"Developing the whole child:" Russell Elementary adds SUN Schools program

April 13, 2018

The school day had ended, but dozens of students remained at Russell Elementary after the bell on Thursday.

Some made fruit smoothies in the school library. Others kicked and dribbled balls in the gym. One group even studiously completed homework assignments in the cafeteria.

Chair Kafoury joins students at the SUN Community School at Russell Elementary.

The students are all part of the first year of SUN Community Schools at Russell. 

“We are thrilled to have SUN at Russell,” school principal Heather Bailey said. “This is... a program dedicated to developing the whole child.” 

Funded by Multnomah County, SUN Community Schools are full-service neighborhood hubs where the school and partners from across the community come together to make sure kids and families have what they need to be successful — in school and in life. SUN schools provide enrichment and recreation activities; family involvement and support; social, health and mental health resources; family and community events; instructional programs; and educational support and skill development.

With the addition this year of Russell Elementary at 2700 NE 127th Ave, all six schools in the Parkrose School District now are SUN Community Schools. The district is the first to offer the program at all of its schools.

“I can’t say enough about how much SUN has meant to our district,” said Michael Lopez-Serrao, the school’s assistant superintendent, who will take the top job next school year. “One of the key aspects to SUN, that we have really benefited from, is that SUN has really acted as a hub for our school community.” 

Lee Cha, executive director of IRCO; Ginny Scelza, Lyn Tan, and Sophorn Cheang of IRCO; Chair Kafoury; Russell Principal Heather Bailey, Commissioner Vega Pederson; SUN Site Manager Katie Fitzgerald; Parkrose Assistant Superintendent Michael Lopez-Serrao

Russell is now one of 86 SUN Community Schools throughout Multnomah County. The program operates in elementary, middle and high schools across Portland Public Schools and the Centennial, David Douglas, Gresham-Barlow, Parkrose and Reynolds school districts.

The program is managed by the County Department of County Human Services and operated by partners including the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), Latino Network and Impact Northwest. The County invested more than $6 million in the SUN Community Schools program in fiscal year 2017.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, whose district includes Russell, visited the school April 12.

In addition to checking in with students, they met with Lopez-Serrao; Russell principal Heather Bailey; SUN site manager Katie Fitzgerald; and Lee Cha, executive director of IRCO, which manages the SUN Community School at Russell.

Chair Kafoury and Commissioner Vega Pederson, still in their professional clothing from the morning’s Board meeting, nonetheless joined in pick-up games of dodgeball and sat in as second through fifth graders learned how to combine mangos, blueberries, apples and oranges to make tasty and healthy smoothie snacks.

Those activities are part of a County strategy — codified in the broader SUN Service System — to provide community-based care and support to children and families so that they are healthy, educated and prosperous.

In the 2017 fiscal year, more than 35,000 people participated in a wide array of SUN programs.

Commissioner Vega Pederson visits with a student at the SUN Community School at Russell Elementary.

“This is not just a safe space for kids after school,” Chair Kafoury said. “This is really about working with students, and their families, and enriching our community.”

Russell’s SUN school program operates until 4:30 p.m., two hours after the school day ends. Students take two classes and have a meal.

The Russell SUN program has offered 43 activities to students, including art, soccer and writing classes. The services are open to anyone, but the primary focus is on children, adults and families from the school neighborhood.

“I enjoyed the chance to interact with the kids and see how much the SUN program means to them,” Commissioner Vega Pederson said after the visit. “I appreciated the staff sharing how good partnerships can provide a network of support for student success and family engagement.” 

In its first year, the program has reached about 40 percent of the school’s 419 students. Nearly 70 percent of those participants are students of color. For a quarter of them, English is not their primary language.

The program can help students and their families build relationships in the community that could otherwise be out of reach.

Fitzgerald said students recently went to a performance of the Oregon Symphony during which one of the musicians asked, in Spanish, how many of the students also spoke Spanish.

“That was the moment I realized how worthwhile this kind of partnership can be,” Fitzgerald said. “Because they weren’t just going for the symphony. They were going to the symphony and seeing someone and thinking, ‘that could be me’.”