Tierra started preschool at Families Together when she was two years and seven months old. Her older brother was already in the program. During the ensuing years, Tierra maintained a 94% attendance, while coming to school from two different foster homes, from the homeless shelter for many weeks, as well as from many different apartments. When all else in Tierra’s life changed over and over, school did not.
Tierra headed off to kindergarten this fall with a brand-new backpack full of school supplies and a first-day-of-school outfit from Families Together. She still gets help from the program to improve the fine motor skills needed for writing.
Families Together is a program of Lifetrack Resources. Founded as Saint Paul Rehabilitation Center (SPRC) in 1948, the organization changed its name a few years ago to more accurately reflect its mission today: to work with rehabilitation through adult and child therapies, early childhood and family services, and employment and business services.
One of the earliest programs of the non-profit organization was its therapeutic pre-school that was started to help children with special needs during the polio epidemics in the 1940s. About 20 years ago, the state legislature mandated that the public schools were to provide special needs services to all children. At that point SPRC wrote a grant proposing to serve children at risk. That led to the creation of the Families Together program. Last year the program served 44 children from 41 families. Children in the program range in age from two years nine months to five years old. They are not eligible for kindergarten or special education.
This article was written by staff at Lifetrack Resources
In a therapeutic pre-school, there is not a “ one size fits all” recipe for supporting children. It is the individualizing of support that often makes the difference between success and failure in the educational setting. Many children attend the Families together Program for one year, and that year of intense support to the child and family makes a critical difference in the child’s development. Other children participate in the program for 1 ½ to 2 years. Tierra has been part of the Families Together family for almost three years, since she was a toddler.
We first met Tierra when her older brother attended the program, and the day Tierra turned 2 years 7 months old, she began riding the bus to school too. Families Together has provided not only support, but stability for Tierra as she has grown into a competent pre-schooler, ready to begin Kindergarten. The flexibility of the Families Together Program has been essential in meeting Tierra’s needs.
Tierra has come to school from two different foster homes, from the homeless shelter for many weeks, as well as from many different apartments. With all of these changes, Tierra has maintained 94 % attendance at pre-school! When all else in Tierra’s life changed over and over, school did not. She was able to maintain the same teachers, friends, and routine.
It was a joy to reassess Tierra’s skills when she turned five. Tierra knows her letters and numbers, and delights in rhyming games on the ride to school. She is ready to begin to read. She is sought out as a playmate by all the other children, who argue over who gets to sit by Tierra on the bus. Fine motor tasks are still challenging for Tierra, and she continues to receive support from the Families Together occupational therapist to help her prepare for the challenges of writing in kindergarten.
Tierra is a child who has faced great risk in her young life. Her family has struggled with developmental delays, mental health issues and the resulting homelessness. Foster placements and life in the homeless shelter were very, very stressful for Tierra. But Tierra has also had critical support and her social, emotional, and academic skills are strong. Tierra’s mother, grandmother, and the staff of Families Together are so proud of her. And we are all grateful that Families Together has had the flexibility and funding to be a part of Tierra’s life from ages two to five.
Most of the referrals to the program come from Ramsey County Child Protection and the Saint Paul Public Schools’ School Readiness program. Other referrals come from Ramsey County Public Health Nurses and other community resources, and satisfied parents or children who previously attended the program.
Georgia Boehlke, Lifetrack’s Early Childhood and Family Services Director, says, children in the program “are very highly stressed and the least likely to succeed in public schools unless they have some sort of intervention.”
In addition to poverty, risk factors in the children’s lives may include child abuse, neglect, homelessness, a caregiver other than a parent, and mental illness or chemical dependency of the caregiver. The parent may be a teen, or there may be frequent incarcerations of family members. On average, according to Boehlke, each child in the program faces five of the risk factors.
Families Together offers much more than a school program. While at school, the children participate in a number of enrichment activities in all development areas. Speech and language, occupational, physical and mental health therapies are available on-site. Meals are also provided. Children attend pre-school classes three half days per week year-round.
Each classroom team includes two teaching staff, a family worker, occupational therapist, speech/language therapist, and mental health therapist. The team meets weekly to discuss family issues and classroom behaviors and to best plan how to handle these issues and behaviors.
Individualized transportation is provided in order to accommodate each child’s needs and to assure their attendance. Boehlke comments, “If a child is not here, we’re not making a difference in that child’s life.” Due to the instability of their family lives, children often move from place to place frequently. During these times of transition it is important to sustain the gains the children have made, and staff at the pre-school provides a safety net for them by making sure the children get to school wherever they are living at the moment.
The program serves children who live in the Frogtown- Summit University and Eastside neighborhoods of Saint Paul. Last year in addition to the classrooms at 709 University Avenue, a new classroom was opened at the Eastside Community Center.
The teaching and social work staff go to the children’s homes to work with the families. The entire effort is “parent-driven,” according to Boehlke, who says, “What the parents want, we provide.” That might range from advice on parenting, helping parents obtain food, helping parents apply for health insurance, or assisting families to find clinics and getting their children immunized.
Families Together makes a difference in the lives of children and their families, giving them the opportunity and the skills to survive and thrive and learn to succeed. Yet, the 40 or so children it serves each year make up only a small percentage of the 850 children under the age of 5 who are in child protection services and have been in out-of-home placement in Ramsey County. These children are in need of quality early childhood and family services that prepare them for school and the chance to lead healthy productive lives.
Funding for Families Together comes from a variety of sources, including the Greater Twin Cities United Way, private foundations, community partnerships, the Federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, along with some funding from Ramsey and Washington Counties.
Lifetrack’s board of directors has made a commitment to serve no less than 50% of the county’s at-risk children, saying “we cannot continue to fail so many children in Ramsey County.” A group of prominent civic leaders, educational leaders, and elected officals, called Early Childhood Champions, is on board to assist them with advocacy efforts as they seek additional sources of revenue with the hope of opening the door to more children .