BY MATT MACKINDER
Clarkston News Staff Writer
Clarkston is an affluent town, but when it comes to economics, Clarkston Community Schools reflects the district's financial spectrum.
"Many people aren't aware of the economic diversity we have here in Clarkston," said Staci Puzio, the district's director of student growth and well-being. "Our school district covers 58 square miles, so the world in which our students live stretches far beyond the immediate downtown area that many people think of when they talk about the city of Clarkston. Our district as a whole has 20.9 percent of families who have applied and qualified for free or reduced lunch, but our buildings actually range from 9.8 to 64.3 percent, where you can see the economic diversity in Clarkston. We believe that these numbers may be higher.
"It is important that we come together to ensure access to basic needs. Our work is to provide educational and experiential opportunities for all students, regardless of economics. The way that the community comes together to support our families, it certainly feels like a much smaller town."
Some examples of the schools' community partnerships include collaborating with the Clarkston Rotary Club for the annual "Shoes For Kids" campaign, with Clarkston Area Youth Assistance and Clarkston United Methodist Church on adopting families for the holidays, and with Easterseals on working with a family with an urgent need for mental and physical care.
The Independence Township Fire Department also donated $800 in gift cards to Renaissance High School last Christmas, leading RHS Principal Gary Bigger to say that many students could now eat over the break, and Oscar W. Larson Co., a local contracting business, also adopted a local family for the holidays, filling a Yukon so full with supplies that the driver could not see out the back.
Anne Moshier is the district's McKinney-Vento liaison, and she explained that her job entails "removing all barriers to make sure all students are provided with a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps."
McKinney-Vento is a United States federal law that provides federal money for homeless shelter programs. It was the first significant federal legislative response to homelessness and was passed by the 100th U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on July 22, 1987.
"McKinney-Vento gives our district access to funds to create stability for students when their home life may not be stable," Moshier said. "Statistics show that when a child moves to a new school, it takes them six months to realign themselves and catch up. When you have homeless families, or families that are transient, this can be detrimental to their education. The McKinney-Vento program helps families keep their children in their school of origin."
This is done by providing transportation for the students to their home school. McKinney-Vento also provides students with classroom supplies, free food services, and removes any barrier that will keep them as stable as possible to help them succeed in their education.
"I provide resources, organizations that may be able to help them get back on their feet, such as Department of Health and Human Services, Easterseals, Food Banks, etcetera," noted Moshier.
Puzio's role includes overseeing state and federal grants, which provides some of the funding for students in need. Title I supports programming for students in three elementary buildings that are above the district average of 20.9 percent, as well as families who are part of the McKinney-Vento Program. The district's 31a At-Risk funds support programming for students across the district.
"Our strategic plan has a goal under the 'whole person' pillar that includes creating and extending our community partnerships," Puzio said. "It is my role to make connections to community agencies, businesses and churches to bridge the gaps of need in our schools. My work includes connecting families to supports like Easterseals or food banks, getting resources to provide clothing and financial support, as well as bringing programs like mentoring to our students. We truly are blessed in our community to have so many who want to help in so many ways."
All of the district's work is in line with its strategic plan and Four Pillars of Excellence: whole person development, foundational and academic skills, student-focused learning, and future pathways.
Puzio said it is her intention to continue to grow the community partnerships and make connections between these entities so the district can have a comprehensive support system, and to even create a foundation to support families in their basic needs.
"There are lifelong impacts when there is stress about where the next meal will come from or having to make a choice between medication for a sick child or making a payment for housing," Puzio said. "It is when basic needs are met that we can attend to the educational needs of our students. Therefore, it is imperative that we come together as a community to support all of our kids."
Through the Community Eligibility Provision (a federal non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts who qualify), the district is able to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to students in the two eligible schools (North Sashabaw Elementary and Renaissance High School), as each have over 60 percent of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.
"This requires some effort on the behalf of the district to coordinate and report for reimbursement, but it is such a worthwhile benefit for all families," said Puzio.
Puzio said that if Clarkston families are in need, they shouldn't have to look very far for assistance.
"One of the things that makes Clarkston special is that we are a community that welcomes and supports one another," she said. "Clarkston Community Schools is a welcome place for all families, and we are committed to providing a quality education for each of our students. We understand that in order to learn, students' basic needs must be met, and therefore, we encourage all families to talk with us about their needs. We can help remove barriers and provide support."
Check out next week for efforts by other groups to help neighbors in need.
About Clarkston Community Schools: Clarkston is a highly regarded school district with an enrollment of nearly 7,100 students. We have seven elementary schools (K-5), one middle school serving grades 6-7, one junior high for grades 8-9, and Clarkston High School, which serves students in grades 10-12. We also have an Early Childhood Center serving children ages 3-5, and an alternative high school/community education facility. Clarkston Community Schools students are well-prepared for a future that excites them, and believe that they can achieve their dreams. The mission of Clarkston Community Schools is to create a learning environment where students, staff, and families are challenged, healthy, engaged, safe, and supported.
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