Submitted by: Jason Witt, La Crosse County Human Services Director
Under the Rebuilding for Learning Initiative, we are united in the goal of ensuring that every child in our community has an opportunity to succeed. It’s a goal that has never been more ambitious or challenging. Children passing through the doors of La Crosse schools today face more barriers to success than ever before. Evidence of this shows up in some troubling human services statistics.
- We have seen a 52 percent increase in children whose home environment is so unsafe that they have been removed and placed in foster care. How difficult is it to show up “ready to learn” with such turmoil and emotional stress going on with the family?
- More La Crosse County youth are arrested than almost anywhere else in the state. These youth are often from troubled homes or families with a history in the criminal justice system. An arrest may saddle them with lifetime barriers to education and employment, making it much more likely that a family cycle of crime and poverty will continue.
- African American youth, who are among the fastest growing racial group in La Crosse schools, are approximately nine times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. They are also suspended from school at much higher percentages. An arrest record and disrupted education add to the list of barriers many of these youth already face individually. Collectively, the grossly disproportionate racial impact erodes confidence in local institutions of authority.
- Teachers are seeing more mental health and behavior issues among the children in their classrooms. These problems seem to be arising at younger ages and with increased intensity. Without a consistent and aggressive early intervention response, we exacerbate the barriers these children will face as they grow into adulthood.
With regards to all of these issues, wouldn’t it be nice if someone were to create a really great program to fix them? Someone else, that is. After all –whether it be teachers, county social workers, or community therapists– we all have enough on our plate with our day to day tasks. Besides, isn’t there a “system” that’s supposed to be addressing these issues?
Rebuilding for learning recognizes that there’s no magic fix. Certainly there is not a fix we can pass off to someone else. As the County, City and School District, in partnership with community agencies, we are the system. Only through working collectively and bringing a willingness to change longstanding and comfortable practices is there hope of improving the future of our community’s most troubled children.
We can be proud of our efforts. There’s a level of cooperation and passion around Rebuilding for Learning that is the envy of other communities. The dedication we’ve seen on display at four annual community summits has sustained itself in “roll up your sleeves” projects that continue throughout the year. We see the fruits of our work in improved communications, a better understanding of what we all bring to the table and a shared attitude that “we’re all in this together.” What follows is just a sampling of the fruits of our collaboration that will be moving forward in a significant way in 2015.
- Trauma Informed Care: We will continue the work from this year’s summit towards “creating a trauma informed community.” The year 2015 will bring several opportunities to progress in learning and practice. Collectively, we will increase our ability to base our intervention strategies for children on knowledge of their unique Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
- Juvenile Justice Reform: Work will get underway to implement the recommendations of last year’s Juvenile Justice Task Force, which was co-chaired by School District of La Crosse and La Crosse County. At the top of the list will be formulation of an agreement establishing clear thresholds as to when youth misbehavior at school warrants an intervention from the criminal justice system. Exploration will be done to fill current gaps related to prevention services and arrest alternatives.
- Neighborhood-Based Services: A new prevention initiative will be launched to identify and stabilize families before they enter child protective services, the criminal system or other emergency systems of care. As part of this initiative, newly created community social workers will be “embedded” in two of our most challenged area neighborhoods. The workers will coordinate services with a core team of teachers, police, public health nurses and others to identify and pro-actively engage at-risk families. Rather than offering help as a stranger, these workers will approach families as a trusted neighborhood presence.
- Mental Health: Capitalizing on opportunities brought by recent State initiatives in the mental health area, we will significantly expand certain types of mental health resources for children. Multiple stakeholders from across the Rebuilding for Learning spectrum will be focusing on tools and consistency in early identification and treatment. The focus will be on making sure every child needing help is connected to appropriate care.
With these and other collaborative efforts, 2015 is sure to be another year of progress in keeping opportunities for success alive for our community’s most troubled children! As we anticipate the good things to come, let’s take some time during what’s left in the current year to soak up all that’s good about the Holiday season. Thanks for your tireless efforts on behalf of our community’s children. As mentors, coaches and caregivers to so many, may you experience your own joy and healing during this special season!