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SCHOOL DISTRICT'S NEW CENTER FOCUSES ON CHILDREN IN NEED

As a social worker at Edison Elementary School in the Town of Tonawanda, Cecelia Bauer sees first hand how hard life can be these days on the children and families of her community.

Separations and divorce. Job losses. Depression.

"We are seeing children with more anxiety," Bauer said. "And sometimes the resources of our families are stretched too thin."

One way or another, these problems find their way into the classroom, she said. Now the classroom is trying a new way to help.

In January, the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District joins the list of school systems operating special support centers in their buildings for students and families.

Using $15,000 in seed money from the United Way, Ken-Ton's center will operate out of the district's Philip Sheridan Building at 3200 Elmwood in Kenmore.

"It's long overdue," if for no other reason than the issues these students face make the district's job of educating them extremely difficult, Ken-Ton School Board President Donette Darrow said of the center.

"They have a lot of baggage," Darrow said. "If we can help them with their problems, we can help them learn."

Bauer said the center will help families in distress figure out what services they need, then find and coordinate them. Coordinating is particularly important, she said, because a crisis such as divorce or a death in the family usually creates myriad needs -- financial assistance, counseling, quality child care.

"One service alone is not going to be enough," she said.

Lancaster, Sweet Home, Frontier and Hamburg are among the other districts that already operate such centers.

Ken-Ton's center will also offer classes and workshops on a variety of topics for parents and youngsters, such as understanding adolescent behavior or helping small children learn to make smoother transitions from one activity to another.

Darrow said officials wanted to open the support center because there seemed to be so many youngsters dealing with serious problems in their lives, like families who were splitting up.

Some of the problems, Darrow said, reflect the economic pressure and other forms of stress on families in the Ken-Ton community these days.

For instance, the individual poverty rate inched up over the last decade, according to the 2000 census. And while the number of affluent households did increase, the middle class took a serious hit.

In fact, Tonawanda suffered one of the largest declines in the middle class in Erie County, as manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs -- Ken-Ton's economic core -- continued to erode.

Financial stress, and the problems for families that it creates, is something she sees often, Darrow said.

"Single parents, parents working two jobs," she said. "We see a lot of that. They don't communicate much with the kids because they can't. They have to work all the time."

It makes sense, she said, for schools to serve as the headquarters for services for troubled families and their children.

"The teachers know these kids, they're with them all day," she said. "If anyone is going to be able identify a child in need, it's the teachers, the guidance counselors, the social workers."

If all goes as planned, Bauer and Darrow hope families with now think of the new center if they do find themselves in need.

"We want them to know we are here to help," Darrow said.

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e-mail: ncervantes@buffnews.com

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