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April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

The Great Family Network

Care teams—made up of volunteers from local churches and synagogues—are helping special-needs families in a Florida county solve personal and financial problems to give their children a greater chance of success in school.

Educators are becoming increasingly aware that the well doing of students depends on their well-being (Chaskin and Rauner 1995, Goleman 1995, and Marzano et al. 1988). What teacher hasn't seen the effects of inadequate care and love in the home on a student's ability to learn at school? And yet schools alone can't be expected to solve these problems. Schools and communities must join together to help children come to school ready to learn.
Both the well doing of children and their well-being prompted Judge John T. Parnham, Chief Judge of the First Judicial Circuit of Florida, to convene a task force of 34 area leaders to address the plight of children in Escambia County. Citing statistics and concerns with which educators have become all too familiar, Judge Parnham singled out certain data. For example, 26 percent of Escambia's children, including 57 percent of African-American children, live in poverty. In addition, over the last 10 years, delinquency cases in the county increased by 85 percent. During that period, the rate at which juveniles were committed to various institutions for their offenses increased by over 300 percent (Florida Center for Children and Youth 1992).
To help Escambia children achieve their potential, Judge Parnham charged the group to study the needs of local families, prioritize those needs, and propose various options for addressing them (The Chief Judge's Task Force for Children 1993). The task force formed four committees to study the status of Escambia's 67,000 children: Juvenile Justice, Community Resources, Child Health and Development, and Education.
The Education Committee included Command Chaplain of Pensacola Naval Air Station Captain Jim Goode (U.S. Navy), Special Assistant for Community and Schools to the Escambia County school system Jerome Watson, and myself, an assistant professor at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.
While others on the Education Committee turned their attention to schooling issues, the three of us concentrated on building relationships between school and community. We agreed with Children's Defense Fund Founder Marian Wright Edelman that service providers must help families if they desire to help children (Edelman l989). In searching for ways to assist families, we were guided by our belief that children cannot be expected to conquer such forces as hunger, poverty, and abuse—despite well-intentioned self-esteem programs and coping strategies. Thus, we set out to change debilitating environments by forging new links between religion and education.

Connecting with Religious Institutions

We recognized that five decades of sociological research have documented that religion can make a positive difference in people's lives. We also realized that churches and synagogues have within their membership large numbers of altruistic persons who possess diverse skills and abilities. Our idea was to create church care teams to work with special-needs families and their schools over an extended period of time. We named our idea The Great Family Network.
After the district approved our plan, we presented it to school guidance counselors and asked for their help in identifying at-risk students, presenting the program to families and enlisting their participation, and serving as liaisons between the family and the care team. Next, we presented our ideas to 20 area churches and synagogues. We asked for each church or synagogue to support the network by providing a three- to five-person team of caring and able people, armed with a minimum church commitment of $250, to work with an assigned family and its school for at least six months. After that time, the family and the care team would have an option to renew the relationship.
As the university representative, I arranged for needed instruction. With the support of the Education Committee, Goode, Watson, and I coordinated the program and arranged for training and follow-up. Early on, we had to confront the issue of church-state relationships. After talking with educators, clergy from several denominations, and a Jewish rabbi, however, we felt encouraged to go ahead with the network. Taking their feedback into consideration, we put our program into action.
First, the guidance counselors told family members that The Great Family Network consisted of care teams from religious facilities that would meet with them regularly to help them identify and meet their goals. Family members understood that the care team would also invite them to attend a church or synagogue of their choice, but that their involvement in the network did not depend on their religious participation. In like manner, churches or synagogues understood that their care teams could invite assigned families to attend religious services of their choice, but that the family could decline with no consequences. Both parties indicated in writing their understanding that the program would not serve as a proselytizing instrument.
The district's 100 guidance counselors embraced the plan with enthusiasm. In March 1995, we invited the 20 churches to participate in our pilot program. Twelve responded by providing care teams that would "enter into a mutual partnership with a special-needs family and its school and develop a caring, trusting relationship with the family, bound by an ethical commitment, leading to the family's setting and meeting reasonable goals."
We then offered extensive training to team members on such topics as Characteristics of Special-Needs Families, Working with Special-Needs Families, Resources for Working with Special-Needs Families, Working with the Schools, Tutoring, and Goal Setting and Goal Working. These sessions emphasized integrity, responsibility, achievement, and commitment. Care teams served as family advocates by helping a parent or guardian to make an appointment with the school, prepare for the conference, and attend the conference with the parent. Also, each team member attested to freedom from criminal behavior by signing a School Affidavit required of every volunteer in the school system. Before the training ended, each care team received the name of its family and the name and telephone number of the guidance counselor. In April 1995 the teams began their work.

Helping Special-Needs Families

  • Five children have returned to school after a care team helped their single mother rid the home of lice. Now that her children are back in school, the mother is no longer under the threat of being charged with child neglect.
  • Another care team helped a single mother regain custody of her four children after she was accused of child neglect. Team members cleared the yard of debris so the children could play outside and installed a used air conditioner to make the torrid home livable. They also helped the mother find child care for the two younger children, provided needed school supplies and clothing for the older children, and are helping the mother to find employment.
  • A single mother, tutored by a nurse member of a care team, passed her Licensed Practical Nursing examination and is now working in a nursing home. Her two middle school children, who had said they "hated reading," are now enjoying books provided by the team on their areas of interest.
  • All families have received school supplies, and many have received clothes.
  • Team members have taken families, particularly children, on fishing, swimming, picnicking, and shopping trips.
Feedback from care team members indicates that the program is working, with some families making substantial headway and others benefiting to varying degrees. We have received no complaints of any kind from our special-needs families. Guidance counselors report that requests are mounting for care teams to work with needy families.

Creating a Caring Community

The mood of care team members has ranged from jubilance, when their families have made great strides, to discouragement, when families have lost hope. We have begun holding feedback sessions for team members to offer support and to allow them to vent their frustrations. Together, we are exploring ways to improve The Great Family Network.
Because of our limited staff, a key concern has been providing follow-up and support for team members. Fortunately, we've met with several positive circumstances. After receiving encouragement from other members of the task force and from the community, we formed a nonprofit organization complete with a board of directors and filed for tax-exemption status. This move will permit us to receive contributions and provide an organizational structure that allows greater productivity. Chaplain Goode has recently retired from his former position and has offered his services to the organization as executive director on a nonpaid part-time basis for six months. His sister-in-law, Beverly Goode, volunteered her services as a secretary, again on a nonpaid part-time basis for six months.
Since that time, these two volunteers have set up an office in space contributed by the county's Children's Services Center and have been working with local families. Sixteen persons representing health, social services, juvenile justice, education, law, religion, and the business community serve on the board of directors. We are also applying for private foundation status, as well as for funds from United Way to pay a nominal salary for the executive director and the secretary, and for operating expenses.
Community support for The Great Family Network has been rewarding. Diverse neighborhood groups have joined with us to assist children and their families, and churches have voiced their satisfaction with their new ties to the schools. As care team members get to know more families of at-risk children, they better understand the many challenges that local schools face.
Where do we go from here? With the assistance of a new board of directors, we plan to invite 30 churches and synagogues at the beginning of each school term—fall and spring—to participate in The Great Family Network. With some 500 churches in the county, our goal is to create a caring community for every special-needs family.

Chaskin, R., and D. Rauner. (1995). "Youth and Caring: An Introduction." Phi Delta Kappan 76, 9: 667-674.

Chief Judge's Task Force for Children. (1993). The Report of the Chief Judge's Task Force for Children. Pensacola, Fla.: Chief Judge's Task Force for Children.

Edelman, M. W. (1989). Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Florida Center for Children and Youth. (1992). Key Facts About Children: A Report on the Status of Florida's Children. Tallahassee, Fla.: Florida Center for Children and Youth.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.

Marzano, R., R. Brandt, C. Hughes, B. Jones, B. Presseisen, S. Rankin, and C. Suhor. (1988). Dimensions of Thinking: A Framework for Curriculum and Instruction. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Betty L. Dixon has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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