Families & the Community Leader To Learn From

Relying on Community Values: How One School Leader Advocates for Vulnerable Families

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 17, 2021 7 min read
Carissa Purnell, director of the Family Resource Centers for the Alisal Union School District in Salinas, Calif.
Carissa Purnell
Recognized for Leadership in Community Engagement
Community Engagement
Director of Family Resource Centers
Success District:
Alisal Union School District, Salinas, Calif.
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Growing up in a large Filipino immigrant family in Sacramento, Calif., Carissa Purnell didn’t feel like she really fit into the local community. But that changed in 2010 when she started teaching English at a library in Salinas, Calif., while she was in graduate school.

“It just felt like home as soon as I got here,” Purnell said of Salinas, a city roughly two hours south of San Francisco where nearly 80 percent of the residents are Hispanic.

“I came here, and I just felt welcome. I felt like I saw people who looked like me. It felt like I was in the right place doing the right thing for the right people.”

Not far from the library was a family resource center run by the Alisal Union school district that provided an array of support services, including essential, everyday items, internet connectivity, and critical information to families, many of whom work on the farms and vineyards in Salinas and Monterey County.

It’s at this center that Purnell, now the director of the Family Resource Centers for the 8,600-student school system, has made her biggest mark. And her work—in an area largely defined by agriculture and the many vulnerable families who depend on it for their livelihoods—has become even more urgent during the coronavirus pandemic.

More than three-quarters of students in Alisal’s 12 schools are English-language learners, according to recent federal data, and more than one in 10 have been identified as homeless. And a 2015 study found that 40 percent of children in East Salinas, the community Alisal serves, had at least one parent who was an undocumented immigrant.

Purnell’s job on behalf of these families covers “anything that occurs outside of the four classroom walls.”

Lessons From the Leader

  • Rely on Your Community Values.The most impactful and meaningful moments of my professional journey have been around dinner tables, celebrating first communions, and marching alongside my community in Cesar Chavez parades. We should use the deep values given to us by our parents, our neighborhood, our culture, our music, and our language to help build a foundation for our work.”
  • Think Beyond the School Building. Everything that takes place outside the four classroom walls is our responsibility in education as well. We have to feed, clothe, house, and love even when the bell rings. It is our moral responsibility as educators to recognize learning is rooted in belonging and care.
  • Don’t Duck Politics. Educators should know the political climate and watch policy debates carefully. This work is political and neutrality cannot exist. Love will move you to stand up in the face of the inequities and injustices your students live. We should model the courage we expect of young people.

If that means food and toy drives, she runs them. If that means legal aid for families navigating immigration issues, she directs them to lawyers. If that means a family needs a roof over their heads, the county shelter gets a call. If that means driving to hundreds of homes during a pandemic to distribute supplies families need, that’s what Purnell does.

“Really starting at the bottom is where you need to be if you want to build up,” said Purnell, who speaks Spanish, like many of the families she serves.

The foundation for Purnell’s work is the dozens upon dozens of relationships forged with people in need, who trust her not just because of her job, but because of her and her staff’s track record.

Purnell has helped open two additional Family Resource Centers since she started six years ago. She’s also put significant effort into improving health-care services in the community through a partnership with a local clinic to provide mobile medical care to families, and ensuring that their voices influence district decisions.

“We’re a neighbor, and we’re a part of the community, just like the school is,” she said.

Building Bonds Internally and Beyond

Purnell and the 18 full-time staff members at the Family Resource Centers work closely with teachers, who are the number one source of referrals about students’ and families’ needs.

She’s learned how powerful teachers’ intuitions can be about what is going on in students’ lives outside of school.

For Jim Koenig, the district’s superintendent, the connection between teachers’ work and what Purnell does is obvious and constant.

“The fact of the matter is that if kids aren’t eating, they’re not going to do well in school,” Koenig said. “If kids don’t have a place to stay, they’re not going to do well in school.”

Purnell doesn’t just go along with whatever the district is doing. She fights to ensure that families are speaking directly to local decisionmakers about how the district spends money under California’s Local Control Accountability Plan.

We don’t make decisions for them. We make decisions with them.

Under the LCAP law, districts must make decisions about important goals, plans, and spending in conjunction with families and other groups that have a vested interest in local schools. The Family Resource Centers have provided meeting space and other services, such as language interpretation, for families and local advocacy groups working to influence the LCAP process.

“We don’t make decisions for them. We make decisions with them,” Purnell said.

Andrea Manzo, the regional equity director of Building Healthy Communities, a local nonprofit that works to address social inequities, said Purnell is constantly finding ways to help and empower families.

“She’s always doing advocacy internally to make sure she has the appropriate funding to support families,” Manzo said. “The resource center is a home, a hub, for a lot of Eastside families. I don’t even know if that woman sleeps.”

Purnell’s job also involves fundraising and building a web of connections outside the district, from groups like Manzo’s to the Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System, which staffs the mobile clinic, and private groups like the California Endowment and the David & Lucile Packard Foundation. Purnell estimates that she’s helped raise about $500,000 in grants from private sources over the years that have gone towards things like paying attorneys’ fees for families. (The California Endowment also backs Building Healthy Communities.)

Purnell’s past service on the Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System’s board of directors is an example of how she builds formal as well as informal partnerships in “political spaces” to ultimately help families.

The free mobile clinic, which the health-care system runs, operates from noon to 8 p.m. once a week at one of the district’s family resource centers. It provides everything from COVID-19 testing and screenings to primary care and health education. At any one time, the staff included a social worker or community health advocate.

Building up trust by going to people

In the 2019-20 school year, the centers provided services to families in about 22,000 instances (what Purnell called “touch points”).But the pandemic has accelerated the pace and urgency of her role, and has put delivering food and other basic essentials to families at the top of her to-do list.

Working with local food banks, the general idea behind her COVID-19 strategy has been to provide families enough essentials to survive on for months if necessary.

State Assemblyman Robert Rivas, a Democrat who represents Salinas in the state legislature, has known Purnell for about four years. Her efforts to provide needed resources as well as important information to agricultural workers about the pandemic depended on not just hard work, but on the trust she has built over several years in the Salinas area, he said.

Carissa Purnell, director of the family resource centers for the Alisal Union School District in Salinas, Calif.

She was instrumental in ensuring that families knew when COVID-19 testing sites were open and where they could get tested, Rivas said.

“She directly went out to the fields,” he said. “She directly went out in the communities to address this incredible need among these families and this incredibly vulnerable population of people. She doesn’t stop until she makes progress.”

From Wi-Fi systems to systemic change

It’s the same attitude she brings to avoiding disruption to families’ access to food and other basic necessities through relief drives.

After seeing students sitting outside of a local Starbucks trying to access the internet, Purnell made Wi-Fi a priority. Her staff prioritized extending internet connectivity to students eligible for federally-backed services for homeless students, delivered hotspots to homes, and created an online map of wireless services. The district also worked with the Monterey County Office of Education to install wireless internet at a migrant camp and used federal relief dollars to ensure broader access to mobile hotspots.

“There’s nothing that’s too embarrassing to ask for,” she said. “There’s no shame in asking for something because you’re asking someone who’s family.”

Purnell isn’t naïve. She knows that some of the problems—like the overcrowded dwellings where many migrant agricultural workers live and where the coronavirus can spread easily—can’t be solved by check-in visits, philanthropy, and donation drives. But her awareness of the structural inequities that affect those families motivates her to push harder.

“I would love an equitable housing market more than a toy drive donation,” Purnell said. “Systems change is knowing that food workers have access to health care. If we do what we’re trying to do well, I think that’s the goal.”

When Purnell isn’t on the clock, she’s still forging bonds with the people she serves. She coaches a youth soccer team for girls in the community.

It’s been a particular point of pride for her when the girls on the squad have asked how they can help with the district’s remote instruction.

“Soccer builds that sense of community,” she said. “But it also builds that sense of resiliency, because you’re not always going to win. Their life is a whole lot harder than losing a soccer game.”

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Building a Lifeline For Vulnerable Families and Essential Workers

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