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Decatur County Families Dig into Backpacks that promote learning at home

Schools across the nation recently concluded a school year unlike any other. In Decatur County, the focus has been on teaching and feeding their most vulnerable children—and now includes ensuring families have the tools they need to succeed when young learners return to school this fall.

“Decatur County schools were shut down very little during the pandemic, because they were the only source of food, health supplies, and education,” said Ronnie Burke, Decatur County Family Connection coordinator. “Decatur County has a high child poverty rate, so our children’s needs go well above education alone. Parents said access nutrition and food, and financial information they received, was particularly helpful.”

According to Georgia KIDS COUNT data, 35.6% of children in Decatur County live in poverty—nearly double the average of 19.5% for the rest of the state.

Chip Davis, director of Federal Programs and Title IX coordinator for Decatur County, recalled the far-reaching efforts of the schools and community leaders to ensure that each child was safe, fed, and learning when schools closed due to the pandemic last March.

“We were struck with a challenging time to teach our students but remain safe,” said Davis. “We quickly got hotspots and resources to families without internet. While getting educational materials out to our students was a top priority, we also needed to make sure they were being fed, so we set up feeding sites across the county.”

Decatur County Family Connection has helped develop programs to address limited transportation and internet access for the county’s families. The Collaborative works closely with the school’s social workers, superintendent, and parent involvement coordinator.

“We have a very close relationship with our school system,” said Burke. “Our backpack program sends food home weekly to struggling families, and our literacy bus goes into low-income housing areas to distribute reading materials and provide a Wi-Fi hotspot.”

As one of five pilot counties for the Get Georgia Reading at Home initiative, Decatur County received informational booklets to deliver to vulnerable families, along with a $1,200 grant to purchase additional materials to help parents teach their children at home. Decatur County Family Connection used the grant to partner with school officials to create activity kits.

“We used the backpack program to send the Get Georgia Reading at Home materials to at-risk families,” said Burke. “We hope to build on the relationships we’ve developed with these families to continue to support them in the future.”

The backpacks were filled with supplemental learning resources for students in grades K – 3, including books, worksheets, flashcards, and the Get Georgia Reading at Home Getting Ready Guide, which includes examples of simple, fun activities families can do with their child to prepare them for academic success.

“In our county, we focus on early literacy and increasing the knowledge of literary skills,” said Davis. “Parents can use the guided lessons provided in the bookbag to help instruct their children at home.”

Tia Williams, a parent in Decatur County, said she’s already taken advantage of the backpack program at home with her husband and daughters Taylor and rising kindergartner Tyler.

“Thankfully, Tyler was never quarantined in pre-K and her class didn’t have any issues,” said Williams. “While parents couldn’t go to the school to celebrate birthdays or attend activities, they did their best to normalize the school year for her. Our district worked really well with transitioning and creating a level of comfort for me as a parent for her to go to school.”

Now, the Williams family is using the materials they received to prepare Tyler for kindergarten. “The backpack is a valuable resource for parents to have on hand,” she said. “The books and workbook are appropriate for her. She enjoys going through the different activities, and the tips on what to do to get her excited about reading are helpful. And Taylor, my little one, sits and listens in on the stories.”

The Get Georgia Reading at Home initiative aims to support early learners’ language and literacy development while also helping to prevent learning loss during the summer months. “The bookbag reading resources will be a great tool for parents to use at home and help kids continue to learn and grow,” said Davis.