By Debra Kuzbik
SSTA Research Centre Report #02-04: 35 pages, $11
Factors That Put Children At-RiskPart II: Research Design and Methodology
Purpose and Significance of the StudyPart III: New Stories, Strong Voices--Implications For The Future
Community Gathering PlacesReferences
This report is a summary of a Master’s thesis by Debra Kuzbik, University of Saskatchewan.
Over the past decade, an increasing number of students have come to school with problems such as family instability, abuse and violence in the home, alcohol and substance abuse, hunger, poverty, and criminal activity that not only affect a child’s ability to learn, but also limit his or her daily quality of life. According to the Government of Saskatchewan (1993) as many as 40 per cent of students are experiencing social, emotional, health, and developmental problems. These problems put children “at-risk” of failure, of dropping out of school, and jeopardize their chances for future success. Many children at-risk require interventions that go far beyond the scope and expertise of the classroom teacher. Teachers, as well as families at-risk, need to be able to connect with appropriate community agencies to provide the necessary resources, services, and interventions.
The purpose of this inquiry was to explore and examine the availability, use, and barriers to access to community resources and services for families at-risk. It explored how the availability and use of community resources and services have supported or marginalized at-risk families. Through personal narratives, three families at-risk have shared the stories of their community lives with me. Their stories have provided insight and understanding into ways to connect with vulnerable families, the role that the school and the community can play in supporting them, and the importance of developing personal relationships with the people that we, as human service providers, assist. In addition, several specific recommendations, models of intervention, and challenges facing community services emerged from this study.
This report provides a brief review of the literature, an overview of the findings of this inquiry, and a discussion of the findings and their implications for educational decision-makers and boards of education.
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|Researchers and educators alike recognize the fact that school is only
one of several social institutions that educate, or fail to educate, children.
Families and communities, along with schools, are the educational pillars
in society (Pallas, 1989). Each component has an effect on children
and is an essential factor in every child’s healthy development.
However, an increasing number of children are experiencing social, emotional,
health, and developmental problems that put them “at-risk” of failure.
If we are to help children at-risk break out of the cycles of poverty,
abuse, alcoholism, and violence that so many are caught in, it is imperative
that we forge connections and build bridges between the school, the home,
and the community. It is not enough, however, to simply erect the bridges.
They must be built on a solid foundation of trust, mutual respect, and
equity if we expect families at-risk to attempt to cross the abyss of hopelessness
and despair that often swirls below. And then we must seek out the
voices of the overlooked and marginalized families, and together work to
create conditions that empower, enable, and bring dignity to their lives.
In School Plus - A Vision for Children and Youth, Dr. Michael Tymchak describes “tectonic forces” such as poverty, family changes, pupil mobility, and rural depopulation that have combined to create instability and disequilibria in Saskatchewan schools. School boards are facing the enormous challenge of providing more and varied services to a declining and increasingly transient population of students. Our schools have attempted to respond to these changes, most notably through the community school initiative. However, more needs to be done if we are going to be able to continue to provide high quality public education that meets the needs of all the children of our province.
This document provides a summary of the research literature associated with risk factors and effective interventions. It also reports a narrative inquiry (Kuzbik, 2001) that examines the availability, use, and barriers to access to community resources and services for families at-risk. It concludes with a discussion of the findings and implications for educational decision-makers and boards of education.
schools are essential
facors in every
Support for at-risk
School boards are
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Part I: The Literature Review
Factors That Put
|According to Donnelly (1987), at-risk students are those who do not
experience success in school. They are usually low academic achievers,
exhibit low self-esteem, and most are male. Building Communities
of Hope (Government of Saskatchewan, 1996), Saskatchewan Education’s
Community Schools policy and conceptual framework manual, uses the term
“at-risk” to describe the growing number of Saskatchewan children who,
“for social and economic reasons, face barriers to success in school and
life” (p.2). Generally, these students come from poor families.
They often display behavior and truancy problems and lack social skills.
Pallas (1989) describes five social factors associated with school failure.
He points out that the presence of multiple risk factors increases the
likelihood of failure. Even though the presence of these factors increases
the likelihood of failure, they are not definitive. While there are families
who are able to overcome the hardship and barriers and raise their children
capably, a growing body of research from around the world supports Pallas’
findings and shows that children exposed to multiple risk factors generally
do less well than children in more positive circumstances (Landy &
Tam, 1998; Rutter, 1990; Werner & Smith, 1992).
Poverty has been shown to be a significant risk factor (Offord & Lipman, 1996; Zyblock, 1996). The effects of chronic poverty have been reported to be twice that of poverty that is more transient. Poor children are more likely to perform unsuccessfully in school and to drop out than children from higher income households.
Not only school achievement, but also health, behavior, and social skills, participation in sports and recreation, and family functioning are all affected by poverty. Poor children’s lives are disrupted, stressed, and limited by a lack of financial resources. Poor families struggle to make ends meet, to find affordable housing, and to hold down shift-work or low-paying jobs, or to cope with welfare. Living at this level of poverty means that the family is constantly struggling to provide children with their basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing. Poverty may also mean living in subsidized, substandard housing in violent neighbourhoods. And not only do parents living in poverty find it difficult to meet their children’s basic needs, they often find it difficult to talk to, spend time with, and read to their children. Nurturing interactions and enriching experiences may be difficult or impossible to provide.
Cohen (1993) discovered a strong link between family income levels and children’s I.Q. scores. Children who lived in persistent poverty during their first five years averaged 9.1 points lower on an I.Q. test than children whose families were not impoverished. Furthermore, young children living in persistent poverty are twice as likely to have lower I.Q. levels and to have behavior problems (Brooks-Gunn, Klebanov, & Duncan, 1996). According to The National Council of Welfare, Minister of Supply and Services Canada (1995), Saskatchewan has the second highest rate of child poverty in Canada (23%).
2. Race and Ethnicity
Children from minority backgrounds are at greater risk of dropping out. By the year 2011, one-third of the school children in Saskatchewan will be of Aboriginal ancestry (Saskatchewan School Trustees Association, 1991). Although it is believed that the number of school-aged children in Saskatchewan will decline in the next few years, the number of Aboriginal children will almost double (Saskatchewan School Trustees Association, 1991).
3. Family Composition
Lone-parent households are likely to have higher rates of poverty. According to Saskatchewan 2000 (Saskatchewan School Trustees Association, 1991), increases in the rate of divorce, the number of lone-parent households, and the number of teen pregnancies are anticipated, all of which are risk factors for school failure.
4. Mother’s Education
The children of highly educated mothers do better in school and stay there longer. Saskatchewan has the third highest number of births to teen-aged mothers in Canada after Newfoundland and the Northwest Territories (Saskatchewan School Trustees Association, 1991). Teen mothers are less likely to stay in school, putting their children at-risk of school failure.
5. Language Background
English-as-second-language (ESL) children face barriers to success in schools where English is the language of instruction.
There are, however, a number of researchers (Hixson & Tinzmann, 1990) who believe that the degree to which a student may be at risk of failure cannot be adequately determined by the simple existence of one or more predetermined characteristics. They point out that the over-generalizing of risk factors does not provide adequate guidance to develop specific interventions. It has been my experience, however, that poverty tends to be the common factor among at-risk students and often compounds other factors.
Pallas (1989) points out that education is a process that occurs both inside and outside of schools. Schools, along with families and communities, are the key educating institutions in western society. Hixson and Tinzmann (1990) suggest that instead of finger-pointing and blaming each other for failure to educate, the three educational institutions--the home, the school, and the community-should adopt an “ecological approach” that recognizes that education is affected, as opposed to determined, by:
Teachers face increasingly complex challenges, trying to meet the needs of at-risk students. How do they provide a responsive, inclusive, academically challenging learning environment while addressing the health, social, and justice issues that many at-risk students bring to school? What can teachers do to build stable, safe, and supportive communities around and within schools, so that students can achieve their potential and be successful? Much research points to parental involvement as one way to address these concerns (Henderson, 1988; Swick, 1992; Renihan & Renihan, 1994; Checkley, 1998).
|For social and
at-risk students face
barriers to success
in school and life.
Poverty has been
A link exists
A mother's level of
Poverty tends to be a
The responsibility for
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Parents as Partners
|Building Communities of Hope (Government of Saskatchewan, 1996)
recognizes the need for a stronger voice from parents. Focusing on
“capacity-building, which includes developing leadership skills and achieving
full and meaningful participation of parents,” (p.8) fosters shared responsibility
for the success of students.
Henderson (1988) notes that children whose parents are involved in their schooling have many advantages. They have better grades, higher test scores, long-term academic achievement, more positive attitudes, and fewer behavior problems than children whose parents are not actively involved in and supportive of their child’s education.
Parental involvement, however, can take several forms. Renihan and Renihan (1994) describe varying degrees of parent participation: a) parents as passive audience, b) parents as supporters, c) parents as advisors, and d) parents as collaborators. They argue that each level of involvement has implications for administrators and teachers. Many at-risk families fall into the first category–that of passive audience or uninvolved, uninterested spectators. The challenge lies in first identifying, and then removing, the barriers to parental participation. Feelings of inadequacy, failure, and low self-esteem may prevent at-risk parents from participating in their children’s schooling (Liontos, 1991). Many First Nations parents harbor negative feelings toward school, based on their own school experiences of racism, intolerance, and abuse at the hand of school authorities. Logistical problems such as lack of transportation or childcare may make it difficult or impossible for at-risk families to become involved at school. Lewis (1992) points out that what many educators may interpret as lack of parental interest is, in fact, a feeling of alienation from the school.
According to Liontos (1991), schools must adopt beliefs and premises that help to remove the obstacles to at-risk parental involvement:
Checkley (1998) advocates a family-centered approach to learning which strives to involve parents in schooling while also supporting the family. For example, parents who spend an afternoon in their child’s kindergarten class are given additional activities to further their child’s development at home. This approach acknowledges that “if children are to be truly successful in school, their parents must be involved in their education” (p.4).
According to the literature, the most effective form of parental involvement is based on a model of collaborative partnership. Research has identified parental attributes that support meaningful partnerships. Swick (1992) cites warmth, sensitivity, nurturance, positive self-image, and effective interpersonal skills among the required characteristics. As well, family stability, a history of successful prior collaborations, and openness to new ideas have also been related to parental competence and the promotion of effective partnerships (Swick, 1991). Not surprisingly, the lack of many of these qualities is the very factor that puts students at risk of failure.
In order to foster partnerships between teachers and parents and develop the required attributes in both parents and teachers, Swick (1992) advocates an “action-oriented philosophy of family-school support and nurturance” (p.3). He goes on to point out that since collaborative partnerships are developmental in nature, a framework to structure and support the process is necessary. Comer and Haynes (1991) stress that each teacher-parent partnership is and should be unique and, therefore, elements such as needs assessment, goal setting, prioritization of activities, strategy development, implementation plans, and evaluation tools must not be built only into the framework of the partnership, but also directly relate to the needs and interests of the parents and the unique situation of each school.
Swick (1992) notes that true collaborative efforts between teachers and parents will naturally evolve into family-centred schools. Together, parents and teachers will develop a “curriculum for caring” (p.4) which focuses on self-image, social interactions and relationships, multicultural understandings, nurturing and positive discipline, and creative problem-solving strategies.
All the available literature supports the importance of parental involvement as a significant factor in student achievement. Much of the research centres on effective programming and strategies to involve at-risk parents such as home visits, frequent telephone calls, and meetings in neutral locations (Peterson, 1989). However, as Lewis (1992) points out, most of the literature not only defines parental involvement solely from the school’s perspective, it also dictates what parents should do.
|In order to
must first be
identified and then
Past negative school
Families come in
The most effective
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Effective School Interventions
|The Community School model provides direction for teachers, families,
and communities to work together. At Saskatchewan Community School,
integrated health, justice, and social services attempt to work with educators
to provide services for families. Although the integrated approach is supported,
it is not always successful because of a lack of funding, poor communication,
and overwhelming caseloads. Parents are welcomed as partners in their
children’s education and the notion that it takes a community to raise
a child is promoted.
Although many of the new strategies I have learned, designed specifically to meet the needs of at-risk children and based on current research literature, have proven to be very effective, there are still a number of children who continue to fall through the cracks. These are the children for whom abuse, neglect, alcoholism, drugs, and criminal activity are a fact of life. They are the throw-aways, kids that no one wants and no one has any hope for. And yet, every child, no matter how disadvantaged or how disenfranchised, deserves the opportunity to reach his or her potential. The school, however, cannot function alone to support, educate, and raise these children. The larger community must accept its responsibility as a stakeholder in these young lives.
This is not always
of a lack of
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Connecting with At-Risk
|Much research on children at-risk has focused on interventions and
strategies that connect home and school. At Saskatchewan Community
School, the staff has incorporated many of these strategies into the school
For example, Donnelly (1987) suggests that children at-risk are more likely to be successful at school in programs that separate them from other students, have low pupil-teacher ratios, and allow the students easy access to other services such as nutrition programs, counseling, or health and dental care. As well, multi-age or multi-grade classrooms are proving to be successful with at-risk students. These classes are often structured so that a student will remain with one teacher for two or three years. A relationship built on trust, respect, and care develops between the teacher and the student that enables the student to achieve success.
Siblings are often grouped together in multi-age classrooms so that family relationships can be fostered. Multi-age classrooms are learning-centred and encourage children to progress at their own speed. They are not curriculum or grade-level bound, but rather focus on interdisciplinary, thematic learning experiences (Politano & Davies, 1994).
separate them from
have low PTR's,
and provide access
to other human
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Connecting with At-Risk
|According to Building Communities of Hope (Government of Saskatchewan,
1996), “for students at-risk, parent involvement in the learning process
has been identified as the single most important determinant of success”
(p.8). If these children are to succeed, the families must value
the importance of education as the path to a better future and be supportive
of and actively involved in their children’s school.
At Saskatchewan Community School, the need to connect with the home as an equally important educational pillar and involve at-risk families in school activities is a priority. The staff regularly plans and hosts events such as community suppers, craft sales, weekly family gym night, and parenting, cooking and computer classes, that not only meet the needs of families but also help to make them feel comfortable and a part of the school community.
One particularly effective strategy has been bi-weekly or monthly classroom Parent Parties. Students invite their parents to come to a “party” for an hour on Friday afternoon. The format is simple and informal and younger siblings are always welcome. The children might perform two or three songs, poems or choral pieces pertaining to a theme they have just completed. Sometimes they read stories they have published. They might make a craft together. A Parents’ Party can simply be an hour of shared reading between parent and child or it can be a simulated flight to the moon, complete with parents acting as lunar hosts and hostesses as they guide children through a variety of learning activities. Before the party ends, the children serve a snack and refreshments to their parents. The informal, social atmosphere of the Parents’ Party puts parents at ease and can be the first step to a meaningful partnership with at-risk parents.
The need to
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Connecting With the Community
|At Saskatchewan Community School, a multi-level/multi-age Bridges program
was designed to specifically meet the needs of children who were not succeeding
in the regular classrooms. Level One Bridges served children aged
eight to ten, Level Two encompassed ages ten to twelve, and Level Three
was designed for students aged thirteen to sixteen. Flexible guidelines
and criteria for placement were established. The development of behavior
and social skills as well as building self-esteem, self-confidence, and
establishing a trust relationship are all integral parts of the Bridges
Through the Bridges program, the school also attempts to connect with the third pillar of education, the community. The teachers and teacher associates of Level Two Bridges have developed a community-based curriculum for their students. Through community projects, the students learn not only information and skills, but more importantly, they learn how to become pro-active and collaborative problem-solvers. They are encouraged to interact with people of all ages and walks of life. Examples of the projects students engage in include growing trees for a local tree nursery, looking after senior citizens’ yards, and writing books for pre-school and kindergarten children.
After touring a local bank, the students made and sold crafts in order to earn money to open a bank account. Two of the students have signing authority. Additional money earned throughout the year by selling hotdogs and hosting bake sales was used for a year-end trip.
Another community project took the students to a local restaurant. They learned about the various jobs people had there and the manager visited them at school to advise them how to set up their own in-class restaurant. The students then prepared and printed a menu, cooked the necessary food, decorated their classroom (complete with candlelit tables), and invited their parents to come for dinner. Students acted as waiters, chefs, busboys, and hosts and hostesses. Each parent was given Monopoly money to purchase his or her dinner. Parents and other invited guests were so impressed with the quality of “The Rainbow Inn” that the students received many thank-you cards and even bouquets of flowers.
The real-life learning of these projects is essential for children at-risk. Many of them have never been to a bank or a restaurant. Access to the business community, which we take for granted, is foreign to students at-risk. But more important is the enhanced self-esteem the students experience simply by being successful, by being engaged in meaningful, authentic learning experiences, and by contributing to their community through service.
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Communities as Partners
|Although the community at large is considered to be a partner in education,
research in this area is sparse. Of the past research that has been
undertaken, most is quantitative in nature, American-based, and focused
mainly on the negative impact of community characteristics such as drug
abuse, delinquency, child abuse, sexual activity and drop-out rates (Simcha-Fagan
& Schwartz, 1986; Crane, 1991; Brewster, Billy & Grady, 1993).
Much of the research on community resource availability, use, and barriers to access focuses on problems associated with poverty. Kupersmidt et al. (1995) and Boyle et al. (1998) conclude that living in a low-income home increases a child’s risk of aggression, and fosters poor peer relations and antisocial behavior. As well, children are more likely to have behavior or emotional problems and hyperactivity if they come from a neighbourhood with a high percentage of lone-parent families.
Drug involvement and child maltreatment rates have also been linked to poverty. Poor neighbourhoods and unstable family relationships have been found to be associated with increased drug use (Brook, Nomura & Cohen, 1989), while areas with the highest rates of child abuse are communities experiencing poverty, unemployment, and female-headed households (Coulton, Korbin, Su & Chow, 1995). Conversely, the absence of poverty, two-parent families, and affluent neighbours have been found to enhance and promote healthy child development (Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, Klebanov & Sealand, 1993).
Some research has explored the relationship between the community and school readiness and attainment (Garner & Raudenbush, 1991). Neighbourhood socio-economic characteristics such as lack of safety, poverty, and lone female-headed households appear to inhibit preschoolers’ verbal ability scores, whereas high-income levels and maternal education have been associated with higher verbal ability scores. Garner and Raudenbush (1991) found that unemployed, uneducated parents have a negative influence on the school achievement levels of their children. Chase-Lansdale et al. (1997) found that children in neighbourhoods with high socio-economic status and racial similarity showed higher levels of cognitive functioning.
In one study, the influence of sports, the arts, and community programs was assessed. Offord et al. (1998) found that emotional or behavior disorders decrease if young children participate in sports or the arts. They also found that generally participation rates were low, with the lowest participation among children from lone-parent families and low-income families.
The current research has not startled educators with any new insights or revelations. Children in affluent neighbourhoods and communities with rich resources and diverse programs and services will benefit positively, have fewer behavior and social problems, and achieve better at school. Children who live in poor neighbourhoods and communities are put at-risk.
However, the mere presence of appropriate, high-quality community resources is not enough to support healthy child development. If resources are not used, or used infrequently, they will be of little value. While examining community resources, it is important to also examine barriers to access that often prevent families from taking full advantage of the services and programs that are available.
|Most research on
focused on drug
child abuse, sexual
activity, and drop-
The absence of
Emotional or behavior
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Part II: Research Design and Methodology
Purpose and Significance
of the Study
|The purpose of this inquiry is to explore and examine the availability,
use, and barriers to access to community resources for at-risk families.
A collaborative, narrative inquiry was conducted to amplify the voices
of three families at-risk. By helping families at-risk find their voice
and by listening to their stories, it is my hope that understandings can
be extended, problems can be resolved, lives can be enhanced, and our community
can be strengthened.
The information provided by this inquiry extends previous research on students at-risk and their families. Much of the previous research has concentrated on classroom management, teaching strategies, and connecting with families as effective at-risk interventions. Most has been quantitative in nature. Little qualitative research has explored the influence of community resources, particularly on the lives of at-risk families, and from the perspective of the families themselves.
Children at-risk present special challenges to classroom teachers. As well as behavior and social problems and a lack of self-esteem, children at-risk often have a limited attention span, are easily distracted and frustrated, have difficulty retaining information, and are unwilling to challenge themselves. They often display a negative attitude toward school, their classmates, and themselves. Because risk factors are usually compound and inter-related, these students may also suffer from fetal alcohol effects (FAE) or fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), attention deficit disorder, or come from abusive or neglectful backgrounds.
|By listening to the
stories of families at-
can be extended,
problems can be
resolved, lives can be
enhanced, and our
community can be
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|My role is that of research facilitator--like good teaching, effective
research is not something done to participants, but done with them.
Stringer (1996) describes an evolving approach to qualitative inquiry “that
seeks to engage ‘subjects’ as equal and full participants in the research
I believe that much of the frustration felt by teachers of children at-risk is a result of powerlessness to change or eliminate the factors that are putting children at-risk. Although teachers cannot change the circumstances of a child’s life or influence the environment in which he or she must live, they can make a difference by helping to facilitate change through collaborative inquiry.
I selected several different data-collection techniques in order to triangulate my findings. Triangulation not only validates qualitative research, but also helps to eliminate any bias that may result from relying on any one data-collection method (Gall, Borg & Gall, 1996). Data were collected in the form of a) field notes, b) journal entries, c) informal conversations with the parent participants, and d) semi-structured interviews with both student and parent participants.
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Who are the Participants?
|The student participants for this inquiry were selected from the Level One Bridges program. Three boys and their families agreed to participate in the research. For a year and a half I was their teacher in the Bridges program and it was my relationship with them as their teacher that provided the window into their lives. All three boys face multiple risk factors, both at home and at school. These include language delay, attention deficit disorder, fetal alcohol effects, social and behavioral problems, and family dysfunction. As I worked with the boys, it became apparent that, if we were to achieve any measure of success, it would be necessary to connect with their families and make them a part of the children’s school lives. The community school activities such as community dinners, craft sales, and Parent Parties described in Part II provided an opportunity to establish a relationship with the boys’ families. However, as I got to know the families better, I also glimpsed the dysfunction and problems that each family was experiencing. Even though the school and the families were able to connect and form a partnership, interventions were required that were far beyond those provided by the school. From my perspective as a teacher, each family had a strong need to connect with the third educational pillar—the community.||Three boys from the
Level One Bridges
program and their
families agreed to
participate in the
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Donna and Joel
|Donna and her husband, Allan, live on a First Nations Reserve with
their five children. They are of Cree ancestry. Joel, age ten,
is the youngest. The children attend school in the city, however, their
community life is centred in the First Nations Reserve.
Although my relationship with Donna was perhaps the least satisfying and, at times, the most frustrating, there was much to be learned from my association with her. From Donna, I learned to accept the fact that not everyone wants or perceives the need for community intervention. Donna’s community life revolves around the First Nations Reserve where she lives. She and her family participate in cultural activities such as sweat lodges and pow-wows. She is close to her extended family and occasionally works at the café/gas bar on her Reserve. Although unemployed for most of the year, her husband, Allan, works during the summer looking after a small herd of buffalo on the Reserve.
Both Donna and Allan have problems related to substance abuse. They are responsible for refilling Joel’s Ritalin prescription and sending it to school, where it is administered. Often, however, there is a one or two- week delay in refilling the prescription, and many times the bottle comes to school half empty. Although Donna and Allan are both relatively involved in, and concerned about, their children’s well-being and education, they both lack parenting skills, and are not overly concerned about the on-going problems that arise at school. Neither of them saw a need for any change in their lives; nor did they see a better or different life for their children.
My position was probably a barrier between Donna and me. Because Donna seemed reluctant to meet with me at a coffee shop, even though I offered to drive out to the café on the Reserve, our interview was held at the school rather than at a neutral location. This may have contributed to Donna’s unease. We were not really able to connect as two women or co-create new understandings that might empower or strengthen either of us. From my perspective, Donna appears adrift, unfocused, unsure of her future. During our interview, Donna covered her mouth with her hand, and hardly spoke above a whisper. She has not found her voice, nor taken ownership of it. However, Donna is not dissatisfied with her lot in life. She relies on her cultural identity and the support of her family to bring meaning and purpose to her life. She accepts things as they are.
|Donna and her
live on a First
with their five
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Vivian and Robert
|Vivian and her husband, Len, have been divorced for several years.
She lives just north of the city next to a trailer court with three of
her five children. Robert’s father was physically abusive toward
Vivian for many years. Robert had been witness to this violence many
times. Although he now resides in a different city, Len still exerts
considerable influence on the household. Robert’s oldest brother
has a history of criminal offences and has served time in jail. One
twenty-year-old sister, Wendy, has a two-year-old daughter and a newborn.
Recently they found their own place to live. Currently, Robert lives
with his mother, Vivian, Wendy’s twin, Cathy, and a fifteen-year-old brother,
Johnny. Vivian has participated in a number of upgrading classes
and work placement programs.
Of the three families, Vivian’s relied the most on community services and resources, and yet, was poorly served by them. Vivian’s encounters with health, social services, and the judicial system were fraught with poor communication, lack of understanding, and an unwillingness on the part of the service providers to work together. Through my collaboration with Vivian, it became clear that it is not possible to treat one family member in isolation or deal with one family problem at a time. If families at-risk are to be served by the community, a model of community service must be developed that adopts a holistic view of wellness and intervention. In my view, Vivian, on the other hand, is working hard to improve her life and the lives of her children. She embraced our partnership, and actively solicited my help and support. In my relationship with Vivian, my role was one of advocate and liaison with community services.
|Vivian, a divorced
just north of the city
with three of her five
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Luke and Mitch
|Luke, a single parent of Dene ancestry, is completing high school and
taking part in a work placement program. Four years ago, he left
an abusive relationship in northern Saskatchewan and moved to Prince Albert.
Because of a lack of affordable housing, he and Mitch have been forced
to move several times. The fact that English is a second language
for both of them has been a barrier, both in the community and at school.
From my perspective, Luke and Mitch are on the most difficult journey. They face many barriers in the community: English as a second language, single parenthood, lack of education, inadequate housing, no support system, and Mitch’s history of abuse at the hands of his mother. And yet, Luke’s resilience, self-reliance, and willingness to take control of his life have largely overcome the obstacles he and Mitch face. Life is not easy for either of them, but they are committed to a better future.
|Luke and his son
Mitch have faced
barriers in both the
community and at
English is their
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|Initially, I was disappointed in the results of my interviews with
the student participants. All the students were intimidated by the
tape recorder. Prior to each interview, I had explained to the students
the types of questions I would be asking them and encouraged them to speak
freely and at length. Mitch had lots to tell me during our “ice-breaker”
conversation but completely clammed up once the tape recorder was turned
on. As well, it was difficult to get the students to offer more than
one or two-word answers to each question. All three were reluctant
to elaborate, explain their answers, or offer an opinion. I felt
that my understanding of and insights into the lives of the student participants
were obtained through our classroom interactions and informal, unrecorded
As I reread the interview transcripts, however, a couple of patterns began to emerge. When the students described the things they liked best about school, all mentioned gym and field trips that involved physical activities such as hiking and swimming. As well the boys liked computers, math, and drawing. Generally, they liked coming to school and felt it was important. When asked why they needed to go to school, Mitch said to “help you learn how to read.” When asked why he needed to learn to read, Mitch responded, “So that you can be a police.” Robert felt he needed to go to school “to learn” so that he could “get a job.” Joel thought that going to school would make him “smarter” so that he could “go up to different classes.”
Another interesting pattern was the fact that the students did not talk about school with their parents in any significant way. Robert indicated that “sometimes he would talk about “stuff, whatever” that pertained to school. Joel responded that he never took school work home, although work samples were regularly sent with him. This indicates to me that perhaps school is not valued in the students’ homes. Although education in general may be seen as a means of getting a job in later life, learning is not valued nor seen as a life-long pursuit.
of and insights into
the lives of the
Although all three boys
Learning is not
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Part III: New Stories, Strong Voicse - Implication for the Future
Community Gathering Places
|My relationship with the participants began at Saskatchewan Community
School when I was the student participants’ teacher. Through the
children, I was able to connect with their families, and together, we explored
connections to the community around us. They discussed with me how
community resources served their needs or presented barriers to them.
For both the participants and me, the school was a main focus in our lives. Although the community school model did serve the participants’ needs to a certain extent, after listening to their voices, it is possible that the needs of the participants might be better served through an expanded and enhanced community school model. In the discussion that follows, I will describe an enhanced community school model as well as other options to serve community needs such as community centres, the wellness model and First Nations services.
It is possible that the
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The Community School Model
|Over the past twenty years, the number of community schools has grown
from seventeen in 1980 to include thirty-one schools in Saskatchewan in
2000. According to Building Communities of Hope (Government of Saskatchewan,
1996), community schools “are founded upon a tradition of community education,
which in turn has its roots in community development” (p.4). In the
community school framework, the student is “the heart of the school and
the centre of all activity” (p.13). The student is surrounded and
supported by four key components:
a) the learning program,In the community school model, the four key components are planned and evaluated by the school staff and the parents’ council. Integral to the model are the development of an effective staff team and the creation of a supportive and affirming school culture and climate. Educational excellence, co-operation, equity, empowerment, and accountability are all guiding principles.
Community schools strive to provide a responsive, inclusive, culturally affirming, and academically challenging learning environment. The school acts as a hub for a network of community organizations and activities that foster the development and well-being of the entire community. The community school is the centre, the heartbeat, of its neighbourhood and draws on resources, supports, and ongoing renewal from the surrounding community.
For Donna, Vivian, and Luke, the community school is a gathering place where their input is valued and solicited and, in return, their own educational needs can be met, and social supports can be provided. All three of them frequently participated in the activities at Saskatchewan Community School. However, all three families have needs that could be addressed through an expanded vision of the community school model. Recent research by McCain and Mustard (1999) support an enhanced and expanded vision of the community school model.
|In the community
school model, the
student is the heart
of the school and the
centre of all activity.
The early years
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An Enhanced Community
|In the Early Years Study, commissioned by the Province of Ontario in
the spring of 1998 to provide strategies for preparing Ontario’s pre-school
children for academic, career, and social success, McCain and Mustard (1999)
conclude that “the early years from conception to age six have the most
important influence of any time in the life cycle on brain development
and subsequent learning, behavior and health”(p.7). However, they
add that “society’s support for early child development is dependent on
the understanding and appreciation among all members of society of the
fundamental importance of the early period of human development”(p.23).
It is critical that parents of young children become informed about the
importance of this period of life in order to make appropriate parenting
decisions and have their voices heard by the institutions designed to support
McCain and Mustard (1999) suggest several ways to empower and inform families. One way to strengthen families is the establishment of child development and parenting centres in each community.
Operating at the local level within a provincial framework, these centres would provide a variety of adult and child educational programs and activities that are readily available, affordable and accessible. For example, parents could receive prenatal education and postpartum support. Children could take part with other children and adults in early childhood development activities that are play-based, problem-solving, learning programs. Quality programs on family literacy and numeracy, parenting skills, and technological literacy are just a few of the possible options that could be made available, but the needs of each community should determine both the structure of the centre and the type of programming offered. Connections to other community institutions such as libraries, recreational facilities, and cultural activities should be fostered.
McCain and Mustard (1999) stress that the structure of early childhood development and parenting centres must be “sensitive and responsive to local communities--there is no single institutional structure”(p.21). The centres must also be inclusive, sensitive to cultural diversity, and promote equal opportunity for optimal development for all young children. As well, they advocate centres that include active out-reach and home visiting for families who need additional support.
It makes sense to locate the early childhood development and parenting centres in local, neighbourhood community schools if possible. Neighbourhood schools are a logical choice because they serve the at-risk families who would benefit most from the early childhood development and parenting centres. Not only is the facility already in place, neighbourhood community schools are available, accessible, and affordable. As well, at-risk parents may establish an early relationship with the neighbourhood community school that will carry on through their children’s school career. It can provide parents with an opportunity not only to become informed about early child development and best parenting practices, but also to become partners in their children’s education.
Health care workers, and other human service providers could also be stationed at a parenting centre. A social worker, therapist, counselor, and justice liaison could all work out of a community school parenting centre.
Over the course of this inquiry, Vivian worked with three different social workers, two therapists, two doctors, and numerous nurses, teachers and counselors. Meetings and appointments with these various community agencies took place in a variety of locations throughout the city. It was impossible to get all team members together for any one meeting. Imagine how much simpler life would be for Vivian if she had access to all these services in one central location. Vivian’s mistrust and Robert’s hatred of social services could have been avoided if they worked together daily in the same community school. Not only would access to services be enhanced for Vivian and her family, communication among the human-service team members would be fostered and genuine relationships established.
An expanded parenting centre could also help meet parents’ educational needs. When Donna completes her GED, she plans to enroll in computer classes. These classes could easily be provided at the community school. Not only is the equipment available in the evenings, many teachers are willing to teach night classes, and often do at local community colleges.
Luke would benefit from family literacy classes and a single-parent or single-father support group. The parenting centre could serve as a drop-in and meeting place for parents like Luke to discuss mutual concerns, and provide an opportunity for classes in parenting, life skills, household budgeting, nutrition, and fitness. Something as simple as a bulletin board where parents could share information about things such as child-care services, job opportunities, and community resources would benefit all.
The collaborative teamwork necessary to implement an expanded community school model is a challenge, but a goal well worth striving for. Not only will families benefit from the immediacy of services and support networks, children will see their parents at school as role models for life-long learning. Instead of a patchwork of community programs working in isolation, a tapestry of partnered individuals, agencies, and institutions who understand the value of collaboration and teamwork, striving together to build a strong community, could be woven through each community school.
Teachers know that children learn in context—the context of the school, the family, and the community. For families at-risk, the expanded community school provides the best opportunity to offer early intervention, parenting support, integrated services, and the foundation for a learning community of hope for success in the future.
|Parents of young
children must be
informed about the
importance of this
period in life in
order to make
A health care
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West Flat Integrated School-Linked Services Model
|Although many of the barriers that have prevented at-risk families
from becoming partners in their children’s education have been demolished,
for some parents, schools today still represent an institution that abused
and disenfranchised them in the past. Even though Luke attends school
functions to support his son, his discomfort is evident and perhaps another
location to access integrated services would better suit his needs.
The most successful integrated service program operating in Prince Albert is housed in the West Flat Community Centre. Here Social Services, health, education, city police, and other community services collaborate to provide resources to the West Flat neighbourhood. Public health nurses operate weekly baby and seniors’ clinics. Social Services provides parenting programs twice a year. Because the local community schools offer preschool programs for four-year children, the Community Centre has modified its preschool program to a Moms and Tots program for three-year olds. Speech and language therapy and early childhood intervention programs are jointly funded by health and education. City police officers are available for counseling and other services as required. The food bank provides a weekly bread depot and there is an on-site clothing depot where families can access clothing at little or no cost. Upgrading classes are available as well as teen counseling programs.
Although the West Flat model has been successful, one limitation has been that it can only serve the immediate neighbourhood. A lack of transportation and a limit to the number of families the programs can serve prevent many families from accessing the services. Other neighbourhoods in the city need to establish their own programs in other centres.
A second limitation has been a difficulty getting all human service providers to buy into an integrated service model. The unwillingness to collaborate has implications for things such as who funds what, who is responsible for what, and who reports to whom.
|For some parents,
schools today still
them in the past.
Although the West
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The Wellness Model
|A parenting centre located at a community clinic could incorporate
the wellness model while providing integrated community services.
In Saskatchewan, health care is grounded in a philosophy of wellness that
promotes the empowerment of people to improve and to increase control over
their own health. Education, support services such as immunization,
screening programs, referrals, counseling, and a healthy social environment
are all essential components of the wellness model. A focus on prevention
and lifestyle choice are critical elements.
A parenting centre with a wellness focus could be of great benefit to Donna, Vivian and Luke. Although Donna appears unwilling to address her alcohol and drug problems, she might be willing to take advantage of addiction counseling services if they were readily available through an out-reach worker associated with a community clinic.
|A parenting centre
located at a
could incorporate the
wellness model while
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The Healing Model
|For many First Nations families, community support stems from the resources available on the Reserve where they reside. Many First Nations Reserves are establishing Healing Lodges to address the health and social issues facing their people. Joel described his participation in the Sweat Lodge ceremony and its power to cleanse and renew both body and spirit. For Donna, the road to recovery may start with participation in the cultural and spiritual ceremonies practised on her Reserve.||For many First
stems from the
on the Reserve
where they reside.
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The Strength of Many Voices
|From our conversations, it became clear to me that Donna, Luke, and
Vivian were affected by a lack of community resources. In order to
improve this situation, however, they need to take responsibility for implementing
change, and unite their voices with other community members to demand better
service and resources. In particular, each family was affected by
a lack of affordable housing and recreation.
Donna, Vivian, and Luke all pointed out that they had moved many times in the past few years. The lack of affordable, permanent housing and the resulting transience is an important issue facing each family. Poor, transient families are less likely to establish relationships with neighbours, thus decreasing the cohesiveness and safety of the community. Furthermore, children who frequently move are at greater risk of school failure, and are more likely to exhibit behavior problems and abuse substances (DeWit, Offord & Braun, 1998).
Lack of affordable housing is a serious problem. Many First Nations families from northern communities move to the city for the school year. However, over the past few years, the unavailability of suitable housing has made it impossible for northern families to do this. The housing problem will not improve unless community voices unite and demand a change. It is interesting to note that families in the area of the city with the lowest valued housing pay the same monthly rent as families who live in an area where houses are worth twice as much (Statistics Canada, 1996). Slum landlords are alive and well in this community.
Community recreational programs are often non-existent in transient neighbourhoods because of a lack of organization and commitment on the part of residents. This was pointed out by both parent and student participants. Donna mentioned that there were no recreational facilities on her First Nations Reserve. The rink is now used as a market garden and she indicated that “more facilities...would help, like a rink and maybe a gym.” Donna’s son Joel sometimes plays basketball at the pow-wow grounds and swims in the river in the summer.
This past winter, Joel was able to play in the Outdoor Hockey League, which provided equipment and ice time free of charge to Saskatchewan Community School children. This community hockey league, organized and coached by volunteer parents, is the only recreational organization of its kind in the city. Donated hockey equipment is collected and distributed to interested children through the community school. Children are organized into teams according to age and play hockey once a week on a neighbourhood outdoor rink. The city donates outdoor ice time free of charge. Information about teams, ice time, and equipment distribution is communicated to the children through the community school. For many children, it is the only opportunity they have ever had to participate in sports. I clearly remember the first time the Outdoor Hockey League was explained to the children during morning announcements. The nine and ten-year-old boys in my class were bouncing with delight and excitement. Ryan, however, put his head down on his table and began to cry. I was puzzled by his reaction. When I asked him why he was crying he said, “I never dreamed that I would ever get the chance to play hockey.”
Several times throughout our conversations, Robert expressed an interest in karate. I was able to sponsor him for karate lessons through Kidsport, an organization that provides up to $200 per year to low-income families to help cover the cost of organized sports. However, Robert moved to Alberta before he was able to begin the lessons. Mitch told me that soccer is his favorite sport and that he would like to play on a team. However, in order to play soccer, families must belong to a community association in the city and are assessed a fee. The children who could most benefit from recreation, the arts, and cultural activities are often excluded from these programs because of the expense.
Although Saskatchewan Community School offers a weekly gym night, the program could to be expanded to provide more low-cost, recreational opportunities for at-risk children. Many gyms lie dormant on week-ends and during school holiday periods. Recreational programs could be linked to the parenting centre, so that while some parents are taking computer or cooking classes, other parents are supervising children in the gym.
Even though many children face overwhelming barriers to success each and every day, research has shown that risk factors can be countered by what have been identified as protective factors (Kohen, Hertzman & Wiens, 1998). These factors have the potential to foster resilience in children at-risk and assist them endure chronic risk factors. The protective factors include: families and schools that provide a caring and nurturing environment, opportunities for children to participate in and contribute to their community, and strong external support systems that focus on the school and surrounding community. Available, accessible, and affordable neighbourhood resources for children and families such as cultural and recreational activities are essential to the health of the community.
It is also important to realize that risk is not an either/or situation. Many children face varying degrees of risk factors from time to time. The protective factors in a child’s life move him or her along the continuum of wellness from risk to resilience. Joel, Robert, and Mitch all have parents who care for and about them. There is a measure of stability in each of their lives that counters the risk factors they face.
|Each family was
affected by a lack of
The children who
Risk factors can be
Risk is not an either/or
Table of Contents
|The stories shared by the participants in this inquiry led me to an
understanding of the challenges facing community service agencies in general,
and the establishment of parenting centres in particular. Three
of the biggest challenges facing human service agencies are the fragmentation
of services, a lack of funding, and a viable model of integration.
I have described possible examples of parenting centres and the need for
families to unite their voices. In this section, I will describe three
major challenges associated with the establishment of these centres.
The first challenge is the fragmentation of community services. Even in a small city with a population of about 40,000, there are over 120 community programs targeting pre-school children. Although there are an abundance of excellent programs and community resources available for families and children, they often work in isolation from one another and needlessly duplicate services. It is not always the case that additional supports for families need to be developed; rather, it is the challenge of turning existing supports into an effective, comprehensive system. Families may be poorly served because resources are fragmented, not because they are lacking. A parenting centre could provide valuable information about the availability of community services and resources. Parents would benefit by accessing needed information and the agencies would benefit by having a convenient location to post information about their community programs.
In order to be truly effective, however, a parenting centre needs to be established and maintained by the parents who use it. The parents of the community must determine the need, find the space, plan the programs, and develop a way to sustain the parenting centre if it is to become an integral part of the community. And support for the parenting centre will have to be garnered from stakeholders and decision-makers such as school boards and participating community-services providers.
A second challenge is the issue of funding. In order to make parenting centres effective, adequate, sustainable funding must be in place to cover the costs of equipment such as coffee makers, furniture, and toys. Many items might be donated or obtained second-hand. Other expenses include duplicating services, instructors’ fees, and space rental. In some cases, the community school and/or other community agencies working out of the parenting centre might donate these items and services. Community program money may need to be reallocated or raised by the parents.
A third, probably more difficult challenge, is that of integrating services. Creating and co-ordinating a team of community service providers who work collaboratively, willingly relinquish their “turf,” and approach community service from the same holistic viewpoint will require a concerted effort on the part of all participants, and will involve a process of change over time.
A while ago, I was invited to attend a meeting hosted by the co-ordinator of public health nursing in the city. She wanted to explore ways to increase contact with at-risk families, particularly those with pre-school aged children. The number of young children being admitted to hospital over the past few months has declined sharply. Although at first glance, one might take this to be good news, the nurses pointed out that it does not mean that fewer children are getting sick. It simply means that sick children are not being taken to hospital. Barriers such as a lack of transportation, a lack of health information and poor parenting skills are preventing at-risk families from accessing a basic community resource.
One idea we explored was to develop a partnership between public health nurses and the pre-school classrooms in each community school. It was decided that the nurses would host monthly “Wellness Parties”, modeled after the successful community school “Parent Parties.” The parents of pre-schoolers would be invited to attend pre-school with their child for an afternoon of health-and-wellness-related activities, information, and refreshments. This partnership between the school and the health district can be the start of a new, collaborative relationship that will conserve scarce financial resources as well as benefit families at-risk.
The first challenge is
In order to be
A second challenge
Creating and co-
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The Importance of Relationships
|As I listened to the stories of Donna, Vivian and Luke, it became abundantly
evident that the importance of relationships in life could not be over-emphasized.
Donna finds support in the wellness group she belongs to. Luke has
developed a healthy working relationship with his employers at The Salvation
Army. Much of Vivian’s frustration and anger results from the lack
of relationships with her ex-husband, her social worker, and her doctor.
The relationships that we develop from birth are central to our well-being and development. Problems in relationships closest to a child, such as parental depression, family dysfunction, or ineffective and inconsistent parenting have the greatest influence on the well-being of a child. The quality and consistency of parenting practices are critical in healthy child development. In the face of multiple risk factors, parenting becomes even more important.
As well, relationships other than parental are also important to children, particularly if they are exposed to multiple risks. Good relationships with siblings, peers, and teachers can significantly moderate the impact of poor parenting and risk factors. However, professionals must be trained how to build long-lasting, trusting, mutually respectful relationships with at-risk families. Models of integrated service and an abundance of accessible, affordable community services and resources are rendered ineffective unless the human service providers are willing and able to establish trusting, long-lasting, mutually respectful relationships with the families they serve. Training in team-building and collaboration, conflict resolution, and anger management are but a few of the essential skills required to build solid, healthy, beneficial relationships. It is also crucial that human service providers be willing to blur the boundaries between their areas of service. If we truly believe that an integrated, holistic paradigm of human service best serves the needs of the community, then all the partners must be willing to extend and expand their boundaries, while relinquishing turf for the greater good of all.
that we develop
from birth are
central to our well-
If we truly believe that
Table of Contents
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