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How Gainesville schools' resource fair seeks to address student needs
District officials work to link families to services available
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Joyce Allen, right of the National Alliance on Mental Health, chats with Vickie Waddell and daughter Jennifer, 7, Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 at the Gainesville Middle School open house and resource fair. The fair brings multiple agencies, churches and other community groups together at one site and also hands out some school supplies for students. - photo by Scott Rogers

School, nonprofit and community leaders have often said Gainesville is a resource-rich community when it comes to the availability of services for low-income families.

That was a revelation, however, for Vickie Waddell, who attended a resource fair at Gainesville Middle School on Friday, Aug. 3, with her children, one of whom is entering the third grade.

“We were just finding out about stuff I didn’t know existed,” she said.

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Luis Garcia, 12 and mom Gloria visit Gainesville Middle School Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 for open house at the school. Visitors could also attend a resource fair inside the school cafeteria where multiple agencies, churches and other community groups give away some school supplies for students and information for parents. - photo by Scott Rogers

The absence of knowledge about what resources are available and how low-income families can access services has driven several new initiatives within the Gainesville City School System for the 2018-19 academic year, which begins Wednesday, Aug. 8.

The need is substantial. For example, every student enrolled in Gainesville schools is provided free or reduced cost lunch because the level of poverty made that option more attractive than spending money to process paperwork to determine eligibility.

In Hall County, 13.7 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and that figure rises to 29.4 percent within the Gainesville city limits, according to the latest census figures.

Additionally, nearly 300 Gainesville students are considered homeless, which includes families living in hotels or doubling up with other households.

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Hundreds descend on Gainesville Middle School Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 for open house and resource fair at the school. The resource fair brings multiple agencies, churches and other community groups together at one site and also hands out some school supplies for students. - photo by Scott Rogers

In recent months, Gainesville school officials have focused on implementing and providing wraparound services for students, with the potential to expand mental health counseling, add a clothing closet or food pantry inside schools, and develop new academic mentors. 

Stephanie Ledbetter, who has four children attending county and city schools, said the mentorship program is “very intriguing.”

Her daughter, Brooklan, will be taking a nursing class at Johnson High School this year, and the prospect of having her meet and learn from doctors and nurses is exciting.

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Students and parents line up outside Gainesville Middle School Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 for open house and resource fair at the school. - photo by Scott Rogers

Gainesville has also added new social workers to its roster, and has moved them from the central administration office to the schools where they are most needed, according to Superintendent Jeremy Williams.

The school system is also partnering with the United Way of Hall County to have a school social worker help coordinate the nonprofit’s Compass Center, which provides case management for families in need of services like access to health care, financial resources and basic needs.

“We believe that being able to serve at the Compass Center will help us have an even better understanding of community needs and allow us to make additional community connections while laying the foundation for working alongside United Way and other agencies on this integrated model,” said Sarah Bell, deputy superintendent.

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Gainesville Middle School English Language Arts teacher Jisel Arroyo, right, meets with student Cesar Espinal, 11, as he and mother Daniela Kerke and sister Andrea Albornoz, 17, left, visit the school Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 during open house and resource fair. - photo by Scott Rogers
Joy Griffin, president and chief professional officer of the United Way of Hall County, said this new approach will help fill in the gaps for families in need of several services.

“From our perspective, we know that a child cannot succeed in school without successful parents and that the parents can’t thrive without a thriving community,” she added. “So it all builds on each other.”

For many low-income families, thriving means access to affordable health care.

“A lot of people fall through the cracks when it comes to health care and dental care” said Liz Coates, community engagement director for the Good News Clinics, which provides free health care services to qualifying low-income individuals. “When the parents aren’t well, the whole family suffers.”

Ledbetter said the availability of health care for herself and her children is essential, and that she visited with several health care providers at the resource fair to understand her options.

“It’s interesting to see what all they offer in this community,” she added. 

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Parents and students walks though the hallways at Gainesville Middle School Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 during open house. The event also featured a resource fair bringing together multiple agencies, churches and other community groups. - photo by Scott Rogers
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