Charter Oak Academy of Global Studies
West Hartford, CT
Charter Oak Academy of Global Studies, formerly Charter Oak School, strives to create clear lines of communication between the school and its families. In this diverse school, where over one-fourth of the students are learning English as a second language and have parents who also have difficulty with English, the Family Resource Center (FRC) has been an important means of creating an inclusive community.
In addition to the language barrier, many families experience challenges with after-school care situations. The services and activities provided by the Family Resource Center to address this particular challenge and others have been provided in conjunction with local community organizations and have drawn families into the school community.
Exploring After-School Care Options:
After-school care is a challenge for many of the families who attend Charter Oak Academy. In a community effort to lessen the number of children returning home after school to an empty house, the FRC, school staff, and parents worked together to develop a monthly roster of after-school enrichment classes. Taught by volunteers (parents, teachers, high school students and FRC staff), these classes are offered for one hour after school. Offerings have ranged from Basketball Basics to Crafty Kids to Chess Club. Each month an average of 85 students participate. A small fee is charged to cover supplies ($2) and classes meet once, twice, or four times.
The FRC's assistance in devising thoughtful after-school care solutions was a great help to Ms. "N," the single mother of an eight-month-old daughter and a six-year-old son. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon Ms. N was an hour late to pick up her son at the close of school. When the school secretary and the school nurse patiently explained that they could not keep an eye on her son every day, Ms. N became very indignant and threatened to keep her son home from school. The principal intervened and suggested that Ms. N meet with the FRC staff to see how the school and the FRC could help.
Over a cup of coffee, Ms. N tearfully explained that each morning at 6 a.m. she drove her baby to her own grandmother's house for childcare. Her six-year-old son went along for the 25-minute car ride, often while fast asleep. Then Ms. N drove her son back to West Hartford where they waited for school to open. Once her son was deposited safely at school, she went off to her job as a nurse's aid. However, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon she attended class at a nearby community college, and it was these classes which were making her late for pick-up at school.
Ms. N was exhausted and angry. The FRC director listened and suggested several solutions. Together Ms. N and the director came up with exploring local family childcare arrangements for the baby and a partial scholarship so that the six-year-old was able to attend onsite after-school child care twice a week.
In another situation, one fifth-grade student at Charter Oak Academy went home each day to a house filled with six noisy preschoolers who attended his mother's home daycare program. This student, serious and hard working, was unable to find a quiet spot where he could concentrate on his homework and decided to share his predicament with his classroom teacher. The teacher accompanied him to the FRC. The FRC staff was able to secure a spot for the student in The Homework Center for an hour after school four days a week. There, he has a quiet place to do his studying and help is available from local college students who act as mentors and tutors. The fifth-grader has been able to complete his homework each day and his mother has been able to supplement her family's income with the tuition payments from her daycare children. In addition, the student's grades continue to improve.
In an effort to ease the isolation often felt by people who provide childcare in their homes, the FRC offers monthly activities for providers and their young charges. One provider remarked to the FRC parent educator that she gets everything she needs at the FRC. She can browse books on child development, take a CPR class, learn about school readiness, and borrow the FRC double stroller. The FRC also hosts playgroups and other youth development programs for parents and their children. One provider noted that "The FRC is the glue that holds our community together."
Ms. "M" is a single mother with two school-age children and one three-year-old. At the urging of her neighbor, Ms. M began to bring her three-year-old twice a week to the FRC "Good Times/Good Talks" drop-in playgroups. Over the course of several months, Ms. M began to share her parenting concerns with the FRC staff and also confessed that she was involved in an abusive relationship with the three-year-old's father. The FRC Parent Educator suggested a meeting with the FRC Family Therapist. Ms. M agreed. Shortly after she was able to leave the dangerous relationship and moved with her three children to an apartment nearer to school.
Ms. M continues in therapy and the three-year-old receives counseling and attends the onsite preschool program with an FRC scholarship. The two school-age children participate in several FRC positive youth development programs. Additionally, Ms. M has helped the FRC staff to translate several FRC brochures from English to Spanish.
Assistance for Families Learning English as a Second Language:
Charter Oak is a school where over one fourth of the students speak English as a second language. In the school hallways, more than a dozen languages can be heard. Often when families arrive in West Hartford from another country, they are overwhelmed by the forms that must be filled out, the communication that must read, and the nuances of American culture. In collaboration with West Hartford Adult Education, the FRC at Charter Oak developed an ESOL class for families in response to the needs of West Hartford's newest residents.
Called "Family FUNdamentals," this two-hour Wednesday evening class teaches English within the context of the school and the community. All family members are welcome to attend and participate in the low-key learning. Team taught by the FRC Parent Educator and a certified Adult Education teacher, the class studies school forms (including the school menu, emergency forms, permission slips for school trips, and report cards), visits the public library and applies for library cards, learns to use computers and voice mail, hears firsthand about community services from a police officer and a firefighter, attends a PTA meeting, discusses parenting issues, and learns about American holidays.
Family FUNdamentals made a strong impact on Ms. "E", the mother of two school-age sons and a preschool daughter. She attended Family FUNdamentals with her children in hopes of improving her English language skills and developing an understanding of the West Hartford Public School system. Ms. E attended Family Fundamentals regularly and soon felt comfortable enough to also enroll in a regular intermediate adult ESOL class. She quickly graduated to the advanced ESOL class and now continues her studies at a community college. In addition, she has become a regular volunteer in her sons' classrooms and this year Ms. E was elected to a board position on the school PTA.
Creating a Place for Children:
The FRC works with other community organizations as they strive to fill needs within the school community. The school social worker, in a casual conversation with FRC staff, mentioned that she was seeing an increase in the number of children experiencing a divorce or separation in their families. One of the family therapists at The Bridge, the parent/fiscal agency for the FRC, has developed a curriculum for support groups particularly for children in this circumstance. Called KIDS (Kids in Divorce and Separation), this weekly support group gives children a safe place to share their fears and anger about changes at home. The therapist now runs a weekly KIDS group at Charter Oak for 15 children. At a recent meeting, one first-grader shared with the group that she wished her parents would get back together again. Her sister, who attends KIDS also, listened and then said, "But then we couldn't come to this great club!"
The FRC, in collaboration with others in the community, also created opportunities for students to shine. With funding from two foundations, the FRC has been able to establish a children's theater company. Now in its third year with a paid parent director, the Company will be performing an original musical with a cast of 45, crew of 10. Parents and staff work together to put on the play; teachers choreograph; parents design and make costumes and props, run lines and help everyone build the set; two local businesses buy t-shirts for the cast, crew and grown-up helpers.
These vignettes provide vivid images of the FRC and Charter Oak Academy in a productive partnership. Although one cannot specifically link student academic gains to this partnership or the role of the FRC, it is worthwhile noting the positive academic changes that have occurred over the years, while the FRC has been in operation. Results from the fourth and fifth grade Connecticut Mastery Tests indicate that Charter Oak displayed impressive gains in the percentage of students achieving "mastery" in reading, writing, and mathematics between the years 1994 and 1998.
With academic excellence and high standards and expectations for all children highlighted at the Academy, the FRC has become one way for the school to build family connections and support for these goals. Through frequent, thoughtful, and diverse methods of communication, the FRC draws families in to foster a love of learning and share in the community's rich diversity.