Rusty Hall gave up the idea of a running a traditional school a long time ago. With a student population that’s more than two-thirds Hispanic and nearly all living at or below the poverty line, Old Town Elementary isn’t traditional said Hall, the principal.
Not in its needs, not in its challenges, not in its mission.
For years, Old Town has been offering English classes for the parents of its students and partnering with local nonprofit and faith-based groups to offer extra services to its students, like backpacks of food for the weekend.
So it wasn’t a stretch, last year, when Hall got donations from some of those organizations to give directly to Old Town families who were having trouble making ends meet. Hall said the school helped families who couldn’t pay rent one month, or fell behind on an electric bill.
“We helped a lot of families,” Hall said. “At times, it was almost to the point where we felt like a social service agency. We’re just not equipped for that.”
Enter: Crisis Control Ministries — a group equipped for exactly that.
“I love it because it is true outreach,” said Margaret Elliott, executive director of the organization, which has been working to meet emergency needs of people and families for more than 40 years. “We’re not making people come to where we are, it is going to where they are.”
Old Town’s needy families are already at the school, explained Hall. They’re comfortable there, have responded well to programs like “Parent University,” a series of classes for parents that started last year, and trust the school staff. It can be hard, he said, to replicate that kind of relationship and convenience in another setting — especially for families who don’t speak English or low-income families without reliable access to transportation.
“We could help our families out of a crisis,” Hall said, “but when we had to refer them to other programs in Winston-Salem, it was hard to get them to go.”
Hall could see, though, the benefit that connecting families to aid services could bring to his students. Studies show that the stresses of poverty can negatively influence a child’s academic performance. And kids who aren’t hungry, or worried about being evicted, can more easily focus in class.
So, in partnership with Crisis Control Ministries, Old Town is bringing the programs to their families.
Hall is converting an outdoor classroom unit on the school campus into a Community Resource Center. On Mondays and Wednesdays, the center will be open for families who need financial assistance and a nurse from the Forsyth County Department of Public Health will be on site. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the school will use the space to continue offering English classes for its parents through the Toyota Family Literacy Program.
The center will also have an emergency food pantry and clothing closet to help provide students with their school uniforms when families can’t afford to do so. Crisis Control Ministries will also start offering classes on goal-setting, financial literacy and more through Old Town’s Parent University program.
The center will be staffed with a part-time family engagement specialist, funded by a grant Crisis Control Ministries secured from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.
“To provide the services (at Old Town) is going to be a good thing,” said Glenda Ruiz, the newly hired family engagement coordinator. Not only does Ruiz speak Spanish — a crucial qualification to ensure the services are accessible by all of Old Town’s families — she understands the school’s parents, because she is one.
Ruiz’s twin daughters, Aryana and Allyson Sanchez, are in the second grade at Old Town. She’s been volunteering at the school for the past year.
“Some people are afraid to ask for services or don’t have someone who can take them all the way downtown,” she said. “I’m really excited about these new programs at Old Town.”
The $43,000 grant will cover Ruiz’s salary and the center’s costs for two years, though Hall said he is looking for additional funding sources to make the position fulltime and permanent.
After getting the center up and running, Hall said he hopes to bring in additional agencies and services.
“We’re going to create every avenue possible,” he said. “So this constant vicious cycle of poverty can end.”
The center opens Tuesday at 9 a.m. at Old Town Elementary, 39030 Reynolda Road.