Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009 | 2 a.m.
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More than a decade ago Elaine Wynn approached the Clark County School Board with an offer — to help establish a local affiliate of a national organization that helps find community partners for needy campuses. The group even offered to set up a student health clinic.
The School Board turned her down.
Some people considered her efforts heavy-handed, though well-intentioned.
“It was a humbling experience,” said Wynn, director of Wynn Resorts and chairwoman of the national board of directors of Communities in Schools, the student support organization she wanted to bring to Clark County.
On the upside, the intervening years serving students in more than a dozen other states meant when the organization came back to make its case to the local School Board, there was much stronger evidence “that what we were talking about could actually make a difference in students’ lives,” Wynn said.
Communities in Schools of Southern Nevada, which Wynn helped launch in 2003 with the support of Clark County education officials, today helps thousands of students at dozens of schools on a daily basis. Indeed, the organization — with Louise Helton at the helm as state director — is now considered such a vital partner that Wynn and national President Daniel Cardinali are the featured speakers at a regional education research conference being hosted this week by Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes.
The organization’s ultimate mission is to reduce the nation’s dropout rate. But rather than take the more obvious route toward that goal — such as offering tutoring programs — the group focuses on the basic services that are critical to a child’s ability to learn, but are not within the district’s primary mission or budget.
The kinds of assistance offered by Communities in Schools can make a difference in a student’s future by helping to level the playing field in relation to other students, Rulffes said. “They help to fill the gaps in opportunities that our students can’t get at home.”
Communities in Schools provides basic medical care at two elementary campus clinics — Martinez and Cunningham — serving more than 5,000 students per year. Today, the organization will break ground at Elaine Wynn Elementary School on its third free-standing health clinic. Sponsored by the Southern Nevada chapter of NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association, the clinic will be named in memory of Casey Jones, who served as the business group’s president in 2005.
Working with the regional Three Square Food Bank, Communities in Schools last year provided about 15,000 backpacks of nutritious food for students to take home on weekends. The students who received backpacks saw their grades improve an average of 32 percent in mathematics and 26 percent in writing.
The group’s approach is about more than money, Wynn says.
While emphasizing the necessity for children to be healthy before they can be expected to learn, Communities in Schools also focuses on developing the individual student’s ambition and potential.
“This isn’t about a passive experience,” Wynn said. “We help the school to identify the obstacles that are keeping them from succeeding. Then the students can get the targeted services and support they need.”
Cardinali said the organization is careful to focus on supporting, rather than supplanting, the responsibilities of families to their own children. Research shows that parental involvement is essential to student success. To that end, one of the group’s priorities is to support outreach efforts to parents, many of whom had less than positive experiences when they were students, and might not view the child’s campus as a place of encouragement and support.
“We reach out, make home visits and create a bridge into that school,” Cardinali said. “That’s a powerful way to strengthen families and family involvement.”
There is no shortage of people who want to help, Wynn said, but at many schools the services are fragmented, which can ultimately dilute the effectiveness.
Perhaps the organization’s greatest strength is to bring everyone to the table at the same time, serving as both an umbrella and a springboard.
“We’re not interested in being the food bank, we’re not interested in providing dental care ourselves — we find the groups that are doing that already, and bring them together where the children are already spending most of their time, which is at the school,” Wynn said.
As for the schools, they are grateful to be freed from the burden of providing a host of social services, Wynn said.
While expectations should be high for public education, it’s an “unrealistic burden” to imagine students can be picked up at the end of the day with all of their myriad needs having been met Clark County School District, Wynn said.
“It’s going to take all of us to get the job done,” Wynn said.
An expanded interview with Elaine Wynn and Daniel Cardinali, conducted by Las Vegas Sun reporter Emily Richmond, is scheduled to air Monday at 10 a.m. on KNPR’s “State of Nevada” public affairs program which airs on News 88.9 FM.