WOBURN - School officials will likely soon announce the hiring of a new "family and community engagement liaison" as the district tries to bridge acknowledged communication issues with an increasingly diverse population of local families.
A few weeks ago, central office administrators advertised the job vacancy after receiving permission from the School Committee to appropriate $25,000 in current year budget funding towards the new position. The staff member will ultimately be paid approximately $50,000 a year, but roughly half of that funding will come from federal Title 1 grants.
According to Superintendent Dr. Matthew Crowley, who urged the School Committee to sanction the new position earlier this fall, the family and community engagement liaison is needed as the district struggles to connect with the families of a growing number of English Language Learner (ELL), special education, and economically disadvantaged students.
School officials in recent years have also raised the alarm about a troubling increase in children living with mental health and social-emotional issues that are affecting classroom learning.
"I support this position 100 percent," said School Committee member Joseph Demers during a meeting late last month. "Over the past 30 years, the role of our school system has drastically changed. We're not only educational centers, but providing supports for social services."
"As a graduate of Woburn Memorial High School in 2003, there was very little focus put on social-emotional learning. But if you fast-forward 20-years, that's been the priority of our past three budgets," he added.
Based upon the job description, the new hire will work directly under Superintendent Dr. Matthew Crowley's office to provide outreach through "constant communication" with families, including through social media campaigns, special events, and by forging new partnerships with business and civic organizations.
At a minimum, the new staff member is expected to help new families understand the enrollment process, standardized testing data, and their rights as their children are educated in the public school system.
According to Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Dr. Matthew Baldassare, though the new liaison will focus much attention on internal school system matters, he also expects the staff member to be well-versed with paperwork and documentation requirements for the provision of outside social services.
Both Baldassare and Crowley have repeatedly stated that those outside supports are pivotal to the school department's primary mission, as in their view, a child who is struggling with hunger, poverty, or serious problems at home is unlikely to flourish in the classroom.
"That person will mobilize to find families that are not getting these forms of assistance and make sure they're accessing them," said the assistant superintendent.
The central office administrators also argued that the outreach specialist will likely be able to "self-fund" their own position by connecting families with common forms of assistance like food stamps and subsidized health insurance.
Specifically, the state's Chapter 70 or education aid formula reportedly allocates to districts an extra $4,000 in funding for each student whose families receive such benefits.
"So if this liaison, who hopefully speaks multiple languages, is able to help one family through a confusing process of filling out forms, the district would receive $12,000 in funding next year. So if we identify six families [with only one child], this position would be cost neutral," explained Baldassare, who is more than confident that goal will be reached.
Though the superintendent did approach Mayor Scott Galvin and receive the city executive's consent before pitching the mid-year staff addition, School Committee member Patricia Chisholm last month insisted the move still broached promises made to the City Council and the citizenry about hiring new employees.
"I told the taxpayers I wouldn't vote for new staff after the budget was done. All of a sudden, we've found money and we're adding things. That bothers me. My word means something," said Chisholm. "If you want to put the money into [next year's] budget and then ask for a vote on it, I'll support it."
Last spring, in the midst of a special education funding crisis, the mayor agreed to steer an additional $1.2 million to the district's FY'20 budget in order to plug the anticipated shortfall. Ultimately, school spending is expected to increase by $3.4 million of 5.5 percent this year.
According to School Committee member Dr. John Wells, after watching Crowley lead the district over the past two years, he has come to implicitly trust in the judgment of the superintendent.
Also telling Chisholm he understood the reason for her dissent, Wells suggested the superintendent had addressed that potential conflict by first going to the mayor to explain why the new hire is needed.
"He's instilled in me a sense of trust. I'm willing to follow his lead," said Wells.