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The heart of East Forsyth: School leaders partner with local nonprofits to provide on-campus support for families
East Forsyth High School
East Forsyth High School. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

Jeff Cheney planned meticulously for more than a year for the opening of East Forsyth High School.

As principal of the new school, he knew he needed to offer students all the same quality programs and expectations that make Forsyth County Schools one of the best districts in the state while also giving East Forsyth its own unique feel.

Since the beginning of the school year in August, students have been able to see many of these unique touches, whether it’s the spacious hallways, the grassy courtyard or the career pathway classrooms containing tools for construction and design projects.

But as students rush through the front of the building to classes each morning, they might miss what Cheney said has been the school’s biggest venture so far — the Be Better Support Services program.

Cheney said he and his team have dedicated much of the front of the school building for the program, which offers a variety of services on campus to help students academically, mentally and emotionally.

This umbrella of services includes counseling and wellness for students along with the community school center, which is meant to serve everyone in the East Forsyth community, including students, families and staff.

“I’m coordinating the best way to create a positive climate and culture [for our families],” Cheney said.

Bringing services directly to East Forsyth

Cheney and other school leaders have partnered with three anchor organizations to help make the community school center a reality: Mentor Me North Georgia, Family Ties and The Place of Forsyth.

As part of the services offered to families, Cheney said representatives from each of the local partnering nonprofits come onto campus each week to work with school counselors and social worker. They also meet directly with students and families to provide counseling and resources.

These services are unique to East Forsyth while still aligning with the district’s overall goal of focusing on “the whole child,” and teaching social and emotional thinking.

“It’s the first time that it has been done to this extent where those partner organizations are actually in the school, directly working with our staff,” Cheney said. “Prior to that, you had to refer students and families, and they might go 50% of the time because of transportation issues and other barriers.”

The center eliminates those barriers for families, giving them easy access to much-needed resources.

Gabriela Saenz, Family and Community Engagement coordinator, has spearheaded the school community center program this year, using her extensive background in providing support for students and families to work closely with the partnering anchor organizations.

Saenz said a program and center like the one at East Forsyth can be important in meeting the needs of students and families and preparing them for academics.

“We all know being a teenager can be hard,” Saenz said. “And health is inclusive of mental health, so addressing all those needs is really to our students’ advantage and the community’s advantage.”

The Broncos’ Place

With families’ basic needs in mind, Saenz and Cheney partnered with The Place of Forsyth to plan a school store on campus where students will be able to pick up donated food, clothes and supplies they may need on campus or at home.

Through the store, called The Broncos’ Place, the nonprofit can bring resources and items for families directly to campus. East Forsyth has also been accepting donations from community members and local churches and organizations to help stock up for students in need.

The store, which will be run by staff, students and volunteers from The Place, is separate from the already-established school store where families can buy spirit wear and other items, but Saenz said it will be more of a “hang out” spot for students where they can also buy coffee and other treats.

“The Broncos’ Place will be a place where all students are welcome to hang out and meet with one another,” said Joni Smith, president and CEO of The Place. “Students, teachers and staff will be able to purchase coffee, a baked item or a treat. But also, pick up a free granola bar, fresh fruit, hygiene items, and ask for additional assistance in a more private manner.”

This way, Smith and Saenz said they hope students and families feel more comfortable asking for help.

“By meeting face-to-face with students and becoming part of their school culture, we hope that students who need assistance will be able to receive help without the stigma of going to a ‘clothing closet’ in a dark hallway,” Smith said.

She explained students will also be able to talk directly with The Place volunteers on campus and seek assistance for their families “that perhaps their parents are unaware of, or that they refuse to seek out on their own.”

The Place and East Forsyth have worked hard through the beginning of the school year to bring The Broncos’ Place together, and they will be holding an official grand opening on Wednesday, Sept. 8.

“We could not be more thrilled about this partnership,” Smith said. “It has challenged us to think of service in an innovative way and has given us the opportunity to embrace a new generation in a more direct and intentional way. Hopefully, The Broncos’ Place will give everyone an additional safe place to go to, but we anticipate that the impact on us, as an organization, will be just as meaningful.”

Mental health counseling

Outside of The Place’s work on the new school store, representatives from Family Ties and Mentor Me North Georgia will also visit East Forsyth’s campus regularly to help provide counseling and resources for families.

East Forsyth partnered with Family Ties to specifically help students with their mental health, offering individual, group and family counseling to those who need it through the community school center.

Whether they are struggling with behavioral issues, depression or anxiety, or simple stress, Family Ties’ School-Based Supervisor Sherita Settles said students can seek help from counselors at any time, and staff and school leaders can send them referrals.

On top of counseling, Settles said the organization hopes to host different online events for families and provide community resources on campus. They already have planned online parent workshops, which anyone in the metro Atlanta community or beyond can join in on.

These workshops will explore different topics that Settles hopes will help families improve their overall health and wellness. The speaker at the next event on Sept. 15, will give parents advice on how they can help their kids manage school-related anxiety.

“What we always see, and not just in the pandemic, is that families are struggling on other levels that may not necessarily be just the behavioral health,” said Ciara Green, Family Ties president. “So when you have these resource centers like in East Forsyth, parents can come collectively and not just get one bucket of services, but an array of a bucket of services.”

Including uninsured families

Family Ties also offers counseling at all Forsyth County schools.

Region 2 Supervisor Tiffani Cruz said they have been partnered with the school district for the past six years out of the school-based program, so families from any school can request counseling services on campus, at home or through the newer telehealth services online.

This school year, however, the organization was also able to add Forsyth County to the Georgia Apex Program funded by Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. So far, three schools in the county have received grants through the program: East Forsyth, Denmark and North Forsyth high schools.

Through the program, Family Ties can offer counseling services to students at these schools regardless of whether the students or their families are insured.

“That’s of course really important when it comes to our undocumented students or just students who have insurance that has lapsed or whatever the case may be,” Settles said. “Being able to not have that barrier of insurance is one of the impacts that we’ve seen.”

Academics and life skills

With the whole child model in mind, Saenz partnered with Mentor Me North Georgia to offer services on campus that will help students on the academic side.

The nonprofit’s counselors will work with campus counselors to give students advice for studying, looking at colleges and planning for their finances upon graduation.

Mentor Me and school leaders both are excited for the partnership as it gives students a chance not only to catch up in classes and find better ways to manage time, but it also gives them a better opportunity to connect with a counselor and possible mentor.

Academics aside, mentors can also help students with soft skills they will need at some point, like how to change a tire or manage personal finances.

What’s next

Saenz and Cheney both said they are excited to bring the community partners on campus and provide as many resources as possible to the entire East Forsyth family.

Even as The Broncos’ Place gets ready to debut on Wednesday, Saenz is continuing to think of ways they can grow the school community center and Be Better Support Services.

Since East Forsyth is in its first year, the school is currently not at capacity, meaning they can also use empty classrooms near the front of the school to host even more events for parents or create a family resource room.

In those classrooms, Saenz said she envisions FASFA nights for both English- and Spanish-speaking families and other parent engagement programs that would bring families onto campus and integrate them more into the East Forsyth community.

She also hopes to involve businesses and individuals in the community as sponsors or partners in the program.

“The idea is that, over time, this becomes the heart of the school and a student center,” Saenz said. “We’re really excited.”