Missouri school combines education, welfare help

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — New help is coming to struggling families through a school in one of the poorest, crime-ridden neighborhoods in Kansas City.

An office that serves welfare recipients opened at King/Weeks Elementary School — part of a national push for schools to provide a range of social services beyond education.

The Washington-based Coalition for Community Schools has advocated the approach, which has been employed in schools from Evansville, Ind., to the Portland, Ore., area. In Chicago, for instance, community schools work with partner agencies to develop after-school and weekend programming for children and adults. Services such as onsite medical and dental care also are provided.

In Kansas City, King/Weeks is located in the 64130 area code, which The Kansas City Star profiled two years ago as the home to more convicted murderers than any other ZIP code in Missouri.

It also has the highest population in Kansas City of residents receiving assistance under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Almost 840 families receive the financial help in 64130 and the neighboring 64127 zip codes, said Brent Schondelmeyer, a spokesman for the nonprofit Local Investment Commission.

Many of the issues in the community are magnified in the area, everything from foreclosures to unemployment.

“If it’s generally true, it’s more true there,” Schondelmeyer said.

The Local Investment Commission, which already offers after-school care at King/Weeks, is behind the effort to open a welfare assistance officer at the school. The nonprofit’s LINCWorks offices help welfare recipients get training and work experience as well as address employment barriers such as a lack of child care. But until now, none of those offices have been located in schools. The area, with all its challenges, seemed a perfect place to try out the concept.

“We have a strong commitment to saying, ’We should move these services so they are as close as possible to where people live and that they’re as accessible as possible and that it feels comfortable and it feels familiar,’” Schondelmeyer said. “That’s the whole underlying idea.”

In the past three week, about 25 people have come through the office, said principal Philomina Harshaw.

“Sometimes going outside the community can be threatening when you know you need to start over,” Harshaw said. “The fact that it is such a warm and inviting area and is not threatening, that is important whether you need help with an interview, an application, writing a resume or just looking for a job.”

Schondelmeyer said combining education and social work services also eases transportation obstacles because many parents are at the school anyway picking up and dropping off their children. The benefits, he said, can extend far beyond the participants.

“The whole idea is if you can create stable families who stay connected to schools, then they will commit to neighborhoods and then you create stable neighborhoods,” Schondelmeyer said.

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