Community Schools focus on families' basic needs during COVID-19

A Mobile Food Pantry at Westside Community School has distributed thousands of pounds of food to families in need during the COVID-19 crisis.

Sun Prairie Community Schools has reinforced its effort to support families during COVID-19, giving out food, helping with rides to work, delivering household items and providing basic necessities.

Community School organizers say it is critical to keep families afloat as the pandemic causes financial, social and emotional hardships for some.

Westside Community School coordinator Stacy Darga said support of students is essential as schools close due to COVID-19.

“It is already challenging to do virtual learning but when you have food insecurities, no gas in your vehicle or you’ve lost your job, it is really incredibly challenging,” Darga said.

Darga, Northside Community School Coordinator Tenisha Winn and Community Schools Director Jamie Racine gave Sun Prairie alders an annual update at the Oct. 6 Committee of the Whole meeting, telling them what they are doing during an extraordinary year of a global pandemic.

During normal times, the Sun Prairie Community Schools strive to improve academic achievement, especially for students of color and economically disadvantage, reduce student chronic absenteeism and increase families’ connections to school and community.

But as the global pandemic hit Wisconsin and shut down local schools, Sun Prairie Community Schools switched gears to give even more help to students in need, Racine said.

From March to September, there have been over 275 “acts of kindness” coordinated by Sun Prairie Community Schools, Racine said. This includes providing more than 2,200 pounds of food and 4,928 meals for children in partnership with the YMCA, Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, Second Harvest and other community organizations.

“We maximized the things we could do safely in a socially distance way but still keep everyone connected,” Racine said of Community Schools’ efforts to keep going during COVID-19.

Community school organizers say students can’t be successful if basic needs like food, shelter and safety are not being met. Community School resources were able to give parents money for rent, rides to work, gift certificates for grocery stores and even furniture when they were displaced from their homes because of sudden unemployment.

Darga said lending support when the Safer at Home order was in place was especially important because agencies and other organizations were shut down. Families couldn’t go to Goodwill and St. Vinny’s to get clothes and household goods because the state ordered non-essential businesses closed.

Social workers and school staff are also reaching out to students and families who aren’t participating in distance learning.

The “We Are One Fund” at Westside Community Schools helped bring in money to pay for the extra necessity needed for families, Darga said. A single mom of three Sun Prairie students wrote a note of appreciation to organizers for the support her family received during the pandemic because her work hours were reduced, and unemployment payments were delayed.

Community Schools sites include C.H. Bird Elementary, Northside Elementary, Patrick Marsh Middle School, Prairie Phoenix Academy and Westside Elementary.

Racine also updated city alders on Community School’s efforts pre-COVID. Last school year, 380 students participated in out-of-school programming—that’s equivalent of 22 additional school days, Racine said. Seventy-eight adults took part in adult education programs, she said.

This school year, Racine said initiatives will include food pantries, family events and site leadership teams.

Northside Community School, the newest community school site, has planned two events to keep people connected even as the pandemic restricts in-person gatherings. There’s going to be a drive-in movie this month and a Trunk or Treat Halloween event on Oct. 31 that keep kids safe with social-distance protocols in place. Northside Community School Coordinator Tenisha Winn said volunteers will use PVC pipe to slide candy into kids trick or treat bags.

“In the midst of COVID-19, we need to be creative,” Winn told city alders of the efforts.

This school year an assessment survey will be sent out to Northside Community Schools families to help gauge needs, Winn said.

The Northside Community School site has also set up a food pantry with the help of Sunshine Place and Sun Prairie United Methodist Church. Nelly’s Garden at the site will also provide fresh vegetables to school families.

Tuesday’s Community Schools update also gave city leaders information on budget and overall operations.

The city gives $100,000 of funding to community schools. Racine reported that for every dollar the city invests in community schools is matched with $6.50 from the Sun Prairie Area School District, federal, state, local and private grants, and community contributions.

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