Elodie Reed, St. Albans Messenger
ST. ALBANS — A frightening pattern of trauma is emerging among the area’s younger students, according to Franklin Central Supervisory Union Early Childhood Programs Director Michelle Spence.
That statement and other issues were on the table Wednesday as the Promise Community began to prioritize its goals to meet child and family needs locally.
“Last week, we had three kids get pulled into [Dept. of Children and Families] custody – in one week,” Spence explained at the meeting at the Church of the Rock.
Winton Goodrich, Franklin Northwest school superintendent, who also attended, added, “It’s particularly troubling in all elementary (schools).”
Spence said, “We’re trying to figure what the best approach is. This is such an opportunity because we have these kids in our program to help them. They’re in our care.”
Though Spence meant Franklin County children are in her schools’ care, she could have been talking about anyone in the room at the meeting. Educators, mentor groups, mental health services, drug addiction awareness representatives, social workers, other early childhood advocates gathered there to discuss how to help local children and families.
The group was led by Mark McMillen, the specialist hired to facilitate Franklin County’s two-year Promise Community initiative, a DCF-administered program begun by Gov. Shumlin. The initiative, specifically aimed at children from birth to age six in rural areas experiencing poverty, is a project of Vermont’s Early Learning Challenge’s Race to the Top Grant, a $36.9 million, federally funded, four-year grant.
Franklin County’s early childhood programs region (St. Albans, Swanton, Sheldon, Franklin, Highgate, Fairfield) was one of the first seven communities chosen in April to receive $200,000 to coordinate services into a coalition to improve early childhood outcomes.
At one of the monthly sessions previously led by McMillen in Franklin County, St. Albans, Sheldon and Swanton were chosen as the three areas of focus. At the fourth such meeting yesterday, the Promise Community group began to decide which things to assess in those towns in order to inform a roadmap, or action plan.
“We’re working for three communities – we have to de-aggregate the data we’re going to be gathering,” said McMillen. Choosing just a few factors, he said, will help focus the group’s work.
He asked the dozen or so people in the room to split into groups of three to discuss which factors to choose. They all had a long list to look at that included demographics, work life, school, housing, internet, safety of a child, early care and education, home visiting programs, health, nutrition, community infrastructure, library, public safety, town history and any other group members that might be added.
“They’re all important, but the question is, are we going to be able to fix them all?” asked McMillen. “I need you guys to decide what direction we’re going to take today.”
McMillen also asked the group to consider whether the factors they chose could be measured by existing data, or whether researchers would have to go out into the community and engage with families. In the end, the needs assessment for Sheldon, St. Albans and Swanton would have to include both.
Deciding what is most important among a list of highly important community needs isn’t easy, as it turns out – there were quite a few questions directed toward McMillen about how to do that. Getting into groups was a bit of a struggle, too.
But, as McMillen pointed out, everyone in the room was going to have to take the reins in the end – this is their community, after all. He later told the Messenger that this shouldn’t be difficult in Franklin County, which already has experience in this type of work with, for instance, the monthly Community Partnership meetings.
“I’m impressed with the level of support and commitment,” McMillen said. “They’ve made good coalitions [here].”
For now, though, the Promise Community initiative is moving a little slowly. McMillen wasn’t able to get through his whole two-hour agenda Wednesday. The group did, however, agree on community factors to assess for an action plan:
- mental health and trauma in children;
- kindergarten readiness;
- third grade reading levels;
- drug use and support;
- DCF intervention, referrals, assessments and custody;
- homelessness, shelter usage and transitional and homeless families;
- and parent resiliency and leadership.
“This is where we’re going to make sure we have data,” said McMillen.
The next steps are designating people to gather data, compiling and analyzing it, and then creating the community “roadmap” or action plan for St. Albans, Swanton and Sheldon. From there, according to McMillen, Franklin County will begin receiving grant funds to implement that plan, and he will be there to coach the community in doing so.
“My job is to facilitate the community choosing its own path and own goals in achieving essentially the promise of every child,” said McMillen. “It’s a really open process – it could be anything.”
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Anyone who would like to be part of the Franklin County Promise Community initiative can attend future meetings. The next will be held Nov. 9 from 1-3 p.m. in Swanton. For more information, contact Mark McMillen at Mark.McMillen@vermont.gov.