School, community partnership flourishes in new building

Published: Thursday, Sept. 20 2012 6:10 p.m. MDT

CLEARFIELD — A unique community partnership was strengthened Thursday when officials at Wasatch Elementary School in Clearfield and the Davis Community Learning Center celebrated the ribbon-cutting of the new building they share. 

Wasatch Elementary Principal Janet Sumner said the center plays a crucial role in advancing the education of children in the community by reaching out to and providing services for parents and families. Her school's boundaries include a large number of students who come from low-income or single-parent homes, or households where English is spoken as a second language, if at all.

"As we work with the kids educationally, very frequently we find that partly why we're having a hard time with behavior or academics stems from things that are happening in the home," she said.

Last year, 68 percent of students at Wasatch Elementary qualified for free or reduced lunch. A recent boundary change added 150 students to the school, which caused the low-income percentage to fall below 60 percent while the total number of struggling families stayed the same.

"It changed the percentage but it didn't change any of the people," Sumner said.

The school, through grants, has put in place programs like before- and after-school tutoring to give extra help to students and offer some relief to working parents, she said. But to really reach out to parents and have an effect in the home, she said, the school needs the resources of the Community Learning Center.

The center has partnered with Wasatch Elementary for the past four years, but prior to the construction of the new school, the Davis Community Learning Center was a double-wide portable classroom on Wasatch's grounds.

The center is funded through donations and grants, with the lion's share of its support coming from the United Way of Salt Lake City, center coordinator Merri Ann Perkins said. In addition to Perkins, the center has three part-time staff members who rely on the help of community partners and volunteers to provide English classes, GED courses, tax help and Head Start preschooling.

"It's all about becoming independent and being able to support their families," Perkins said.

New this year, the center will hold a number of workshops on topics like parenting skills, citizenship and nutritional cooking. The center also partners with the Midtown Clinic to help families with their medical expenses and works with community donors to provide clothing and school supplies for low-income children.

"They've got a closet that blows your mind," Sumner said. "We have kids that come and sometimes you look down at them and their shoes are falling off their feet — literally. And we can say, 'Oh, let's walk over to the community center and we can get you some new shoes.'"

Perkins said the center's new home in the Wasatch Elementary building allows for a more seamless partnership with the district in helping students and their parents. From her experience before coming to the center, public and private service organizations are often forced to compete with each other for limited funding. But by partnering with the school district they're able to pool resources, share expenses and pursue grants and donations together.

The move has also greatly increased the classroom capacity of the center, going from a single trailer space to a large facility with several classrooms, offices, storage spaces and a computer lab. In their portable location, Perkins said, the classroom capacity left a wait list each year and staff members struggled to meet the needs of the community.

By comparison, she said the center's former home is roughly the size of the new location's supply closet, where shelves are lined with brand new shoes, coats, hats and backpacks. 

"Everyone was in one room," she said. "We had to part the coats to get to (a coordinator's) desk."

Sumner said even before the expansion of the center, she could see the results of its programs. The center's services allow teachers and administrators to go beyond a simple phone call in helping struggling families. Parents who participate in programs often become more involved in their child's education.

"We've got to take it to the next step," she said. "When you can meet the whole family need, you have a chance to meet the child's need."

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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