Reaching beyond teaching

Saranac Lake community school program aims to help families, which helps students

From left, Ann Munn, Kelly Tomaszewski and Cedar Young attend a community school event giving our free school supplies in August 2019 at Saranac Lake’s Petrova school. (Enterprise photo — Kevin Shea)

SARANAC LAKE — Traditionally, schools are a place of education. Some districts offer plenty of sports programs and after-school activities, but for the most part, schools are where you go to learn.

“You send your kids to school, we educate them — ABCs, math, science — and then they go home,” said Diane Fox, Saranac Lake Central School District superintendent.

However, poverty, drug addiction and other social ills can make it harder for students to learn. Therefore, some school districts, including Saranac Lake, have started “Community School” programs, ways for schools to help their families outside the standard curriculum.

SLCSD Community School Liaison Erika Bezio said education is still the top priority, but that can’t succeed unless schools help remove stress on students and families. That’s why in 2018 the district began focusing on services to help feed students, clothe them, provide them with school supplies and intervene if there are health or financial issues at home.

She compared the roles of schools to phones.

“Pretend a rotary phone is a school,” Bezio said. “It has one function: in-calls, out-calls. It doesn’t do anything else. Today, you pick up your phone and it’s your phone, your camera, your calendar, it’s your entertainment, it’s your connection to your family, it’s everything. That’s really what community schools looks like.”


A lot of what the community school program deals with is food insecurity. Right now, 48%, or 185, of the students at Petrova Elementary School receive reduced-cost or free lunch, which is paid for by the state. Only 10 of those students get lunch at a reduced price; the rest get it for free because their families’ income is so low.

The district offers after-school snacks to any student who stays late. There’s now a food pantry operation in the high school, which feeds students and community members. Fox said this initiative received some internal pushback at first because of the security risks of letting more people into the school. She said she assured staff that the door to the pantry will be locked, and people will need to be buzzed in before entering the building. Similar to the Lake Placid Central School District, Saranac Lake has a backpack program that provides students with ready-to-eat or easy-to-make meals if they don’t have a lot of food at home. It also comes with vouchers for eggs and milk at Stewart’s Shops.

“The number of kids in the backpack program is growing every week,” Fox said.

Before this school year started, the district provided haircut vouchers. Bezio mentioned a little girl whose family used the voucher, and when she came into school the next day, she said, “Look, I finally got a real haircut. My mom did not cut my hair; a hairdresser did.”

For clothes, people can receive vouchers to the Go Fish Thrift Shop.

Another service that got some backlash from the community, as well as praise, was Ready for School, which provides school supplies to all students. Fox said many parents wanted to buy their own kids’ school supplies and asked why they should have to pay for other students’, especially those who could afford it.

However, the school wanted to streamline the process and make sure every student had access to the same supplies. Also, the process prompted teachers to streamline the supplies they requested.

“The cost savings are pretty significant. I bet you I could ask any parent in our community, previous to Ready for School, they would tell you they spent over $100 for student school supplies, not including the scientific calculator,” Bezio said.

Now, the district is able to provide every student with school supplies at $22 per child, including scientific calculators for higher math levels.

Bezio added that the district is hoping the list of school supplies from each teacher will become smaller as students and faculty get more acclimated with the Chromebooks the schools began rolling out at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

Family advocate

In addition to the easily tangible services such as food, clothes and supplies, the district also works with Community Connections of Franklin County Executive Director Lee Rivers and family advocate Josh Crowningshield.

“The gift of a family advocate is, number one, (Crowningshield) can provide transportation,” Bezio said. “He can take you to the food pantry. He can take you to the (county Department of Social Services in Malone). He can take you to a doctor’s appointment. He can pick you up from your job because you’re out of bus passes. Just that piece alone is amazing.”

From helping people find jobs to assisting in acquiring a driver’s license, Bezio said Crowningshield helps in a lot of different areas.

“The list is tremendous,” she said. “He can help with rent. He can help with utility bills. He can help you find new housing. He can help you find mental health services.”

Bezio said Crowningshield is not there to do all the work for families. The hope is to get people to a point where they don’t need social services checks every month or don’t need to visit the food pantry consistently.

“We had one man that applied for DSS and emergency assistance and since then has found full-time employment,” she said. “Through the family advocate, he pulled the application from DSS for needing to receive that service, because he was supported, and he’s confident that he can continue alone.”

The Community Connections work comes at no extra cost to school taxpayers because it’s paid for by Franklin County. The idea is like preventative medicine: to help families in small ways before they need huge assistance.

Family nights

The community school program doesn’t just focus on helping people in need. Much of it involves community get-togethers and family events.

Today, the middle school hosts a robotics workshop where parents and children will learn how to program Sphero robots. Fox said some of the more popular events are summer reading nights and the family swim nights at the North Country Community College pool. Bezio said one that hasn’t gained a lot traction is math night. She said the name is possibly intimidating to some.


Other than Bezio’s salary, the community school’s program had $9,800 in expenses last year.

“We’ve received a lot of support from the community,” Fox said. “In donations alone, we’ve received just under $100,000, and a big chunk of that was from (state Assemblyman) Billy Jones with an allocation of $50,000.”


Fox said the main goal of the community schools program is to end the cycle of generational poverty among Saranac Lake families, but it may take some time to notice any major changes.

“We have to wait a whole generation before we see any change,” she said. “We don’t have that data yet. We’ve just begun collecting it.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been success stories. Fox brought up one example of a family who last year had the potential of being homeless. After working with the district, the family avoided that situation. A middle school child from that family later wrote for a school assignment about how important that help was to his family.

“That child has to come to school, worrying about sleep, worrying about food,” Fox said. “We’ve made that family a more stable unit, but we’ve also made that child’s level of anxiety come down. I often talk about how stress makes you stupid. When you’re stressed, you can’t think clearly.”

Whom to call

If you’re interested in services the school district can provide, contact Bezio at the high school at 518-891-5460.