We reported last week on an event involving the Northside feeder schools that was coordinated under the auspices of Iowa Legal Aid, the district’s powerful new partner in overcoming every possible obstacle to student achievement.

DMPS Community Schools already supplement student instruction with basic supports in terms of food, shelter, clothing and healthcare. Now, families in need can also access pro bono legal assistance via their school connections.

Jill Padgett is the DMPS Community Schools Coordinator.

“Our partnership with Iowa Legal Aid really took off in the last year,” Padgett said. “Community schools are built on the belief that the school building is the hub of the community; a place where students and families can get everything they need in one stop. Iowa Legal Aid’s Community Stabilization Project is a natural fit in expanding our efforts. ILA addresses problems such as housing evictions, healthcare access, and domestic/sexual abuse.”

Earlier this summer, ILA began an outreach program via the DMPS Welcome Center where families new to the district come for a wide range of information and guidance. Each Wednesday an ILA attorney is on site to serve referrals made by the Welcome Center’s New Family Liaisons.

Kristie Kuntsman-Stern is the Senior Staff Attorney for Iowa Legal Aid and she was on duty yesterday, along with ILA Executive Director Nick Smithberg.

“This is just one aspect of our expanding partnership with DMPS,” said Kuntsman-Stern. “We will also staff a clinic at King Elementary every Monday, Wednesday and Friday once school starts that will be equipped to handle referrals from all over the district. And we plan to have a presence at school events to help us get acquainted with school communities and establish trust.”

Meet the Teacher Night meets Meet the Attorney Night.

The potential for impact that will eventually translate into improved student achievement is hard to measure, but high. Even during the summertime, examples have surfaced.

“We were able to assist a family referred to us from Monroe (Elementary),” said Kuntsman-Stern. “Siblings with histories of poor behavior were acting out in response to a home life marked by a father who was abusing both them and their mother. We helped their mom obtain a protective order that removed the abuser from the household and we’re now working on custody modifications. Also, the mother had arrest records stemming from crimes forced upon her by the father and we got those expunged so she was able to get a better job. This is only the beginning of their solutions, but she had no idea all of the help we are providing was available to her. She’s hopeful now instead of hopeless, and the school reports that her kids’ behavior at summertime activities was encouraging too, now that their home situation has improved.”

That vignette is only the tip of the “toxic stress” iceberg that can sink schools before they even get a crack at kids.

“We asked the schools to let us help them with the adults so they can focus on the kids,” said Kunstman-Sterns. No arm-twisting was required.

“Iowa Legal Aid and DMPS have a proven track record of working together for the benefit of students,” said Padgett. “Over the last three years Iowa Legal Aid, in partnership with the Iowa Department of Human Services, has conducted legal education presentations within our schools through their Youth Link Project. The Community Stabilization Project will allow us to expand the success of that earlier work.”

Stay tuned here for more throughout the year as this promising relationship develops and we share a whole new sort of report card.


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