Baton Elementary searches for ways to serve struggling families

Nov. 12, 2013 @ 08:18 AM

In the Baton Elementary media center on Thursday, a mix of people sat in child-sized chairs trying to solve adult-sized problems.

They were pastors and youth leaders and preachers' wives, a principal, an office manager, a social worker – all brainstorming ways to meet the needs of children and families at Baton and in the surrounding community who are still feeling the effects of a slow economy.

It was the first time staff at Baton had held an interfaith community meeting, bringing various stakeholders together in an attempt to find new ways to help parents and students who struggle to make ends meet.

When they hit a wall economically, people turn to churches and nonprofits – but they also ask for help from their children’s schools.

Even when that doesn’t happen, teachers and other school employees notice when something is wrong – when kids miss school because there’s no gas in the family car, or come to class wearing sandals in 30-degree weather, or squint at the board in obvious need of glasses their parents can’t afford.

“We have limited resources and structures in place to help,” principal Jason Teffeteller said. “We wanted to get together with our community and just talk to them, talk about how they can help our schools and about how we can help them.”

The school’s needs aren’t all monetary, either. With fewer teacher assistants each year, the school is constantly in need of volunteers to eat lunch with students, read to children, help with math facts and perform a variety of tasks, Teffeteller said.

“We really just need bodies in schools,” school counselor Sally Beck said. “Our ratio of students to adults is lower than ever, and students thrive on that adult contact.”

At Thursday’s meeting, ministers and church members described their backpack ministries (which load up elementary students’ school bags with food for the weekend), their Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, their food pantries and – perhaps the most promising resource for Baton’s staff – their benevolence funds, which are usually based on a percentage of the tithe and allocated by the pastor or a designated committee.  

All had seen families who could not pay their water bill or feed their children over the weekend. All had worked under the specter of the months-long backlog in the delivery of food-stamp benefits, which, before it was cleared, affected some 2,000 Caldwell residents – seeing more hungry children and food moving faster off the shelves at food pantries.

As the meeting came to a close, contact sheets were passed and phone numbers were scratched into the paper, and ideas began to float. Could we use some of our benevolence fund to buy gift cards that the school could give out at its discretion? Could we send volunteers?  

“My children went to Baton School,” Sandy Grove Baptist Church youth director Tony Greer told the school staff members. “I’m just glad that I can help any way I can. A lot of these children, their home life is rough, and whatever I can do, if I can help, I want to help. You can call me any time.”

It was a way to build connections and, for Beck and school social worker Alexis Hoover, to understand the resources at their disposal – and a way, at the end of the day, to get students into a position where need does not choke out academic potential.

“We talk test scores here all the time, but this is so foundational to their success,” Teffeteller said after the meeting. “If their basic needs aren’t met, you can’t expect them to do well in the classroom.”