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Taking 'STEPS' to help families, students

New program hopes to help strengthen families to help students

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Strengthening Ties and Empowering Parents, or STEPS, and Duval County Public Schools are partnering with Family Support Services of North Florida to offer a new program to students and their families. The idea behind it is, better family relationships make better students.

Through the STEPS program, four Duval County schools will have a family preservation specialist on-site throughout the school year, including Oceanway Elementary School.

"We've all heard the old adage 'it takes a village to raise a child,' well I like to think it takes a community to guide a child, and this is one effort to prevent parents from faltering and helping them to strengthen their families," Duval County School District board member Paula Wright said.

Family Support Services of North Florida has been offering the STEPS program to families in the Jacksonville area since 2006, but this is the first time they're bringing the program directly to public schools, and program advocates said it's all about access.

"Families are already coming, already familiar with their schools it just gives more opportunities for their families to be more successful," FSS chairman and DCSD board member Ashley Smith Juarez said.

FSS is dedicating two family preservation specialists to the STEPS in School program. One will split time between Oceanway and Mamie Agnes Jones Elementary Schools. The other specialist will spend time at Windy Hill and Love Grove Elementary Schools.

"When you look at the needs of the children and families, the best place for us to tap into that is through the school systems," FSS CEO Lee Kaywork, said.

The four schools were chosen based on the results of a Gallup poll last year that showed students in those schools had the lowest ratings in areas of happiness, feeling supported, having an adult to turn to and believing in a positive future.

"It's a prevention program designed to help families strengthen their parenting skills, their budgeting skills and stabilize families that have some issues," Kaywork said.

The specialists will coordinate with school counselors to provide family services and referrals to at-risk families.

Thursday's kickoff event included a healthy food preparation lesson, including nutrition and healthy snack options, provided by the Annie Ruth Foundation.

"If we can target the particular needs of students and partner with those who have expertise in those areas, our kids will be more successful and able to dream big about their future," Juarez said.

Last year alone the STEPS program helped about 3,000 families and depending on budgeting and the success of the program, FSS hopes to expand it to other school districts.