Amber Ladd is the family resource coordinator for Mill Creek Elementary Leadership Academy, and Ladd knows that a student’s family is one of the most important factors in academic success.
“Something I’m extremely passionate about is empowering parents to be more involved parents,” she said. “I mean, who can be a better cheerleader than the parent themselves?”
Even before the pandemic began, many children in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) had already been struggling to overcome barriers like poverty, trauma and systemic racism. By many accounts the pandemic has intensified these issues for students. In JCPS, each elementary school has a family resource coordinator whose job is helping students and their families overcome these kinds of challenges.
This is Ladd’s sixth year at Mill Creek. During non-pandemic times, she usually spent much of her day creating after-school programming, and reaching out to engage families in their children’s schooling. Ladd also helped families meet their basic needs, connecting parents to foodbanks, and utility and housing assistance.
Getting these resources to families has always been a part of Ladd’s job. At Mill Creek, more than 90% of students are from low-income families. But since the pandemic began, Ladd said, meeting basic needs has taken center stage. Food insecurity is one of the biggest challenges.
“Families just can’t easily go out to eat at some of the places in the community that have the kids eat free specials,” she said, noting many families now avoid restaurants to reduce the risk of catching the coronavirus. “Depending on the family size it may be more of a financial expense preparing a whole meal as compared to us all going out to [a restaurant where] I know the children are going to eat free, and so I’m paying for just one meal.”
Ladd says despite the challenges, the pandemic has a silver lining. She’s seen some parents become more involved in helping with schoolwork, and that has boosted achievement for some students.
“I think that there’s more opportunity for families to connect, to draw closer during this pandemic. And I feel like this is a time for everyone to calm down the busyness,” she said.
But the same is not true for parents who are essential workers who work outside the home.
“That parent is working all day 10 to 12 hours. They’re exhausted,” she said. “Many of them, they will still push through to make sure that their student completes their assignment. But quite a few, they are burnt out to the point where they don’t do that. And so that child does tend to fall behind educationally.”
That weighs on Ladd, especially when she can’t find a solution.
“This is the part that I’m struggling with because it’s so hard to help those parents,” she said.
Ladd isn’t allowed to do home visits because of the risk of contracting COVID-19. But she has managed to swing by families’ homes to drop off assignments or school supplies on the porch, and at least wave.
She finds joy in seeing their faces squished against the other side of the window — and in moments when the school community is able to make a difference for a family.
Recently, Ladd found an anonymous donor who gave a van to a grandmother caring for four Mill Creek students. The family relied on the school for meals, but the grandmother had no transportation, so she walked to the twice weekly meal pickups, using her walker.
Ladd saw the grandmother when she came to a drive-through school-supply pickup just before winter break. The kids were in the back. Ladd waved and said hi. She misses seeing them in the classroom, the hugs and the special handshakes.
She can’t wait to be back in the building with her students, as soon as it’s safe.