TOGETHER!’s Olympia Community Schools Program Meets Critical Unmet Needs

Spanish Club participants Jerry and Jayden with Diana.
Spanish Club participants Jerry and Jayden with Diana. Photo courtesy: TOGETHER!

Submitted by TOGETHER!

Amid a housing crisis and ongoing pandemic, many students and families are still feeling isolated and stressed. This year TOGETHER!’s Olympia Community Schools team worked to identify and address key threats to equity and wellbeing in partnership with Olympia School District, students, families, and others. Through relationships building with clients and nurturing new partnerships to advance student and family health and wellbeing, TOGETHER!’s Olympia Community Schools program helped prevent homelessness and rapidly rehouse students and families experiencing homelessness, as well as find stability in the face of COVID-related challenges. In addition to responding to immediate needs like these and supporting families with financial resources and warm-handoff referrals to ensure stable housing, TOGETHER! staff also work to change systems.

We learned right away that some middle schools offered lots of before and after school programs while others had very few, and that students engaged in virtual academies were really isolated from their peers. Because middle school is a critical time when students learn crucial life skills, our team knew right away we wanted to help make access to before and after school and other enrichment and connection opportunities more equitable.

“We really created spaces where students could interact with other students outside of the classroom,” says Program Director Michael Dennis, because having all of the supports they need during this important time in young peoples’ lives ensures the best chances of developing healthy relationships with themselves, including a positive self-image, the ability to take responsibility for their actions, and the ability to forge healthy relationships with the people around them.

Community Schools Manager Diana was a key part of the program’s success this year. Nominated by Reeves Principal Aaron Davis, Diana was named Laurie Dolan School Advocate of the Year for Reeves Middle School at a district-wide ceremony in late May. Diana enjoys her work providing rental assistance, family support, and programming to support the social and emotional needs of students.

Meet Diana

“Hola! My name is Diana Perez and I work with the Olympia Community Schools Program to provide services to students and families both at Reeves Middle School and Washington Middle School. A big part of my job has been to create lunch and after school programs that focus on the social, emotional, and academic needs of students.”

“As I began to connect with students at both schools, it became apparent that students needed a safe space to learn, grow and connect with their peers. With this knowledge, I started SPECTRUM at Reeves, where over 20 students attended to learn about LGBTQIA+ experiences, laws, and local groups. Another after school program was created thanks to the partnership with Window Seat Media and Meg Rosenberg to bring the Playback Theatre program for students interested in theater and storytelling as ways to express themselves.”

“At Washington Middle School, I noticed a specific culture that staff and students constantly represented which was, kindness. This inspired me to create Kindness Krew, where students learned about empathy and leadership. I also wanted to share my culture with the students and teach them a bit of Spanish, which led me to create the Spanish and Cultural Awareness club where we learned about colors, music, foods, and basic introductions.”

“Within the short time of having these students in each program, I have learned the importance of having spaces for students to express themselves in a different way than they would in their traditional classroom. I’ve also learned how crucial it is to provide support for the entire well-being of our youth, especially their mental health as they begin to navigate their personal and social lives through school.”

By hosting and supporting before and after school and lunch or club-time groups, Community Schools managers helped to foster a sense of community while providing social, emotional, academic, and life skills for students furthest from educational justice. “Diana created an inclusive and welcoming environment” said Dennis, and as a result, “students felt comfortable with asking her for resources or support.” Diana was one of 4 Community Schools Managers who led and supported dozens of activities and served over 300 youth engaged in before and after school and school day club time and lunch time enrichment as well as other supportive services this school year to advance the social and emotional wellbeing of students in Olympia schools. Other offerings included creating safe spaces for students of color, supporting students experiencing mental health challenges, language and culture clubs, cultural cooking classes, and more.

About Community Schools

Based on a national model, Community Schools provide wraparound supports to K-12 students and families. Currently implemented by TOGETHER! in Olympia, Tumwater, and North Thurston schools district, Community Schools are both places (with school-based and mobile Community Resource Centers), and previously operated in Yelm, Community Schools are a set of partnerships between school and community resources. Using schools as hubs, Community Schools bring a range of community supports and opportunities, and remove barriers for students and families, resulting in improved student learning, and healthier communities.

About TOGETHER!

Since 1989, TOGETHER! has been on a mission to advance the health and wellbeing of all young people. Today, their three core programs are Community Schools wraparound supports and case management, Club House extended day and summer programming, and Host Homes, a pilot project to house unaccompanied minors. Their programs and operations are an extension of their values of equity, community, and systems change. TOGETHER!’s work is poised at the cutting edge of public health science and educational justice, strategically working to achieve a vision that all young people are supported, safe and valued. To learn more or support TOGETHER!, visit the TOGETHER! website.

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