By Stephen Smoot
Almost 20 years ago, Communities in Schools got its foot in the door in West Virginia, establishing Greenbrier County as the first affiliate. Over 15 years later, the next set of counties, Berkeley, McDowell, and Wyoming, joined.
As 2024 opens, the program serves students and families in 260 schools across 260 counties. Almost a year ago, Harrison County Schools signed on with services in Norwood Elementary, as well as Nutter Fort Elementary and Intermediate.
“We’re seeing great results,” shared Dora Stutler, Harrison County Schools superintendent. “We were careful where we put it,” she said, adding that “our goal is to have it in all the schools.”
Communities in Schools has operated for nearly a half century across the nation. By the academic year of 2020-2021, the program operates in almost 3,300 schools in 25 states and the District of Columbia. Its website explains that “we work alongside parents, educators, community based organizations, school and district leaders to help our students overcome obstacles and succeed in school and life.”
In the Mountain State, Governor Jim Justice and First Lady Cathy Justice championed the program and helped to usher it in.
Schools often serve as the front line for many problems afflicting society, especially for families and individuals in poverty or facing other serious issues. Social problems become school problems because these issues can make children more vulnerable and less resilient. This in turn often leads to actions or behaviors that can afflict the child or the school community, such as chronic absenteeism or behavior problems.
Other students may face significant problems, yet never create a disturbance or miss school. They still need support to grow, develop, and reach their potential.
Angie Carvelli, the CIS site coordinator at Nutter Fort Intermediate School, explained that the program in both the intermediate and elementary schools targeted attendance and behavior. That said, the program sees these issues as bigger than merely using punitive measures to correct problems with either students or their families. Poor attendance, bad behavior, and academic problems can originate in environments that fail to meet the basic needs of the students.
Logan McKinney, site coordinator for Nutter Fort Elementary, says CIS “helps to delve into what’s causing the behaviors.”
Many families, for example, suffer from a lack of nutritious or even varied types of food. One teacher reported that a student looked forward to the day in which his family could get assistance because it meant the family could shop for food.
Carvelli stated that “we do food backpacks.” Between both schools, CIS put together 180 backpacks with easy to prepare foods that can help get the student through a weekend if the family lacks food. Food, as well as hygiene supplies, clothing, and other items, comes from CIS’s ability to reach into the community and find donated or other resources.
Resources can sometimes even include services, such as behavioral health and counseling. On other occasions, CIS site officials have worked with families to help to get extensions on utility payments. Some families struggle with the ability to even advocate for themselves and CIS helps where it can.
Stutler agrees that “the main benefit is the connection with all the resources. We have good connections and can provide a bridge to these services.”
As traditional families become more scarce, some areas have seen alternative arrangements become the norm. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even siblings have taken in children and many struggle with basic necessities. Stutler said resources accessed by CIS were not available before.
CIS also has helped teachers in that prior to the program, it was they who most often had to figure out how to solve these issues.
McKinney explained that CIS’s impact can be seen in the numbers as well. Attendance for Nutter Fort Elementary for the year started at 91 percent. The attendance program has boosted that by the middle of the year to 93 percent.
CIS has a multiple track system for improving attendance. One focuses on the student body overall to build motivation to come to school every day. Classes that have teh highest attendance marks receive rewards, such as being excused to relax in a lounge and play games while other classes continue working.
Students with chromic absence or tardiness problems receive case management where officials work closely with both students and families to identify problems. In some cases, the problem lies in parent or guardian work schedules that do not allow them to be present to get a child up for school on time.
McKinney noted that the rate of tardies was 27 per day going into October, but less than 20 since.
The State Legislature will take up the issue of increasing student misbehavior across the state over the 2024 session, but CIS has already started work to try and roll back the problem. Amy Grady, State Senator and teacher from Mason County, said that the rise of bad behavior serves as a major reason why teachers leave their positions.
She told West Virginia Metro News “some of our students come to school and the only place they feel safe is at school. If we have students that are being constantly disrupting, throwing things, cussing, yelling, slamming things, imagine the experience that gives to a child who thinks that’s their safe space.”
CIS works with students causing issues, working with them to moderate behavior so they avoid further trouble and disruption.
Jennifer Oliverio, principal of Nutter Fort Elementary, explained that schools “meet the needs of all of our students.” She added that “it’s so important to educate the whole child. We’re going to reach a lot of students and a lot more families.
Stutler said that the goal remains to eventually get CIS into every school in the county.