Imagine a student arriving to school whose last meal was from a convenience store the night before. He slept on the couch, so he didn’t get a good night’s sleep. His parents work long hours, so they aren’t there to help with his homework. He arrives to school hungry, tired and unprepared for the day ahead.
Unfortunately, this scenario is all too real for many of our students. With one in four children in Buncombe County living in poverty, and over 54 percent of students qualifying for the free and reduced lunch program (a leading poverty indicator), there are many students arriving to school ill-equipped to focus on their schoolwork.
Children First/Communities In Schools (CIS) recognizes that when a child arrives prepared for school, their chances for success are exponentially increased, while the likelihood of dropping out of school is decreased. The organization believes that every child deserves the opportunity to reach his or her full potential, and surrounds the child with support in the classroom, in the community, at home and with public policy.
Children First originated almost 40 years ago, and in 2003 merged with national dropout prevention organization Communities In Schools (CIS) to become Children First/Communities in Schools and the Buncombe County affiliate of Communities In Schools. CIS uses an evidence-based model of reducing dropout rates and helping students achieve both inside and outside the classroom.
As part of this affiliation, Children First/CIS has staff members called success coordinators in Johnston Elementary, Estes Elementary and Emma Elementary schools. There, they work with a team of school and support staff to assess the needs of students and provide integrated student supports, or supports that target academic and nonacademic barriers to achievement. The range of resources they provide includes food, school supplies, health care, counseling, academic assistance and positive role models.
Children First/CIS is able to provide many of the resources that students and their families need through its other programs: Family Resource Center at Emma, Latino Outreach Program, Project POWER AmeriCorps, and the after-school Learning Center/Summer Camp program. Combined, these Children First/CIS programs provide a food pantry, immigrant outreach, academic assistance, enrichment activities, tutoring, parenting classes and emergency financial assistance.
The organization recognizes that when the family of students is being supported with services and resources, the chances for success are greater. Therefore, it facilitates parenting classes and workshops, case management and home visits to make sure the needs of the entire family are being addressed.
Courtney Crenshaw is the success coordinator at Johnston Elementary, and Lisa Barlow is the success coordinator at Emma. These are two of the highest-need schools in Buncombe County, with up to 100 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunch.
Courtney works at Johnston Elementary during the mornings and the Children First/CIS Learning Center at Deaverview in the afternoons. Lisa is placed at Emma Elementary School, where the Family Resource Center is the backbone of her services.
“It’s relationships, not programs, that change children,” Bill Millikan, the founder of Communities In Schools, once said. Forming relationships is an integral part of providing integrated student supports to the children and families Courtney and Lisa serve. They are in the unique position of being able to work with the students in school, during after-school in the students’ communities — and often make visits to the home, where they work with parents to make sure the family’s needs are being met.
Courtney tells of a series of interventions she was able to have with a high-need family.
Andrea is the mother of six children, with ages ranging from 2 months to 7 years. She had no phone and no transportation, was unfamiliar with school staff and policies, and was understandably overwhelmed. A teacher had been trying for months to arrange for a meeting with Andrea to discuss her two oldest boys. With no phone, the teacher found it impossible to make this meeting happen.
The two boys were enrolled in the Children First/CIS Learning Center at Deaverview, where Courtney works in the afternoons, along with CF/CIS Project POWER/AmeriCorps team members. This program is free of charge and located in the Deaverview Apartments, a low-income community under the management of the Housing Authority of Asheville. This safe-haven after-school/summer camp program provides academic assistance, healthy snacks, tutors and enrichment activities for kindergarten through fifth-graders.
Courtney had already established a relationship with Andrea and was able to act as a liaison. She even drove Andrea to the teacher meeting.
Later, she went to check in with Andrea at home, and recalls that there was not a lot of furniture. “She had just moved in, and six children need a lot of stuff,” Courtney says. “I got a phone call from our Learning Center coordinator and was told a donor had some bedroom furniture they were giving away. I walked over to Andrea’s, and within the hour, the furniture was in her apartment. Now all of the children have their own beds.”
The children have a better night’s sleep, which greatly increases their ability to stay focused at school. This is just one example of how providing much-needed resources can remove barriers to achievement.
Lisa tells of a mother she worked with closely.
Brandy is the single mother of five children, ranging in age from 6 to15. Lisa had been working with Brandy’s oldest son and discovered he had lost his glasses. She contacted Brandy, and when she got to the house, Brandy was on the phone with her youngest son’s doctor trying to arrange for his medical records to be released so he could enter kindergarten.
“It was weeks after school had started, so every day this child was not in school, he was getting further behind,” recalls Lisa. By the end of the week, Lisa and Brandy worked together to get the kindergartner enrolled, while Lisa was able to secure a new pair of glasses for the 10-year-old through the CF/CIS Family Resource Center emergency assistance.
Lisa and Brandy have regular check-ins, and Lisa arranged for Brandy to receive food boxes, children’s clothing and holiday assistance through the Children First/CIS Family Resource Center. Since they started working together, there has been marked improvement in the children’s grades, attendance at school and behaviors both inside and outside the classroom.
Lisa and Courtney also see the parents becoming more confident and empowered.
Courtney recalls, “We gave a parenting workshop at the Learning Center on how to help your children with math homework. The Learning Center is just a few doors from where Andrea lives, so she was able to walk over. The next day, I went over to her apartment, and she was practicing the techniques so she could help her children with their homework. She felt so proud of herself.”
It takes energy, effort and inspiration to make sure students are provided with the necessary tools to achieve in school and life. Research has shown that by providing integrated student supports, student and school outcomes improve by increasing attendance, modifying behavior and conduct, and meeting basic needs.
As an affiliate of the Communities In Schools organization, Children First/CIS is part of a network that comprises one of the nation’s largest providers of Integrated Student Supports, offering enrichment activities that introduce children to new experiences and skill sets; providing academic assistance and role models; supporting families and connecting them with resources; and providing parenting classes and case management so parents can set and achieve goals.
“I am so inspired by the children I work with,” says Courtney. “This is challenging work, but I love it.”
Jodi Ford is the outreach and engagement coordinator for Children First/ Communities In Schools of Buncombe County, a local nonprofit that provides advocacy, educational programming and direct services to economically disadvantaged children and families. Find out more at www.childrenfirstcisbc.org