Full-Service Community Schools Deliver an Innovative Approach to Supporting Students, Teachers, and Families Alike!   

Teachers’ jobs are hard enough.   

Throughout the past few years, educators have pushed through the pandemic, adapted to teaching online, and supported students to ensure they’re set up for success.    

Of course, schools can only offer so much support for teachers and students alike. When children and families endure struggles, showing up as their best selves can be even more difficult still.   

Issues such as the pandemic, with its lingering effects, along with mental health difficulties, food, and housing insecurity can make the school day longer and children’s learning less engaged.   

Luckily, thanks to a piloted partnership throughout several Nebraska locations, schools can team up with businesses, people, and organizations to collaborate and support families and children to ensure that their other areas of performance, including academics, are set up for success!   

Joe DiCostanzo, Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s Vice President of Education, agrees.    

“Schools can’t do it all,” he said. “Schools can focus on what they do best, which is educating, but we know a lot of different things impact those outcomes.”    

Schools can now team up to fill in families' and students' essential gaps - all the while, creating a better Nebraska!
Schools can now team up to fill in families’ and students’ essential gaps – all the while, creating a better Nebraska!

This moment leads us to one of our newest efforts. Nebraska Children and the Nebraska Department of Education are addressing pandemic-related setbacks through the Together, Better Initiative, a deliberate series of efforts geared toward strengthening students and families in the most essential ways. Among these efforts is the piloted project, Full-Service Community Schools (FSCS).  

Spearheaded in 2021, we and our partners supported this approach in Fremont, Grand Island, Schuyler, and South Sioux City.    

Since then, we’ve been excited to collaborate across these locations, along with creating a series of measured, targeted strategies in the areas of Student Learning and Development, Family and Community Engagement, and Partnership Development. 

We and our partners work with communities to tailor innovative solutions to suit each locations’ unique needs! Who better to discuss some of the exciting recent accomplishments than one of our experts, Joe himself, along with our partners: Dakota City Elementary Principal, Laura Sulzbach; Nebraska Department of Education’s State Coordinator of FSCS, Mariella Resendiz-Alvarado; and O’Connor Learning Center’s FSCS Family and Community Outreach Coordinator, Valerie Proto.   

As a collaboratively-driven organization, Nebraska Children wouldn’t be what we are without implementing and leading our prevention partnership, Bring Up Nebraska, thanks to a series of businesses, people, programs, and organizations that create solutions throughout our communities for children and families to thrive! Laura, Mariella, and Valerie are just a few of the special faces behind this important work.   

Joe concurs that involving the collaboratives was an essential piece of FSCS. From Nebraska Children’s perspective, these stakeholders are a natural fit.   

Joe emphasized the power of community collaboratives’ work, especially around this current initiative.   

“Coming in after the fact last summer [during the pandemic], it was important for [Nebraska Children] to have sites establish these collaborations,” he said. “Community collaboratives can support kids and families; the collaboratives can also support outside-of-classroom needs so teachers can focus their time and efforts on academic development.”  

As far as history goes, Laura said the FSCS model came about because another building had a grant focused on family literacy and helping Nebraskans further their education and careers.  

“We saw this approach was successful, and so we applied for this [new] grant to expand the outreach with families,” she said.   

“Schools can’t do it all,” said Joe Dicostanzo. “Schools can focus on what they do best, which is educating, but we know a lot of different things impact those outcomes.”    

Mariella said that like so many successful projects, the FSCS strategies align with research that engages areas that communities want to strengthen.    

“We’re looking at the [FSCS] approach as a cohesive alignment with some of our perceptual survey data, in addition to aligning school data around certain issues, including chronic absenteeism,” said Mariella.  

“We can support students academically and mentally, along with educators. COVID made us more alert to needs and what schools can and can’t do; this aligned work we’re doing is with these four communities,” she said.    

Mariella, who works with community school systems, including Schuyler Public Schools, described some of the area’s recent wins, thanks to this innovative approach.    

During one of Joe’s routine site visits, Mariella said the school nurse shared that Schuyler is without an optometrist, so the school needed a vision clinic.   

According to the nurse, the need for the vision clinic was well placed. After completing the students’ vision testing, the nurse said that many never returned for a follow-up appointment.    

This moment is one of many where the magic of collaboration manifests.  

“An administrator at the Department of Education had a connection with optometrists, Dr. Dave McBride and Dr. Kristin Reed,” said Mariella.     

Mariella said that she’s since successfully connected with the eye doctors. They aligned a meeting and provided a mobile vision clinic in Schuyler on March 2!   

“We can test up to 30 kids in addition to students getting frames and lenses for free,” said Mariella. “Second graders will see an optometrist, have their eyes dilated and go through the depth perception tests in the school gym,” she said.   

Meanwhile, in South Sioux City, Laura and her school have emphasized all areas of the FSCS’s model, especially Student Learning and Development.   

“The school wants to improve the students’ math and reading with a focus on reading throughout the new curriculum,” said Laura.    

“We’re getting that information out and inviting parents into what we teach and why, and talking to them about the foundational skills and how they can help with reading at home,” she said.   

Laura shared that these efforts are integral to building and maintaining an ongoing dialogue and transparency with students’ families.    

“Parents trust us, but they [sometimes] have no idea what we do with their kids every day,” she said.    

Laura said that these relationships are integral to English Language Learners’ (ELL) success.   

“Our school is 55 percent Spanish-speaking, so we share with parents what that means for ELL students [to succeed] and what we’re expected to do, tying everything back to our School Improvement Goals,” she said.    

Valerie said that the Grand Island YWCA works with parents to ensure their programming fulfills their childcare needs.    

“We started a partnership with YWCA to offer all-day childcare because before, we only had a morning or afternoon session,” said Valerie. “We have families with transportation issues; when something changes, they can’t bring kids to [childcare].”  

Valerie said she witnessed how these extended hours have supported working parents.   

“Coming in the morning and evening rather than the middle of the day has helped our families!” she said.  

Although the piloted program is relatively new, Valerie said she and her colleagues continue to educate parents on the importance and benchmarks of quality early childhood programming.  

“We do monthly education sessions,” she said. “For example, we recently shared the goals for kindergarten-readiness, including what tools kids need. There are milestones for healthy growth and development,” said Valerie.   

Valerie and her teammates held a successful gathering that focused on remaining calm and strategizing when a child shows heightened emotions, including tantrums. From there, parents have begun getting on board.   

“We have a parent volunteer program!” she said. “We’re encouraging parents to come into their children’s classes, read a book, participate in activities, and see what their children are learning,” she said.    

Valerie created a monthly newsletter that shows what students are learning, with tips on how families can talk about these topics at home.     

Moreover, for Valerie, one of the best moments occurred during one of these sessions, when an opportunity presented itself to share how incredible childcare providers and educators are.    

“There was a moment that was one of my favorites! A volunteer came up to a teacher and said, ‘You’re lucky to be a teacher; you get to watch movies and drink hot chocolate.’ The teacher said, ‘No, we do the ABCs; we have assessments!’ People [sometimes mistake] early childhood education for playtime, but it’s not. These students need to [meet] assessments,” said Valerie.    

Valerie agrees that the FSCS approach supports teachers and reminds the community of their indispensable work, especially by forming a coalition with families!     

Valerie and her team started a monthly meeting to update parents on upcoming programs the school will offer in response to parental feedback. From there, something incredible happened.   

“From that meeting, parents talked about creating a PTO to raise money for the school! They started asking, ‘What do schools, kids, and teachers need?’ This year’s been tough for teachers, so families want to support them,” she said.     

From there, Valerie said that this effort took on a life of its own.   

She said, “We have a parent spearheading the initiative. The group threw a Winter Wonderful event where they raised money – last month they held a Dine Out to Donate, with other fundraising coming up to support teachers and students!”  

According to Valerie, although the initial phases to get a PTO group off the ground were challenging, from there, families have begun to soar.    

“If you have a group of families, those parents are awesome! The teachers appreciate it. Parents hold monthly Community Cafes to meet each other and find common ground. Through the classes we’ve had, I see parents engaging with other families and meeting other families; one of the moms who came here moved from Albania – the mom was so happy to have new friends!” said Valerie.    

Joe echoed that remarkable changes are already taking place.   

“This process and wonderful people can help facilitate connections that schools can’t [forge] alone; our communities are supportive of young people and schools, and [the FSCS approach] helps create communities between schools and families,” said Joe.    

Mariella said that the wraparound approach has been particularly effective 

“We’ve seen the need because of COVID for schools to have transformation. We’ve relied on our school’s educators, social workers, custodians, and lunch personnel. Finally, we wondered, how can we bring in the demands they’re seeking? They can’t do it alone.”  

Mariella said that teachers’ jobs are an ever-growing series of challenges, so thanks to this new approach, teachers can continue to focus on their areas of expertise.    

“A teacher can’t be a counselor and nutritionist,” said Mariella. “We can use our schools as the hub of the community to bring in social-emotional development, physical education, and services that families may need but don’t know [how to obtain them.] We need to see how education can go beyond the 9-3:30 pm day,” she said.    

Even though learning may traditionally end at 3:30 pm, for parents and students who participate in the FSCS approach, learning and community can continue to occur outside the traditional hours!   

Laura said that part of their efforts includes inviting parents to different events to educate them in areas beyond the curriculum. One of the recent sessions presented an opportunity for families to meet with a mental health clinician to familiarize themselves with the importance of mental wellness.    

“We partnered with Heartland Counseling, a local office here in town. The counselor talked about anxiety, how to calm yourself, how you can calm children; she talked about stress and how to manage stress,” said Laura.    

Like much of the FSCS approach, this endeavor is based on a response to families’ needs and gaps.    

“We’ve noticed our families don’t know a lot about mental health, but they need [this support]. We bring the counselor in once a month, and she’s gotten several referrals! [Parents] reached out to get help for them with their children!” said Laura.   

Laura said that part of the meeting included transparency about anxiety. Laura shared her lived experience of feeling anxious.   

“The parents said, ‘What? It happens to everyone!’ Sharing personal stories have allowed parents to open up! Tears were shed; it was an emotional experience, but super-wow! We’re helping people and helping their kids as well,” said Laura.    

Meanwhile, Valerie said she and her team find creative ways to engage families in relevant, transformative areas.    

“UNL Extension offers free nutrition classes, so we hold those. We have a partner at Grand Island Public Schools who teaches English classes. We have families who want to learn Spanish, so we talked with the community college to host Spanish classes there next year!” she said.    

And, according to Valerie, these supportive resources are only the beginning.    

“We’ll have enrollment and testing for parents interested in classes to see where they’d fall to get them enrolled. We’ve had Boys Town lead parenting cafes, so we’ve done those [around] behavioral topics; American Red Cross has held CPR and fire safety classes. We have a health fair coming up next week that I planned with a local chiropractor,” she said.    

In addition, Valerie and her community partners are forming a coalition to provide mental health resources, cancer testing, nutrition services, Zumba on weekends, and recently, an onsite counselor who meets with students at the school.    

Valerie said she continues to figure out ways to generate timing and engagement, along with our other partners!  

As we and our community experts continue to create a better Nebraska, we’re heartened to play a part in our families’ enthusiasm, while our hardworking collaboratives continuing to address some of the devastating effects of the pandemic.    

As we move into a bigger, brighter world, although we can’t recreate the past, together, thanks to you, we can build a better future.    

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Nebraska Children's mission is to maximize the potential of Nebraska’s children, youth, and families through collaboration and community-centered impact.

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