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From homelessness to the honor roll

Warren and Elnora Fontenette share their gratitude for Communities in Schools of Renton with liaison Ginny Fulmer. - Courtesy image
Warren and Elnora Fontenette share their gratitude for Communities in Schools of Renton with liaison Ginny Fulmer.
— image credit: Courtesy image

Warren Fontenette calls Ginny Fulmer, Communities in Schools family liaison, a blessing to his family. He credits Fulmer and the program she supports for helping his family transition from homelessness to a family that is surviving with children, who are now thriving in the Renton School District.

“Thank God I had somebody like Miss Ginny,” Fontenette said. “She’s really a blessing to me, you know. With this program it’s really needed, you know. Anybody like me when their backs against the wall, this program really helped; they don’t have this down south.”

Fontenette and his wife Elnora and their three children drove up from New Orleans to the Renton area without jobs, in shorts and tank tops and not much more than they could fit in their car. Having lost his job in New Orleans, Warren wanted to move his family to Washington state for a better life. The family stayed with a family member in Renton that wound up not having very safe or legal activities at their home. So the Fontenettes made the tough decision to live out of their car, while they tried for a better life.

The Fontenette’s youngest child attends Campbell Hill Elementary School. One day Principal Zakariya Palsha noticed that the student – who is not being named for privacy reasons – needed some new clothes. When Palsha mentioned this to Warren, the conversation turned into a frank discussion about the family’s living situation. Palsha referred the now homeless Fontenettes to the school’s Communities In Schools program.

Fulmer is the school’s family liaison and she was able to connect the Fontenette family with resources and education about the Renton area and services here. Through Communities in Schools, the Fontenettes receieved school supplies, clothing vouchers, coats, a weekend food program for the kids, holiday assistance, personal hygiene items and small household items.

“Oftentimes when we work with people it’s not that they need us doing stuff all the time for them forever,” said Sue Paro, executive director, Communities in Schools of Renton. “They just need a foot up; they need somebody to believe in them, somebody to offer some supports and then things start happening.”

Both parents now have good jobs; the family has an apartment and the children have gone from straight Fs to the honor roll. Fulmer counts the family as one of the organization’s success stories that Communities in School’s can claim involvement in that success.

In a recent report, Communities in Schools found continued improvement in statewide graduation rates. With a student dropping out of school every 26 minutes in America, the organization claims they are the best dropout prevention tool.

“Poverty, language barriers, homelessness, and poor health all play a part in limiting the ability of a child to even see, much less pursue their potential,” said Susan Richards, state director, Communities In Schools of Washington, in a new report titled “Changing the Picture in Washington State.”

“Our school-based site coordinators give them a hand up, hope for the future, and the confidence to get them walking down a path towards success,” she said.

The basic needs the Fontenette family required are typical of the more than 100 cases Fulmer is working with at Campbell Hill and Cascade elementary schools.

“The needs that they’re describing to you of homelessness, that’s all real,” said Fulmer. “Even if you take out the homeless factor, the basic need support; it’s rampant, not just on this hill, but in this district. And it’s not just in this district, it’s in the state and then the nation.”

Paro estimates that of the 7,000 students Communities in Schools of Renton serves about 200 are homeless. Also more than 800 students and their families were the focus of a family or academic liaison.

The report notes that 97 percent of students felt better about themselves and more positive about the future because of their involvement in the program and 95 percent of secondary students served were promoted to the next grade level. It also found that 91 percent of parents or guardians said their ability to help their child succeed in school increased.

“They took the information and made sure it was going to work, period,” said Fulmer of the Fontenette family. “But do we have successes like this, yes.”

Communities in Schools of Renton is currently seeking board members to help guide the work of the organization. Those interested should contact Sue Paro at 425-430-6656 or sparo@rentonwa.gov.

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