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Supporting HCPSS Students and Families Through Expanded Outreach

Posted: June 13th, 2018

Image caption: The Weekend Warriors Snack Pack program launched last summer, providing a free bag of snacks every Friday to supplement the free HCPSS Summer Meal Program. Weekend Warriors is part of Achieve 24/7, a county initiative aimed at increasing opportunities and breaking down barriers to success for all youth in Howard County.

Last August, HCPSS launched the Community, Parent and School Outreach office with the appointment of then-Wilde Lake High School Principal James LeMon as executive director. Since then, LeMon has pursued a number of initiatives, all in the vein of increasing collaboration with and access for families and the community.

“I’m very encouraged that we are doing things differently by removing barriers to access, providing more services for kids, and building good relationships with community members and partners,” LeMon said. “I want to be sure we have systems in place to meet the needs of all our kids. The earlier we can intervene with services, the more likely our kids will be successful.”

LeMon comes to this position full of empathy for students and families, no matter their circumstances. LeMon explained, “In high school, I was that child that didn’t eat or sleep the night before. I almost fell through the cracks, graduating high school with a 1.4 GPA.” He credits his success largely due to others supporting him along the way, so he could go on to play football in college and ultimately earn three master’s degrees. He’s since dedicated his career to helping others, first as a social worker followed by stints as a family therapist, basketball coach and juvenile probation officer before becoming an HCPSS teacher and administrator 18 years ago.

LeMon says that with his experiences, “I have a different perspective on how to work with kids and families. It makes you not judge people.” He continued, “When I became a school administrator, I realized schools can’t do it by themselves. We need to work with partners to connect our families with services in the community.”

Addressing mental health needs has been a major focus for LeMon’s office as he’s been deeply involved in forming HCPSS’ new plan to expand student mental health supports. The plan includes a re-imagined Mental Health Community Advisory, the hiring of three new social workers for schools and a more robust network of community mental health providers. At the heart of all these efforts is better alignment, collaboration, awareness, and utilization of internal and external resources.

Community Superintendent Theo Cramer has witnessed the benefit of connecting families with community resources. When some elementary schools began to see an uptick in behavioral issues at the elementary level the past couple years, educators were looking for immediate solutions. Cramer said, “When you see a child in need, typically the whole family is in crisis. Now with James LeMon’s leadership, we are helping provide real time support for children and families through our connections to resources, which can get to the root of underlying issues.”

Another new initiative–placing Howard County MultiService Center case managers directly in schools–has proven invaluable for Oakland Mills, Lake Elkhorn, and Harper’s Choice middle school students and their families. From September to February alone, the case managers supported 187 families at the three schools, connecting them to resources like dental care, mental health supports, housing stability, food stamps and clothing.

With LeMon’s involvement, Oakland Mills Middle School is also partnering with the Howard County Local Children’s Board on a new summer math acceleration program for 80 students and on the county’s Achieve 24/7 initiative to identify how to best support the community. With all these initiatives in place, Oakland Mills Principal Megan Chrobak cites its 75 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions this school year and its ongoing high attendance rate of 96 percent as major successes. “Our ultimate goal is making sure our students feel safe, connected, and that they are well and fully ready to learn without other distractors,” Chrobak said.

Wilde Lake High School is another school benefiting from expanded mental health resources, as the first HCPSS high school with a wellness center for physical and mental health, staffed by the Howard County Health Department and joined by a social worker this school year. Additionally, this year it has partnered with the NAACP to support student academic performance and social-emotional well-being. With the broader supports in place, Wilde Lake Principal Rick Wilson has seen a significant improvement in attendance this past year. “More learning is taking place as we have healthier and happier students,” Wilson said.

LeMon’s new position has also enabled the school system to work more closely with families when issues arise. One of his first charges was to clarify and streamline the parent concern process, which is now available online in multiple languages thanks to a committee of staff, parent and community stakeholders. He is also the school system’s point person on anti-bullying, working with families who have concerns, promoting anti-bullying school events and ensuring administrators have best practices to manage issues.

The Community, Parent and School Outreach office, in short, strives to keep Howard County public school kids healthy and engaged. LeMon works with HCPSS Food and Nutrition Services and the Howard County Office of the Local Children’s Board to make healthy foods accessible to more kids, whether through grab-and-go breakfasts in schools or the Weekend Warrior program. And he supported efforts to plan HCPSS’ first Student Member of the Board (SMOB) convention.

LeMon said, “We need to support our schools, kids and families as best we can. I’m excited that we’re aligning our efforts to Interim Superintendent Martirano’s new vision. As Dr. Martirano says, ‘to teach a child well, you must know a child well.’ We need to know what challenges kids are having at home, so they’re available for instruction.”