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‘One community together’: West High Area Collaborative helps Madison families with rent

‘One community together’: West High Area Collaborative helps Madison families with rent


A volunteer unloads a truck of food from the River and Second Harvest food pantries at Westminster Presbyterian Church, where it is packaged and then sent out for delivery to some Madison Metropolitan School District families. The distribution program was part of an effort among school social workers that has grown into helping families with rent.

A group of school social workers organized food deliveries to students’ homes quickly following school closures amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, they’re helping those students and their families stay in those homes.

What began as a food distribution partnership between Thoreau Elementary School and Cherokee Middle School expanded over the past two months to include all of the feeder schools to West High School. They added toiletries and other items families needed along the way, as well.

“It’s amazing what can be done when resources are pulled together, brains are pulled together, when there’s everyone supporting the community as a whole,” said Cherokee social worker Abby Ray. “We’re all one community together.”

As the months went on, the social workers knew there was another need on the horizon: rent. A statewide moratorium on evictions had saved families for a couple months amid an economic downturn with major job losses, but it expired on May 26.

“We knew rent was going to be an issue,” said Midvale Elementary School social worker Shaya Schreiber. “We saw it written on the walls.”

[Madison School Board to vote on budget June 29 with many unknowns]

A $25,000 grant from the United Way of Dane County helped the Madison West High Area Collaborative fund that need while maintaining its other efforts.

The end to the moratorium left some families with months of unpaid rent on thin ice, facing the potential of uprooting during a public health crisis and already challenging times for their children, whose routines were interrupted and have had to learn and play at home since mid-March.

Maria Lujano is among those parents who were struggling.

“It’s been bad because the kids’ school was postponed a lot and they’ve gone several months without going to school,” Lujano said in an interview conducted in Spanish. “They’re expected to spend all their time locked up in the house. They want to get outside and go to the parks and play with their friends, but I can’t let them go out.”

She said her family’s situation would be “really bad” without the help of the school.

“They told the people in the apartments that they want their money, but imagine how it’s been for us,” she said. “The kids are going crazy because they want to go out and we’re stressed about not being able to pay the rent.

“The stress is a lot. If we didn’t die from the coronavirus, we’d die from the stress,” she added, with a laugh.

[Wisconsin education department expects schools to open in fall]

As of early last week, Schreiber said the group had helped about 47 families, with 110 students. Initially, they were able to provide up to $500 per family, but additional fundraising has allowed them to increase that to $800 to cover rent and utilities.

“I’ve helped with housing in the past and done the scramble of trying to call every different agency to prevent an eviction … but I’ve never done it to the level of 50 families,” Schreiber said. “It’s the majority of my job right now I’d say is helping out with the resources for families.”

Partnerships with groups like Joining Forces for Families, Urban Triage, the Community Action Coalition and the Tenant Resource Center have been key, as well, as they can all work together to supplement families’ needs.

“For us to be able to have that flexibility and be able to give that little extra that closes the gap for people has been really important,” Ray said.

Ray is hopeful that amid all of the challenges of the school closures and economy, those partnerships can be a “blessing in disguise” from this period, as they would’ve been challenging to build during periods of regular school.

“When you think of the word collaboration and collaborative and community, this is it,” she said. “Everyone’s bringing their own knowledge, their own experience, challenging each other to make sure we’re doing things the right way and supporting as many people as we can.

“(This) has changed the way that we can see our work going forward. Something that we hope when we’re back in the regular building we don’t lose.”

[Pomp and strange circumstance: MMSD Class of 2020 laments lost traditions, looks ahead amid COVID-19]

Schreiber added that she appreciated “how families can open up and share the uncomfortable” situations they face with others when they’re in need, “if it’s food, if it’s diapers, if it’s rent.”

“It hasn’t been easy for some families to reach out to us, but when they do I think it’s been a relief for them,” she said.

She and Ray are mostly happy they’ve been able to prevent one additional burden for families in this trying time, especially as it could provide some sense of continuity into next school year. If families have to move, that could also mean moving attendance areas.

“When you think of trauma and you think of all of the current events going on now with COVID, with the racial violence, losing housing is another traumatic experience,” Ray said. “If we can as a community prevent our students and families from experiencing (that), being able to do that is so crucial.”

Lujano said she was grateful to the school and others who have helped her through this time.

“They helped me a lot,” Lujano said of the school, specifically the counselor, Paola. “For anything that I needed, I could talk to them.”

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Scott Girard is the local k-12 education reporter at the Cap Times. A Madison native, he joined the paper in 2019 after working for six years for Unified Newspaper Group. Follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.

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The Cap Times spoke with a dozen members of MMSD’s Class of 2020, who offered varied experiences of what was supposed to be their final semester in high school being interrupted by a worldwide pandemic. They shared disappointment over lost traditions, trouble finding motivation to finish schoolwork and a hope that they’ll look back on this time and learn from it.

There are two major changes from the virtual learning the district put in place this spring. High school students can earn letter grades for courses, as long as the credit they’re recovering was in a class taken before the pandemic closed schools. Students up to grade 7, meanwhile, will have more direct interaction with their teachers.