On a rainy day, four parents and their young children, ranging in age from 2 to 5, gather in the library of Green Holly Elementary School. Jeannine Finnacom, the school’s family-support coordinator, brings out a small cage containing a white mouse and begins a conversation about pets with the children. As they gather around, she reads them a story called "The Pet Shop" by Jack Ezra Keats. Throughout the reading, she pauses and asks questions such as, "Can you spot the cat in this picture? Where would you hide if you were a cat?"
Meanwhile, the parents sit at a nearby table with worksheets in hand. They follow along on a checklist as Finnacom demonstrates how to read aloud. They note whether she mentions the title and author of the book, and whether she asks the children to predict what will happen next.
Later, while the children are busy creating pretend pets using paper bags, feathers, and glue, Finnacom takes the opportunity to discuss the importance of reading with their parents. "Books will significantly impact your child’s education," she explains. "They will determine whether or not your child feels comfortable at school. Those who are read to regularly will have an easier time adapting to the school curriculum."
One parent, Lori Wyman, expresses concern about finding time to read with her 5-year-old daughter, Morgan. Finnacom suggests a solution: "Try putting some books on the breakfast table every morning. Even if you only have half an hour before bedtime, make reading a part of your daily routine." She also emphasizes the importance of parents reading for themselves. "If you aren’t a reader, your children won’t see reading as a valuable lifestyle."
Equipped with copies of "The Pet Shop," the parents and children scatter around the room to practice reading aloud. Finnacom’s personal collection of picture books is available on every table. This low-key gathering is part of the family-support component of Roots and Wings, a design team funded by the New American Schools Development Corporation to create innovative schools. This private nonprofit group, launched by American business leaders during the Bush Administration, selected the design team from over 600 competing proposals.
Each of the winning designs aims to strengthen the connection between schools and families, as well as between schools and other community organizations. However, Roots and Wings stands out due to its ability to build upon existing efforts in St. Mary’s County, a rural community located in Southern Maryland. Their approach includes family-support coordinators like Finnacom, a family-support team at every school, one-day-a-week school-based health clinics, after-school programs combining tutoring and academic enrichment, and initiatives targeting parents and children before they enter school, such as the Books and Breakfast meeting held that morning.
Barbara Haxby, a family-support specialist at Johns Hopkins University, explains the program’s unique perspective: "Traditionally, schools have focused solely on the child and ignored the larger context of the family. This program challenges that mindset by recognizing the importance of family outreach in preparing children for learning."
A Supportive Hand
Finnacom provided assistance to the mother in brainstorming strategies for her second-grade child to remember his homework. Additionally, Finnacom left behind assignments for the following week in case the child forgot. The woman expresses her satisfaction, stating that she wishes dealing with people at school was always as easy as working with Finnacom.
In another example, a mother of six shares how Finnacom helped implement an attendance plan for her oldest daughter. Finnacom provided her with a schedule, instructing her to wake her child up at 7 am and attempt to get her ready for school again at 7:05 am. If any issues arose, she was advised to contact the school. Fortunately, she hasn’t had to do so, as she believes her children understand the importance of taking school seriously.
To emphasize the school’s commitment, Finnacom once arrived at the mother’s house at 2 pm to escort the children to school, despite the academic day nearing its end. The mother appreciates the opportunity to have a direct conversation with someone from the school, as she is not accustomed to such visits. She acknowledges that it is a unique experience.
However, the family-support coordinator is not the only person involved. Each school has a dedicated family-support team responsible for managing prevention and intervention programs on-site. The primary areas of focus for the team include attendance, coordinating external social services, parental involvement, and student behavior.
According to state law, each school in St. Mary’s County was already required to have a pupil-services team meeting once a month to address academic issues faced by students. This team consisted of the principal, school nurse, school counselor, referring teacher, district psychologist, and pupil-personnel worker. Building on this foundation, Roots and Wings transformed each team into a family-support team, increasing the frequency of their meetings to at least twice a month. The teams collaborate to create action plans for children facing difficulties due to family, behavior, or attendance issues that hinder their learning progress. Prevention strategies are also implemented to enhance attendance and parental involvement in the school. For instance, when teachers reported that students struggled to work effectively in groups, the teams assisted in developing a curriculum-integrated unit on conflict resolution and listening skills.
In certain schools, family-support teams have organized parenting workshops, incentivized students to read with their parents for 20 minutes every night, established homework centers with teacher and parent staff, and implemented mentoring and tutoring programs utilizing community volunteers. They have also introduced "welcome wagon" visits for families new to the school. Throughout the year, ongoing training sessions ensure parents remain engaged with the school’s curriculum. A building advisory committee, including parents, is also involved in shaping policy decisions.
A Community Perspective
Currently, the clinics are only seeing a few people each day, but Edith Cuison, the family nurse practitioner, anticipates that the number will increase to around 20 patients daily. These clinics are particularly beneficial for rural areas of the county. For instance, Ridge Elementary is located 35 miles away from the nearest primary-care physician.
Surveys have revealed that approximately 17 percent of families in Maryland lack health insurance, and this figure is similar for St. Mary’s County. A survey conducted among families with school-age children in the area discovered that about 15 percent of students suffer from chronic illnesses, such as bronchitis or diabetes, which can hinder their ability to learn.
Unlike schools, the clinics will be open year-round, operating from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M.
Challenges in Replication
Despite the progress made over the past year, the developers of Roots and Wings are concerned about how much of the family-support aspect can be replicated in other locations. This is especially true for places that do not have funding from the National Association of State Directors of Children (NASDC) or the collaborative history of St. Mary’s County.
Maryland stands out among other states due to its office of children, youth, and families, as well as its mandate for state agencies to work together on behalf of children. Even before Roots and Wings, the county health department funded half of the school nursing positions in the public schools of St. Mary’s County.
Additionally, the NASDC grant covers half of the costs for full-time family-support coordinators. It also provides funds for transportation, amounting to $11,000 this year, for the after-school program.
Lawrence J. Dolan, a research scientist from Johns Hopkins, explains that each site will have its own unique characteristics and resources, making the replication of the program challenging. He believes that the curriculum can be easily adapted, but the family-support component will not be as straightforward.
Roots and Wings was inspired by a program called Success for All, developed by researchers from Hopkins. This program aims to enhance reading proficiency among students in elementary schools located in high-poverty areas. It also includes a family-support component, but Dolan notes that its implementation varies greatly across different sites. Unlike the model in St. Mary’s County, there is no direct funding for family-support coordinators in the Success for All program.
Dolan acknowledges that it is unrealistic to expect all schools to establish family-health clinics or fund additional personnel. However, the program designers can establish certain guiding principles. For example, all schools will be required to form a family-support team and an attendance program, particularly if their attendance rate falls below 95 percent. The researchers plan to provide specific strategies and materials that can be customized to suit the needs of each site, including methods for improving attendance, managing behavior problems, and engaging with parents, such as through the Books and Breakfast meetings. Many of the family-literacy initiatives were actually developed as part of the Success for All program.
Taking it Slow
To start, the clinics are gradually increasing their patient intake.
"We have options to offer," she sighs, "but the challenge lies in attracting people to avail them. I would love to have around 40 or 50 individuals here."
"It’s not that parents lack interest," she adds. "There are unmet needs out there that often go unnoticed. Just last night, I visited a child’s home where they relied on two kerosene lamps for light. That’s inadequate for reading, especially when we expect children to read for 20 minutes each night. We are all constantly learning. Education, I believe, never has straightforward solutions."
At least for the parents who attended this morning, their participation seems to have been worthwhile.
While Morgan examines the books on a nearby table, her mother explains that they came because Morgan, a pre-kindergartner, loves reading. "We read together all the time, primarily at night," Wyman says. "I came here just to check if I’m doing a good job at reading with her. One thing I realize is that I should take my time. My problem is that I often rush her through books because I’m eager to go to bed."
Leilani Ramos, a pregnant mother with a 4-year-old daughter named Stephanie, says, "I’m interested in fostering a reading habit in my children. My kids adore reading. They always plead with me to take them to the library, but it’s challenging to find the right material for them." Ramos has brought her father along, who also reads to the children at night.
"I think she’s right," Ramos gestures towards Finnacom. "The kids who read more often simply perform better in school."