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Commissioners Court considers allocating additional funding for high-risk youth program

Wednesday, August 12, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

As public education moves from classrooms to screens in students’ homes, families’ need for support from educational institutions has increased. Students from vulnerable populations, in particular, benefit from personalized contact with someone in the Austin Independent School District, according to Allen Weeks, the executive director of Austin Voices for Education and Youth.

“We’re really in there as a bridge to our communities at a really difficult time,” he told the Travis County Commissioners Court at its Aug. 11 meeting.

Among the critical services AVEY provides to students are its Family Resource Centers, which run across six AISD campuses, providing adult education and helping to stabilize families in transition and improve students’ outcomes. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the centers have assisted 389 families with rent, 575 families with utilities, 1,894 families with rapid response services, and 7,520 families with food distributions.

However, the organization requires county funding, and the money will run out at the start of the upcoming school year. To continue its programs for another year, the nonprofit is asking the county for $100,000.

Last year, when the Commissioners Court approved the requested $100,000 in one-time funding for AVEY – as it has done every year since 2015 – commissioners indicated it would be for the last time. However, citing the “impressive” work that the organization has managed throughout the course of the pandemic, commissioners voted unanimously to have the Planning and Budget Office put in a line item to consider funding the request during the revision period for the Fiscal Year 2021 budget.

“I think that we all agree that investing in young people through education is the most crucial thing we can do as a society,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said.

The Health and Human Services Department, which funds AVEY’s Family Resource Centers, identified $145,000 in unallocated funds in its coffers and was not opposed to funding the request. However, Sherri Fleming, the county executive with the Health and Human Services Department, told commissioners that they recently approved the allocation of $62,654 to help fund Family Eldercare, which left the department with less than the requested amount unallocated.

County Judge Sam Biscoe noted that during the final revision of the county budget, extra monies are often left unallocated in the General Fund that may be redirected to this programming.

Weeks told commissioners that in addition to AVEY’s Covid-19 response, which involves providing emergency food and medication to families and locating students who have disappeared from the district’s radar, the organization continues to provide many of its normal services, including case management, staffing and running the Family Resource Centers.

AVEY’s Family Resource Centers have reduced student mobility at campuses by one-third since 2014, meaning that kids are more consistently attending classes, which increases the potential of graduating from high school. At Northeast Early College High School (formerly John H. Reagan High School), Weeks said the graduation rate increased from 48 to 99 percent over the last six years.

Shea pointed out that investing in early intervention programs helps limit the need to increase future funding for other Travis County services such as detention facilities, where vulnerable kids who fall through the cracks of the education system can end up. She indicated that she intends to support funding for the organization when the budget returns before the Commissioners Court for revisions.

Weeks agreed that connecting students with programming now can produce positive outcomes later. Striving to engage kids now will help empower students who might otherwise be lost in the shifting school system of the upcoming year.

“We’re working like crazy with our families – most of them are highest risk – to keep them connected,” Weeks said.

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