done based on parent surveys. The Parent Center works with 75 to 100 parents a year. Information about the groups is distributed by word of mouth, notes home with students, school newsletters and calendars, and advertising in the local newspaper. Teachers have also successfully referred parents for specific groups. One parent told Janice that her blood pressure had fallen since she started attending the Parent Groups.
Davene and Ruth’s responsibilities include home visits to families of all Hardin School District students who will be entering kindergarten. They provide families with information packets about school and what their child can expect in kindergarten. Community agencies and medical/dental providers have become aware of these visits and have asked that the packets include information from them; for example, a coloring book related to healthy eating and a toothbrush and toothpaste. Ruth and Davene coordinate home visits with the Student Advocates to ensure that there is not a duplication of services.
Another role of the Family Advocate is to meet with families and act as a liaison, bringing them together with their children’s teachers. Teachers request this service through a referral form asking a Family Advocate make a home visit. During the home visit, the importance of the parents as teachers to their children is often discussed. Ruth gave the following example of a successful home visit – a first grade teacher asked Ruth for help with a child that was struggling with reading. Ruth visited the family and the mother made a commitment to read to the child. The mother indicated that she was not aware of how important it was to read to her child and was appreciative of the visit. The teacher reported that the child’s reading skills began to improve.
Davene is also the Home-School Coordinator for the Hardin Public Schools’ Special Education Program. She makes home visits during non-school hours to get needed signatures. Her role involves explaining the purpose of the forms and the services of the Special Education Program, including the resource room. Parents often discuss their concerns with her and, in turn, Davene relays their concerns to appropriate school personnel. In this way, she acts as a link bringing teachers and parents together. Davene gave the following example of her interactions with parents on behalf of special education – the school was having difficulty obtaining permission to test a student who wasn’t reading on grade level. The family was reluctant to sign the form as they were unsure what would happen if they did. Because Davene was able to explain the purpose of the form, the family agreed to sign, and the child qualified for additional services. With that intervention, the student’s reading level has improved two grades levels in one year. Both the family and the school were grateful to have the assistance of the Coordinator.
As part of her position as Home-School Coordinator, Davene attends Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings when requested by the family. Her role during the IEP is to act as a support for families who may speak English as a second language. Davene is Native American and bilingual, speaking both Crow and English. Since the population of Hardin, MT and the surrounding communities is primarily Native American, Davene has a unique understanding of the culture. She said that she does not get involved in the conversation unless the parents/families ask her to directly.
When Janice Eckman, Davene Big Lake, and Ruth Harris aren’t involved in one of the above activities, they are promoting the Parent Center to their community and sharing their success with other communities. Confidentiality is emphasized in all of their interactions with students and families. The Parent Center is located on the campus of Hardin Intermediate School and provides a welcoming environment for families and students. There are books, videos, and games available for checkout; computers that can be used; and brochures and pamphlets for families to take. It was obvious from talking to these three women that they are excited about what they do and the positive difference that they make.