Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Sundberg connects kids to education and community

| April 3, 2024 2:00 AM

Students and staff want Tamara Sundberg to be recognized for her efforts at Columbia Falls High School. 

“She provides hope for people, and I think that’s probably the biggest thing that she does so well…,” Columbia Falls High School Principal Jon Konen said of Sundberg. Students like to go to her to learn what resources are available to them.

Sundberg, the school district’s Student and Family Advocate Coordinator and high school MTSS Intervention and Homeless Liaison, has been with the district since 2018. The position did not exist before she arrived, and its original goal was to provide resources for upperclassmen to make sure they graduated and provide an academic plan for incoming freshmen. Now, Sundberg is the glue that holds together a myriad of programs designed to decrease barriers to education and build a community that students actively want to be a part of. 

Sundberg started out in Evergreen, where she was born and raised, before obtaining her bachelor’s in Sociology and Anthropology and master’s in International Law, then heading overseas for work. She worked in various governmental positions supporting employment, milieu therapy, education, mental health, disability sectors and was head of an English as a Second Language department in Japan for six years. She was program officer of the Peace and Conflict Studies department and student liaison at a graduate school in Costa Rica. She also worked for the New Zealand Crown Entity as corporate services manager of a mental health and disability program. 

When she came back to the Valley, she volunteered at Deer Park School and was a substitute teacher. The idea was that she would retire. But when the position she now holds, one made for her, it seemed, became available, she took it. 

“What led me here is that I found I really like helping families…,” Sundberg said. “We have a community full of just really wonderful people, wonderful parents, parents who love and want the best for their kids. And we also live in a community that has high poverty rates and historical poverty. It’s hard to get ahead, and it’s hard for families that work hard every single day to be able to give their kids everything they want to give them. Being able to support those families, but also recognizing the integrity of a family and respecting that and the family’s needs and wants… I like working with families.”

School District 6 has 200 students identified as homeless by McKinney-Vento standards. The programs Sundberg is heading help connect them to their basic needs — food, shelter — and in turn help break down barriers to education. 

“When I did come over and came into this position, it was a blank slate, which is a great thing in many ways. But it is also about development and developing programs,” Sundberg said.

Sundberg has helped the school partner with Land to Hand for their food pantry, which will soon be expanded with $7,700 from Whitefish Community Foundation. The food provides not only healthy, local food options for about 50 kids to take home on the weekends, but daily snacks. It is open to everyone. 

“Because we’ve worked really hard at the high school to decrease any kind of stigmatization about food, food at the high school is open to any student. And because of that, you actually allow more students, who I wouldn’t have been able to identify, to self-identify and they feel much more inclined to come and get food,” Sundberg explained.  

Students can take a bag and “shop” for the groceries their family may need and even offer input on what they may like in the future via a suggestion board. Younger students and McKinney-Vento qualifiers benefit from a backpack program. 

Sundberg makes sure students in need are clothed and have hygiene products and bedding available to them, as well as medical expenses, standardized testing and activity fees covered through Columbia Falls Child Assistance Team funds. She partners with Western Building Center and Home Depot to provide insulation for houses that need extra winterization. They can also provide heat sources such as propane. If a family needs vehicle repairs to get their students to school, that can be facilitated.

If students and family are homeless, she works with the family to determine if there's anything they need support with.

Many of the programs Sundberg now has a hand in; the CFCAT nonprofit, for example; existed long before she came along, but were run by teachers, the school nurse and administrators. 

“There’s nothing special that I did, there’s nothing special that I created,” Sundberg insisted. “The foundation was already there from these incredible educators from before. It’s really a matter of making sure they are still running.”

Konen explained that Sundberg is also a friend that staff can rely on for support, for them and their students. 

Sundberg oversees Columbia Falls’ students in many things they do for their community. 

She insisted that the students are the true facilitators, and she gives them the space to speak and voice their concerns about their own community. 

Her Believe Blue students have organized a consortium of area schools to learn and educate each other about suicide prevention, with 40 students from Whitefish, Eureka, Polson, Bigfork, Flathead, Glacier and Browning schools attending their last meeting at Flathead Valley Community College. Sunberg noted that CFHS has experienced nine losses since she started. She described it as “important and humbling” to see the resiliency and strength of the community in the face of not only those losses, but the other hard times. “It’s kind of an honor,” she said. Believe Blue works on suicide prevention through mental health outreach programs of their own design, all confirmed as best practice by the Nate Chute Foundation. 

Sundberg’s National Honor Society students help sponsor 200 students for their Christmas Drive and run the Veterans Assembly. Their group has grown to 60 members under her guidance. She oversees the Blue Shirt Group — the “welcome wagon” of the high school that teaches younger students about character, focus, honor and strength — what it means to be a Wildcat. 

Sundberg also runs a tutoring program and assists students, especially McKinney-Vento qualifiers, applying for college. She helps organize internships and pop-up job fairs for the schoo, and about 20 CFHS students have internships and the same number work-study with local businesses. Sundberg serves on the Chamber of Commerce Education Committee to connect students with local businesses and develop a strategy for career and college education. 

She aided student McKenzee West in finding an internship with a local law firm and work with the school’s special education department. 

“[Sundberg] really does everything for everyone, and if anyone needed anything she’d be there. I really feel she is holding us together, especially with what’s going on with our school and our community lately,” West said. 

Konen said other schools around the state call on Columbia Falls to ask how they have pulled all of their programs together so effectively. The answer is Sundberg.  

Beyond the programs, Sundberg is also simply there for her students. As the school geared up for its play this year, Sundberg was running lines with the students and helping with props. Jackson Harris, who played soccer with her son Finley before his graduation last year, recalled her always helping out with the school barbecues and fundraisers. 

When Harris was struggling with attendance this winter, Sundberg stepped in and offered her room as a place for him to work from as he slowly got back into his classes, and has been a liaison between him and his teachers. 

“She’s talked with a lot of my friends and related what they say, how much they care about me, to me,” Harris said. “She just constantly reminds me that people care about you, and people want to see you in the classroom.”

Sundberg said the hardest part of her job is failure; when a student doesn’t graduate. “Watching a kid who you know has the potential, you know has the whole world ahead of them, and they can’t see the bigger picture or there’s too many hurdles in their way that even knocking some of them down there’s still a lot of barriers...,” she trailed off. 

Columbia Falls’ graduation dipped during the pandemic years from 94% in 2019-20 to 89% in 2022-23. 

At the same time, the rate of students suffering from anxiety and depression has risen. 

“My hope comes from watching the daily success of our students and seeing them strive to accomplish their goals and being excited by their future and the future of Columbia Falls,” Sundberg said. “Hearing students say that they want to be part of this community as they get older and work in this community is rewarding.” It’s about modeling hope for the students that are struggling. 

“This community has been through hard times before… There’s a lot of things that have been thrown at this community, but it’s strong and it has gotten through those times. I don’t think now is any different,” Sundberg said. “I think that really is the most important thing; making sure that you build that into your students and into the community is the best way to give hope to them.”

    Tamara Sundberg shows off Columbia Falls High School’s clothes closet, being combined with its food pantry. Before her, bags of food sit ready to be sent home with students for Spring Break.