Opinion: How one school system is helping students’ families

Over the past year, some schools in Oakland have stepped into a role that most didn’t have before the pandemic: fundraising and providing cash payments to struggling families. What began as emergency relief for mainly newcomer and immigrant families who weren’t eligible for federal stimulus payments, has continued for more than a year.

Schools are helping to pay rent, housing deposits, phone bills, and more for families in Oakland that are still recovering from the economic and health impacts of COVID-19.

“If the family is in distress, the student cannot learn,” said Anita Iverson-Comelo, the principal of Bridges Academy at Melrose, located in East Oakland. “It’s hard for us to turn our backs when families are on the phone crying.”

When school buildings shuttered a year ago, teachers and school staff knew it would impact far more than just their students’ education, and started conducting wellness checks — making phone calls to students’ homes to ask what families needed: Did they have food at home? Was their housing situation stable? Has there been a loss of income? Was everyone healthy?

Alyssa Baldocchi, who teaches humanities to newcomer students – immigrants who have been in the country for fewer than three years – at Elmhurst United Middle School, would often connect with students and their families over Instagram because they didn’t have phone service. Baldocchi, along with fellow teacher Marisa Mills, launched a fundraiser to collect donations to help support their immigrant students and families.

Around the same time, Iverson-Comelo decided to donate her stimulus check to one of her students whose father had just died. She suggested to some of her colleagues that they do the same with their stimulus funds, and soon it became a larger campaign when Iverson-Comelo’s husband created a website, stimuluspledge.org, to receive donations from the public.

To date, more than a dozen schools in Oakland have raised and distributed more than $250,000 to families during the pandemic.

By the end of this school year, Elmhurst principal Kilian Betlach expects that his school alone will have given away $25,000 to at least 50 families, in $400 grants. He is anticipating making another round of $400 payments this month.

The pandemic, said Betlach, has brought into focus how critical schools are for students and their communities, beyond education: Schools provide meals, a safe place for youth to be during the day, and childcare in the early mornings and late afternoons. Some schools in Oakland have campus health clinics, dental vans that visit periodically, food pantries and clothes closets.

Iverson-Comelo estimates that Bridges Academy has distributed $65,000 to its families this year. When donations come in, the school provides checks in varying amounts, depending on the family’s expenses and income. Some families get $500 a month for several months to help pay their bills, while others may need a one-time payment of $1,500 to put down a rental deposit.

Mirian Obando Rojas, whose third-grader attends Bridges Academy, used to clean houses with a friend before everything shut down. At the same time, her husband, a roofer, had his hours reduced to two or three days a week, Rojas said.

The family received money from the school last April, June, December, and February, and will get $500 a month from March through May of this year.

“I was able to pay my bills, rent, the telephone bill, and buy diapers for my little ones as well,” said Rojas, who also has 2-year-old twins.

Iverson-Comelo said it makes sense for schools with large newcomer populations to take on this role. Some recent immigrants may not qualify for federal stimulus payments, and language barriers may make it more difficult for them to access services.

Bridges Academy serves about 430 students, and 80 percent are learning English.

Teachers and other school workers, added Baldocchi, are often the first point of government contact for families and have a responsibility to connect them with help.

“Families that are still struggling the most are the ones we’ve seen hit really hard with COVID,” Baldocchi said.

Bridges Academy partners with the Oakland Public Education Fund and Community Check Cashing, a nonprofit organization. The funds that Bridges Academy raises go to the Oakland Public Education Fund, which then writes a check for the full amount to Community Check Cashing, which disperses individual checks to families from a list that the…

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