Lake Placid readies launch of Community Schools program
LAKE PLACID — The Lake Placid Central School District is kickstarting its own Community Schools program after months of planning and anticipation among the district’s faculty, staff and board of education members.
There’s already a Community Schools program in the Massena school district, and in the neighboring Saranac Lake Central School District. SLCSD’s five-year-old Community Schools program — spearheaded by district Community Schools Liaison Erika Bezio — collaborates with 22 local organizations to help provide students and their families with food security, transportation, medical services and health insurance. The program even offers assistance with paying bills when family finances are tight. Now, the Lake Placid Central School District wants to provide those same services to district students and their families. The LPCSD Community Schools program is set to be fully in place by the next school year.
“A community school meets the needs of families and students,” Bezio said. “It finds where a community has gaps in services and programming, and looks to community resources to fill the need and gap for all families.”
Seymour said that the Community Schools program in Lake Placid has the potential to build on Saranac Lake’s program, create a stronger sense of mutual community with a more thorough pool of resources for students and families, and open the communities up to more state and federal funding opportunities.
He said more funding for and connectivity between the two school districts could also help local schools tackle more regional problems related to housing, food inequality, population decline and disparate incomes among people living in the Adirondacks.
“Schools could be leading the charge on so many of these things as a region, and that’s really cool,” Seymour said.
Seymour said the seed for LPCSD’s Community Schools program was planted by a district board of education member. Seymour requested a presentation to the board about the program from Bezio and SLCSD Superintendent Diane Fox last fall. The board was immediately sold on the program, Seymour said; they were excited to get started once they saw the concrete value of the program and how much it’s progressed in Saranac Lake.
Long periods of isolation through the coronavirus pandemic added impetus for the program, Seymour said.
“People are hungry for that connection,” he said. “There’s an opportunity for a renaissance of collaboration that is so timely in the wake of the pandemic, and where better to start than with the kids?”
The district applied for a Local Enhancement and Advancement Fund grant from the town of North Elba to fund the start of the program, and the district was ultimately awarded its full request of $100,000. LPCSD also got a $14,500 grant from the Adirondack Foundation Generous Acts fund to help with initial costs.
Part of that funding helped to create a designated Community Schools coordinator position for the district, and Keith Clark is ending his nearly 20-year tenure as a teacher in the district to fill it.
Seymour said it was important to the district to canvass for a Community Schools coordinator within the district — they wanted to build the Community Schools program into the district rather than build the program as an addition. Clark was born and raised in Lake Placid. He taught 8th grade social studies and 11th grade Advanced Placement U.S. History in the district, in addition to coaching hockey. Seymour fondly calls Clark “the student whisperer.”
Piecing the puzzle together
While the Saranac Lake and Lake Placid school districts want to achieve similar goals with their Community Schools programs, Seymour said Lake Placid’s program could look “vastly different” from Saranac Lake’s in practice because the two communities have different fundamental assets and challenges. For Lake Placid, Seymour thinks the community is more centered around the Olympic sentiment, ecotourism and hospitality than Saranac Lake, and students can easily feel excluded or disconnected from those focuses. Seymour said the Community Schools program is about identifying its assets and, in turn, the barriers in access and connectivity that some students and local families face.
Clark expects his first year as the Community Schools coordinator will be filled with opportunities and challenges — he said a lot of people are already doing “really cool” things in the community, but they’re not always coordinating together. For example, LPCSD has a 5th grade trip to Albany and an 8th grade trip to Washington D.C., and Clark is interested in looking at opportunities to prepare students for these trips as they progress through school while connecting educational concepts between the teachers who make those trips possible.
“It’s not about trying to necessarily do more in all instances,” Clark said. “Sometimes it’s just connecting those people together and making sure we kind of recognize what everyone’s doing and that we’re all pulling the rope in the same direction, so to speak.”
The district also wants to expand some of its existing offerings for students with the Community Schools program, like the backpack program that provides food to students and their families. Seymour said the Community Schools program could make it easier for the district to work with local food pantries to expand food security for students. He added that the new program could also help the district address the growing need for mental health services among students and their families, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
Seymour compared the social and educational experience of district students with a jigsaw puzzle — sometimes there are pieces missing, and sometimes there are four corners instead of eight. Clark’s job is about finding those redundancies, locating the missing pieces, and putting the puzzle together. In the past, it’s been hard to put that puzzle together because no one’s been designated with the job, and both teachers and students have found themselves pulled in different directions. If LPCSD could manage to assemble its own puzzle, Seymour added, the district could better collaborate with community organizations and leaders to assemble a broader regional puzzle.
The Community Schools coordinator position also has staying power. While Clark’s position has been informally filled in the past by district staff, faculty and teachers who are passionate about creating community and providing resources for students, the knowledge of those services and opportunities often leaves the district when those people retire or move on to another job opportunity. The Community Schools coordinator position creates a template of resourcing that can be passed down, Seymour said, and the Community Schools program could remain long after Clark leaves his position because those services would be provided systemically, not by individual people.
Lake Placid’s program could also tackle connecting district students — in both Wilmington and Lake Placid — with resources that can be hard to come by at a county level. Seymour said that geography is a good way to identify community resources and the holes in between. For Essex County, he said, a lot of the county’s resources lie in Elizabethtown. That’s a hike from Wilmington and Lake Placid, especially for families with little to no access to transportation, and Seymour hopes Lake Placid’s Community Schools program could help the school district serve as an additional resource point in that regard.
Breaking economic barriers, stigma
Seymour said the district uses its free and reduced lunch services as a metric for how many families in the district are experiencing financial hardship. Seymour said that around 44% of students qualify for the lunches, but he thought the percentage is probably higher now; the federal government provided free meals to students throughout the pandemic, and Seymour said a lot of families didn’t fill out their paperwork for free and reduced lunches as a result. That could affect the accuracy of that percentage. Plus, with the rising cost of living and inflation, Seymour said he wouldn’t be surprised if more people in the district needed financial help. He added that the district’s poverty line has “slowly arched up” over time.
The district’s board of education recently decided to continue offering free meals to district students after the federal government announced it would put an end to meal services for students at the close of the 2021-22 school year. That’s no small undertaking for the district, Seymour said — those services cost the district around a quarter of a million dollars each year. But Seymour said programs that are available to all students — what he called “opt-out prgrams” — are more successful than programs where students and their families have to jump through hoops to access the resources they need, like filling out paperwork for free and reduced lunches. Those “opt-in” programs can sometimes leave students in need out of the loop if they’re not widely publicized, and students who do know about the programs might avoid them because of the perceived stigma around getting help. The district is interested in creating more “opt-out” programs with the Community Schools program.
Seymour said the district also wants to start a hotline that students and families could call when they need something, a takeaway from Saranac Lake’s program. He likes the hotline idea because it’s a “point of service model” that puts LPCSD on the map as a resource center for local families. Providing those resources naturally helps students feel more connected to their school community, he said.
“To have some sort of service center here in Lake Placid is great and the school wants to take on that role,” Seymour said. “We want that mantel, because every little thing that we can do to help a family incrementally helps a student become more successful and engaged in school.”
Seymour called this a “hidden curriculum” — he thinks the Community Schools program could help the district address hurdles students face outside of the classroom that teachers, faculty and staff haven’t been able to help out with in the past, even though the need has been there all along.
“Whether or not people are aware,” Seymour said, “there’s an outcry for this program in this region.”