Reaching students, one on one

Home School Communicators aim to help troubled students
Monday, March 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:01 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

This year, Beulah Ralph faces a recurring dilemma. She has to figure out a way to save Columbia’s 36-year-old Home School Communicators program.

“I have to move things around to keep all of my staff,” said Ralph, director of the program, which helps minority and low-income children with behavioral and academic problems.

Last year, two home school communicators retired, so she didn’t have to fire anyone to make ends meet. But the termination of the communicators and the program, which is funded by the Columbia Public School District, is a continual possibility. Financial cuts force the once-government-funded program to work with a tighter budget this year.

The school board allocated $1,075,255 to the Home School Communicators program for the 2002-03 school year, and $966,804 was allocated this year. The program expects further reductions for the upcoming school year, and Ralph expects to lose at least two members of her staff.

Home School Communicators serves as a liaison between the family and the school.

“I would stick my neck out for this program,” said Beth Brown, whose son Ben is a first-grader at Rock Bridge Elementary School.

Last year, Ben had problems socially adjusting to school.

“He was speaking out in class and getting out of his chair,” Brown said.

But when Carla London, a second-year home school communicator at Rock Bridge Elementary and New Haven Accelerated schools, intervened, Brown saw an immediate difference in her child.

“Carla and Ben had an instant connection,” Brown said. “She found a way to deal with Ben that worked for him. She found a special way to communicate with him. Now he is less interruptive. He likes school now.”

Starting the program

Intervention, counseling and home visits are only a few of the duties of communicators like London.

According to the school district’s Web site, the program began in 1968 in response to the tensions accompanying school integration in Columbia. As the school district developed techniques to keep order in the classrooms, the parents of African-American students complained to the school board that certain disciplinary steps appeared to be solely aimed at African-American children.

As a result, the board authorized the establishment of Home School Visitors — later called Home School Communicators — within the schools founded on the mission “to stand in the gap on behalf of students, institution, parent and community as a mediator striving to bring forth a cohesive relationship between the parent, student, institution and community.”

“This program is especially important to school systems that don’t have many minority teachers,” said Symone Langston-Thomas, program communicator at Hickman High School for 11 years. “You have to have somebody in the schools that understands the kids, where they are coming from and problems that are unique to their culture and their situations. The kids need that extra support and to see positive role models of black people in the education system doing things.”

London agrees. There are no African-American teachers at Rock Bridge Elementary.

“When I first came to the school, children asked if I was the new principal,” London said. “They weren’t used to seeing any black women in the school.”

A program for everyone

Although the program was established to help minorities, the program doesn’t exclude whites.

“That’s a common misconception about our program — that we service only minorities,” London said. “We service all of our students.”

Communicators are often obligated to every student.

“Home School Communicators are on call 24 hours a day,” said James Barber, who has been a communicator at a satellite program for Douglass High School for seven years.

Barber thinks that anytime children have needs inside or outside school, they must address them.

“I’m in service to this community, and I am obligated to help anybody in the world,” he said.

Although communicators face the yearly threat of extinction, each worker deals with the day-to-day challenge of trying to help multiple children and families.

“My biggest challenge is trying to find enough time in the day to do everything,” Barber said.

What they do

Communicator duties vary from school to school, but the list includes tracking children who miss school; accompanying classes on field trips; performing conflict mediation among parents, children and teachers; escorting children to doctor appointments; picking parents up for school conferences; lunchroom monitoring; reading to children; and assigning detentions.

“It’s not a structured job,” London said. “If anything comes up, we do it. I am not required to substitute teach, but I do it because I love the children and I like to be around them.”

At Hickman, Langston-Thomas also runs No Limit Ladies, a support group for minority girls, and the Minority Achievement Committee scholars. Each year, Langston-Thomas takes the MAC scholars on a trip to visit colleges.

The Home School Communicators appear to have in common a genuine interest in the well-being of the children and the ability to connect with them. Barber, who said he grew up in the housing projects and was a troubled teenager, said that because he comes from most of the kids’ backgrounds, he can relate to where they are coming from. “They understand that, and they open up more to me,” he said.

Langston-Thomas, Barber and London agree that trust is key to working successfully with the children.

“The children have to feel as if you care,” Langston-Thomas said. “You can’t fake it; kids can see right through that.”

The communicators are there not only to support the children but also to help the school faculty.

“They are able to take an hour or 45 minutes out to talk to a child that I don’t have when I am trying to work with 20 other students,” said Catherine Yoakum, a fifth-grade teacher at Rock Bridge Elementary.“Carla is wonderful — she can give a child that one-on-one time I can’t.”

Brown thinks this private time helped her son Ben.

“The one-on-one time made him feel better. He knew that Carla wanted him to succeed instead of wanting to punish him,” Brown said. “I would do anything to help this program. To me, (Home School Communicators) walk on water.”

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