Connected Community Schools updates BOE on needs and services

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ROME — Melissa Roys, executive director of Connected Community Schools, a program that was piloted as the Rome Community Schools that connects children and families in need with community resources via the public schools, recently shared an update on the organization’s efforts and expansion with the Rome City School District Board of Education.

Roys shared that the initiative is consistently receiving attention and accolades on a national stage where it is now referred to as “The Rome Project.”

Originally Rome Community Schools, the efforts “caught the attention” of the National Federation of Teachers, who invested seed money in order to see the model expand to other school districts.

The effort to establish “hubs” in or near public schools that provide access to food, clothing, hygiene products, school supplies and referrals to community resources that began in the Rome City School District now has a presence in 13 upstate school districts, serving over 20,000 students together with 250 business and organizational partners

The organization, through its LINK program, now makes 4,000 referrals of students and families to services per day and has also opened nine mental health satellite offices in its districts. 

Said Roys, “We’ve had success stories that are unimaginable.”

Roys shared that the vision was to meet the needs of that community’s public school children and their families by meeting them where they are – in their school buildings – in Rome. Since CCS first brought the concept to Rome’s Bellamy Elementary School in 2017, they have expanded to now serve students in 13 neighboring upstate New York school districts and are recognized nationally as a model program for supporting children and their families in overcoming challenges preventing students from coming to school prepared to learn.

“It was really an effort to take Bellamy Elementary School and make a ‘community school’ out of it, said Roys. “And we did.”

Roys defined efforts to talk to Rome students who were not on track to or did not graduate from high school to better understand the obstacles they felt challenged them in that endeavor.

“Never once did any of those kids talk about math class or science class,” shared Roys. “They talked about their personal struggles and how that limited their education. Food insecurity, something going on at home, mental health issues.”

Roys shared that CCS focused on how they could “help these kids overcome these struggles.”

What they uncovered in their exploration was the fact that Rome teachers spend an average of 1.5 hours a day navigating and supporting their students’ personal struggles outside of school. Many teachers confirmed they spent more time than that. The average principal in Rome is averaging 3 hours of the school day and beyond providing the same support and effort. Teachers were also spending upwards of $25 - $30 per week of their own money on supplies for their students and classrooms.

“They are getting calls from parents at home,” said Roys. “Schools are taking on a lot more than we were years ago.”

So, the Connected Community Schools team looked to design a model not only supporting students, but teachers and families as well.

The efforts are focused in “hubs” primarily located inside district school buildings, where food, schools supplies, clothing and hygiene products can be donated and accessed by students and families in need. In Rome, still the largest district currently served by CCS, that hub was located in Staley Elementary School, the building the district was forced to close due to extreme flooding in late August of 2021.

The event resulted in the Rome CCS Hub being centralized, now at home in the heart of Rome at 207 N. James Street, where any member of the community can connect with staff and gather goods or referrals to services. 

CCS effectively defines their impact in meeting the needs of children and families in Central New York with numbers.

Roys reported that, during COVID when students could not be in school, food insecurity became acute. CCS provided 1 and a half million pounds of food in 10 months to 50,000 unduplicated people, including the elderly.

CCS currently operates two small food pantries in each of Bellamy and Ganesvoort elementary schools.

“Snacks are big,” said Roys, who shared that, to date, CCS has distributed 800,000 snacks to students and families in the Rome City School District.

CCS now counts 250 community partners, including Walmart, Hannaford Markets and the Central New York Food Bank.

“Last fall, $50,000 worth of school supplies were donated by Walmart alone,” said Roys, who shared that, in the past four years, over $200,000 in school supplies and 2.1 million pounds of food had been donated to CCS districts by their community partners.

Roys shared that CCS has “been recognized over and over on a national level,” recently being asked to be keynote speakers for Promise Neighborhoods and on two different occasions by the U.S. Department of Education.

“We – I mean everyone in the room and in this community – has made an impact,” said Roys, ‘because of the seeds we planted in Rome.”

Facing forward, Roys focused upon goals including adding mobile dental services, expanding to eight counties and adding more satellite mental health clinics to the nine they already operate, raising their distributed snack tally to 1.3 million and finishing the process of adding a 14th upstate school district, the Mount Markham Central School District in West Winfield.

Roys concluded the work study presentation to say, “we can do this if we are connected!”

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