Alicia Scofield, left, and Summer Cooper, family navigators for the Port Angeles School District, sort over donated clothing available to students and their families at the Caring for Kids Clothing Closet located at Lincoln Center. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula News)

Alicia Scofield, left, and Summer Cooper, family navigators for the Port Angeles School District, sort over donated clothing available to students and their families at the Caring for Kids Clothing Closet located at Lincoln Center. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula News)

Navigators connect students, resources in community

PA school district workers aim to increase achievement

PORT ANGELES — Family navigators for the Port Angeles School District are required to have a wide range of knowledge, but thanks to the recent donation of a vehicle for a family that lacked reliable transportation, Summer Cooper recently gained a new skill set.

“I learned more about title transfers than I ever thought I would,” she said.

Facilitating the donation of a vehicle — the second one this year — was just another in a long list of duties family navigators Cooper and Alicia Scofield perform to assist students and families by connecting them with community services and resources with the goal of increasing student achievement.

The assistance can look different depending on the student, the family and their particular needs.

It might mean inviting them to pick out a new wardrobe at the Caring for Kids Clothing Closet at Lincoln Center or arranging an appointment with Healthy Families of Clallam County for crime victim services.

Cooper, a family navigator assistant and enrolled member of the Makah Tribe, works with students and families at Dry Creek Elementary, Lincoln High School, Roosevelt Elementary and Seaview Academy and with Native American families.

Scofield, the family navigator lead and McKinney-Vento Act liaison, handles Franklin Elementary, Hamilton Elementary, Jefferson Elementary and Stevens Middle School.

They share responsibilities at the high school.

The need for what they do is great, Cooper said.

“We could use a navigator at every school,” she said.

Food and economic insecurity, lack of transportation, domestic violence, substance abuse, homelessness and mental health issues are among the many challenges facing Port Angeles students and their families.

Any one of these can create significant barriers to student achievement, but the barriers are most often interwoven.

Not only does this have a profoundly negative impact on students and their families, but finding a way past these barriers can be difficult and frustrating.

“Some families try and they just give up,” Scofield said.

The family navigators can help steer families through a maze of paperwork that might be required to access aid or simply introduce them to a community service agency that can offer assistance.

Much of the work Cooper and Scofield do is from a silver Chrysler Voyager that functions as a mobile office. They drive students to school when they miss the bus, when the family doesn’t own reliable transportation or have enough money for gas. They transport parents to school meetings with principals and take students to truancy court.

One Friday in May, Scofield drove the van to Lutheran Community Services, which provides a range of support to individuals, families and aging adults. She had received a message about a family of five that did not have any food in the house for the weekend, so she arranged to pick some up and deliver it.

The school district provides free meals during the week to all students regardless of need, but weekends can be a problem for families, Scofield said. Sending students home on Fridays with a bag of snacks is no longer sufficient, so the Port Angeles Food Bank delivers groceries to schools for students and families to take home.

Scofield and Lutheran Community Services program manager Lisa Lyon packed four bags of groceries for the two parents and three children: Cheerios, Bisquick, Kraft Mac and Cheese, powdered milk, peanut butter, tuna, spaghetti and rice, instant hash browns, chicken, pork and ground beef.

Although Lutheran Community Services is not a food bank, Lyon said she has seen demand rise since COVID ended.

“If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said food insecurity was minimal,” said Lyon, who has worked for Lutheran Community Services for 22 years. “Now we see 50 families a week.”

While hunger negatively impacts children’s ability to learn, the students who had limited access to food that Scofield and Cooper saw frequently were dealing other factors that were detrimental to their ability to attend and succeed in school, they said.

Primary among them was homelessness.

At the start of the 2023-24 school year, the school district identified 122 students as experiencing homelessness, or 3.4 percent of total enrollment. In May, the number of homeless students was 187.

The increase doesn’t necessarily mean there are more homeless students, Scofield said, because the school district has been proactive in identifying students experiencing homelessness so they and their families can obtain assistance.

“Parents are asked when a child is enrolled in school about housing,” Scofield said. “We train a staff liaison at each school how to identify homeless kids.”

Much of the funding that supports services for the district’s homeless students comes through the federal McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth program.

The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” That includes sharing housing because of a loss of permanent housing; living in campgrounds, motels or trailer parks because no other housing is available; living in emergency or transitional shelters; or living in motor vehicles, public spaces like parks, abandoned buildings or substandard housing.

Scofield and Cooper said ensuring students experiencing homelessness have the same opportunities to succeed in school and participate in the same activities as their peers is important because these students tend to have lower attendance and academic outcomes than their peers and are less likely to graduate from high school.

Scofield said she likes to find what she calls the “glue” — something a student experiencing homelessness or from a low-income family is passionate about that will keep him or her in school, and then find a way to make it happen.

“Homeless and low-income students want to play a sport or play in the orchestra — those can be the glue to keeping them in school, the thing that will get them there,” Scofield said. “Even in the ROTC, you have to get the uniforms and travel.”

Cooper said it is important people know that the family navigators are there to help any and every student and family in the school district.

“We are here for everybody,” she said.

________

Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached by email at paula.hunt@peninsulanews.us.

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