A model for other schools

Saranac Lake Community School program praised as union pushes for funding to expand initiative

Saranac Lake Central School District Community School Liason Erika Bezio, second from right, tells representatives from local school districts and New York State United Teachers about the food pantry in the Saranac Lake High School while leading them on a tour Thursday. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — Saranac Lake Central School District’s Community School is being hailed as a model example of the program — and one that state legislators and teachers unions want to replicate statewide.

Leaders from the New York State United Teachers union, Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake and representatives from local school districts met in Saranac Lake Thursday to advocate for the state to invest $100 million in its upcoming 2022-23 budget to expand the Community School program, offering more students and their families essential services through more school districts.

“It’s thrilling,” SLCSD Community Schools liaison Erika Bezio said.

She’s proud of the success Saranac Lake has had and said she wants to share their formula for helping families with districts around the state.

Bezio said the Community School services are open to all of the district’s approximately 1,043 students. There are no financial requirements or hoops to jump through to get assistance, she said.

Through Bezio and the 22 local organizations the district collaborates with, the schools can help families pay rent or internet bills, get them signed up for health or unemployment insurance, give them rides to agencies, and directly provide them with food and financial support.

In Saranac Lake, the Community School program sees employees across the district working well beyond their job descriptions to meet the needs of their students and their families.

That need has grown during the pandemic, NYSUT leaders said.

“Getting back to ‘normal’ isn’t good enough for our students — it’s time we demand a public education system that truly supports every child,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said in a statement. “When children face poverty, when their families face food insecurity, when they don’t have access to health care or social services, they don’t come to school ready to learn in the first place. That’s where community schools change the game, helping students and families thrive.”

Expanding the number of community schools is a key part of NYSUT’s Future Forward campaign.

In Saranac Lake, for every $1 invested in the Community School program, the return on investment is $14, according to NYSUT. That’s double the national average.

SLCSD’s Community School started small in July 2018 and has grown immensely since then, Bezio said.

NYSUT Regional Staff Director Don Carlisto, who is also a former SLCSD union president, said NYSUT members around the state support community schools.

He and SLCSD Superintendent Diane Fox began talking about starting the program at the same time five years ago. He said in his 25 years working at the school, this was one of his proudest accomplishments.

$100 million request

NYSUT Executive Director Melinda Person said the teacher’s union is fighting for $100 million to be included in this year’s state budget, which is due April 1.

The $100 million ask has been included in the state Assembly and Senate’s budget proposals. Person said Hochul has said “nothing but good things about community schools” and NYSUT is optimistic she’ll include it in the final budget.

Person believes this infusion of money could double the number of community schools in the state — adding 300 or 400 more. Of New York’s more than 800 school districts, less than 300 currently have Community School programs, she said.

She said NYSUT started this $100 million ask last summer. She said NYSUT wanted to learn from the pandemic to “redesign” public education for a “better normal.”

“We don’t want the old normal,” Person said.

She said they found that people want the school to be the center of the community post-pandemic, and a place to support families outside of educating their children.

Representatives from the Saranac Central School District, in Clinton County, said they rely on donations from the community to run their aid programs and state funding would help them expand.

Each district has different needs, Person said, but cash to start the program can get them on a path to personalizing their services.

Lake Placid Education Association Co-President Brenden Gotham said his district is seeking to replicate Saranac Lake’s success with Community Schools.

Gotham said Lake Placid is sometimes looked at as an affluent vacation town, but its need for working class families is high and comparable to Saranac Lake.

He said LPCSD Superintendent Timothy Seymour is supportive of this idea, as are the board and the teachers’ union. There’s already programs to help families in Lake Placid, he said, but starting a community school would make the school a hub for all these aid programs.

“I think it’s just wonderful what they are doing here,” Jones said in the SLHS auditorium. “I want to thank Saranac Lake for the work that they’ve done.”

He said he’s supportive of the community schools funding.

“Count me in as an ally,” Jones said.

But he said it’s important that funding is on its own independent funding line.

Jones said when Andrew Cuomo was the governor, the Community Schools funding in the state budget was always lumped in with other school funding, which means schools had to choose to spend that money on new hires or on starting a Community School — usually the former.

He said legislators are now fighting for dedicated Community Schools funding.

Dedicated staff

Fox said it’s important to have a dedicated staff member to run the program. When students or families are in crisis, they don’t want to to call and leave a message in an office, they want to talk to a person. She said Bezio is on-call and ready for people to reach out to.

She said if districts get state money, they should spend it on hiring their own community school coordinators.

Bezio is a contact point for students, staff, families, aid organizations and anyone in the world who sees a Saranac Lake family with a student in need.

“We actually had a contact tracer from Albany call me because a mom … told them she was worried they would have not food and didn’t know what they were going to do,” Bezio said. “The contract tracer found my number, called me and said, ‘This family is in crisis, can you help?’ … We raided the (food pantry).”

Bezio has contact numbers for 22 organizations offering (list) services, and she knows the people who answer all by name.

Michelle Schumacher, the director of YMCA of Malone, which runs Saranac Lake’s “Y without walls” said working with community schools has been “one of the best experiences I’ve had professionally.” The YMCA offers child care, which has been extra important during the pandemic, and is considering opening a facility here in the future, she said.

Sara Diorio, the lead family coordinator for Community Connections of Franklin County, said she works with families of children who have been identified as “seriously emotionally disturbed,” working to keep them in their homes and classrooms.

Food pantry

The food pantry at the school run by the Joint Council for Economic Opportunity is a key part of the SLCSD community school

JCEO Community Outreach Program Director Lisa Goodrow said it’s unique for an organization like hers to have a food pantry in a school, but it works well.

Fox said having the pantry right in the school also allows staff to connect with students in need and learn more about their situations.

She said the food is an immediate but temporary help, but is also a gateway for them to speak with students and their families to learn the roots of why they need assistance to connect them with more services.

“Who better to know the needs of families than the people who spend all day with their children?” Goodrow said.

Goodrow said JCEO is looking for local workers to staff the pantry. Right now, JCEO staff come from Malone.

SLCSD Food Service Director Ruth Pino said they’ve been able to specialize the food they stock to make sure its what families actually want to eat.

She loves taking students down to “Mrs. Pino’s grocery store.”

“It’s kind of like being in a room full of puppies,” she said.

Her heart is warmed when students come in to pick out food for their siblings or parents. She said on top of allowing the children to lessen the burden on their family, it gives them the opportunity to give to their family.

“There are times that I cry because it’s really lovely working with them,” Pino said.

The community school program has created more work for her, but she doesn’t mind. Her passion is feeding kids. It gives her job new purpose.

More than 200 students have taken from the SLCSD food pantry in the past year, according to NYSUT.


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