Guest column: Help on way for struggling students from New Castle to Rifle

Tamara Tormohlen
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

Kids don’t learn much at school unless they’re safe, happy and healthy.

If they’re falling asleep in class, acting out against their teachers and fellow students, or showing other signs of distress, then it’s reasonable for school officials to wonder what’s happening after school, at home or both. Many schools, including those in the Roaring Fork Valley, have professionals on-site who can help students — not just to complete their homework but, if need be, to see a doctor or psychotherapist, to help the parents pay a utility bill, or even to put food on the table.

The Roaring Fork School District’s Family Resource Center (FRC) is available to handle any number of non-academic questions, needs, problems and hurdles that confront students and families in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. Especially during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the FRC became a trusted, go-to resource for hundreds of families who were faced with challenges they’d never imagined before.

Now, the Garfield County RE-2 District, which runs public schools in New Castle, Silt and Rifle, is creating its own FRC. The new operation is headquartered in the old Rifle High School on Railroad Avenue in the center of town. Family Resource Center Coordinator Amanda Vaughn, who seems born to do exactly this kind of work, is busily preparing the space to welcome students and parents, to listen carefully and to solve problems.

“We’ll be able to listen to these kids and they’ll feel heard,” Vaughn said. “They’ll have one door to walk through and they’ll find someone who will listen to what’s happening with them. From there they’ll get some directions and next steps.”

Of course, the district has teachers and counselors at each school who are well-acquainted with the students, but now a team of “family liaisons” will be on hand to refer struggling students and families to whatever resources or supports they need. Two new liaisons are expected to begin work on Dec. 1.

“Students cannot learn if they are hungry or if they live, for example, in a domestic violence situation,” Program Secretary Katie Westcott said. “We see behaviors in the classroom, we see truancy, all these things that need to be addressed. By figuring out these students’ needs and being able to case-manage and follow through, hopefully we can make everyone’s life easier.”

Westcott and Vaughn have worked together before, filling similar roles for Garfield County Human Services and the nonprofit YouthZone. They helped families from Carbondale to Parachute to find everything from food to rent money to counseling, day care and more. They also noticed over time that most of the need was coming from the middle portion of the county between New Castle and Rifle.

They weren’t exactly sure why, but it so happened that family resource centers were well-established in Glenwood and Carbondale on the eastern edge of the county, and the Garfield 16 school district had started its own FRC out west in Parachute. So, essentially, most of the cries for help were coming from region served by the RE-2 district.

“I think there are a lot of services in the area, but they aren’t often connected to each other,” Westcott said. “So maybe people don’t know they can get help, or there’s no one-stop shop to find these resources.”

One-stop shopping is exactly what a school-based FRC offers to struggling families. In the Parachute center, Vaughn said, there’s a clothing closet and a food pantry. And there are meeting spaces where students or parents can meet with counselors, advisors or case managers. So, whether your family needs a language tutor, a winter parka or some financial advice, it can all get started, and possibly addressed, at a family resource center.

“Before, when we had kids with needs that prevented them from actively engaging in learning, those families just had to figure It out on their own,” Vaughn said. “Now a parent or student can walk through that door and they’ll be met by Katie, who can direct them to me or a liaison, who will sit down with them and ask, ‘Tell me what brings you here today.'”

The family resource center is a proven model that has propagated around the region because it works. The Aspen Community Foundation granted money to help establish this program, and we look forward to seeing the results.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.

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