Massena Central officials speak at state hearing

MASSENA — Two representatives from the Massena Central School District were selected by New York State United Teachers to present to the state Legislature during its annual education budget hearing.

Community Schools Director Kristin Colarusso-Martin and Massena Federation of Teachers President Randy Freiman addressed the group via Zoom.

Ms. Colarusso-Martin was one of only four speakers who was asked to share information abut the impact of COVID on the district and the district’s response to the pandemic. She discussed rural community schools and how they can connect with communities. She said community schools are used as a support network for families by leveraging partnerships with community organizations and maximizing available resources.

She said Massena Central became one of the first rural Full Service Community Schools in New York starting in 2017 and is often referred to as a model for rural community schools.

“I talked a little bit about Massena and the challenges families in Massena are facing. I talked about the internet, mental health, student security and Rapid Response Team. It was a huge honor,” she said.

The District Rapid Response Team is part of that effort. It was formed in 2018 and includes nearly 80 school administrators, counselors, local government, law enforcement and community partners work collaboratively to address the needs of students and families in Massena to provide an immediate response to students in crisis.

In her presentation to lawmakers, Ms. Colarusso-Martin noted that Massena is the largest of 18 school districts in St. Lawrence County and a Title 1 school district with just over 2,500 students, three elementary schools, a junior high and high school.

“The needs of students and families is incredibly diverse and continues to increase thanks in part to the ongoing COVID epidemic. Three of our district’s challenges since the COVID crisis are lack of internet, food insecurity and mental health,” she told the group.

She said one of the biggest challenges the district faced when it pivoted to remote learning was reliable internet. While the district was able to provide every student with a Chromebook, officials learned some families were lacking internet connections.

“Through Community Schools, our local Salvation Army stepped in to help and purchased Kajeets for the district to lend to families so that students can participate in online learning,” Ms. Colarusso-Martin said.

With 62 percent of Massena Central’s students participating in the free and reduced meal program, she also addressed food insecurity, ensuring that families had access to food by promoting the free for all students U.S. Department of Agriculture meal program. The district also delivers weekly grocery bags of food to families who lack transportation, started a food pantry at the junior high for district families, and is becoming a Nutrition Hub, where officials work to connect families with food security programs and promote the school breakfast and lunch program.

Ms. Colarusso-Martin said the district also addresses health needs of students

“Here at Massena Central, we have partnered with state and private mental health providers to embed behavioral health services in our schools. Therapists and youth advocates work with students in person and virtually during the school day so that students’ mental health needs are being met and they can focus on school,” she said.

In addition, she said, the district is partnering with the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe “to empower our students and staff through yoga, mindfulness and self care.”

Internet accessibility, food insecurity and mental health services continue to get the focus this year.

“Continued set aside funding will support this important work however, there is so much more need. With additional funding, our wish would be to implement a School-Based Health Center where we could provide students and staff with behavioral, physical and dental health services as well as vaccine clinics,” Ms. Colarusso-Martin said.

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