STERLING — Sterling Public Schools wants to join Nexus, a family services support program run by the Regional Office of Education, starting Jan. 1.
Becky Haas, director of student services, made the presentation Wednesday to the board of education on behalf of the administration.
Students are facing economic and social challenges outside the school system that make learning more difficult, said Haas, emphasizing the need.
More and more students are in foster care, a greater number can be considered homeless, more than half the students receive free or reduced meals and truancy rates are going up, she said.
The most recent Illinois Report Card, which includes data from 2021-22 school year, shows for Sterling Public Schools that 0.7% of the students are homeless, the rate of students who transfer in or out of the district is at 10% (and above the state average of 7.6%), 16% of the students are chronically absent and 6.5% are chronically truant.
While the school has staff that can help students academically and with social-emotional issues, Nexus provides “wraparound services” to families in such situations — helping to intervene in ways that traditional teachers and staff cannot, she said.
“Their employees can work outside school hours,” and they can be there in the evenings and on weekends, she added.
For example, Nexus can work with parents and assist in completing housing applications, Medicaid applications and help navigate the juvenile justice system. Nexus also can help parents find jobs or go back to school or obtain vocational training.
The program works in partnership with community service agencies to provide family-centered, strengths-based, outcome-oriented services to those that qualify through a referral process.
ROE’s Nexus team is led by coordinator Diana Merdian, and includes staff members Michelle Elmendorf and Ashley Teel. Initially, it was started to close the learning gap that was created by the interruption of in-person learning during the COVID-19 lockdowns from 2020-2021.
They may work with a specific family for three to five months. Their work is individualized and confidential. Sometimes the solution lies in providing basic needs, such as with food, clothing, housing, childcare, health or dental care, but it also can mean collaborating with existing entities, such as through the Sauk Valley STARS (the ROE’s effort to promote readiness of students for early childhood education in the three counties).
Haas said the program’s regional approach is a real boon: Families facing such challenges may have to move to a new school district as they obtain more permanent housing. As long as they remain in Lee, Ogle or Whiteside counties, they can continue to receive services; the support doesn’t restart just because they’re in a new school.
ROE applies a $15 per-student fee for a district to enroll in the program. Sterling Public Schools, with 3,230 students, would pay $24,225 per semester to participate.
The cost of enrolling could be offset by a Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act II grant — better known as the CARES Act — and money from the McKinney-Vento grants to assist the homeless, she said.