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April 28, 2015

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When poverty affects children’s education, nonprofit steps in with help

Communities in Schools helping at 12 Clark County schools


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Communities in Schools coordinator Kalah Washington cheers students as they make their way to lunch at Bridger Middle School Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012.

Communities in Schools

Communities in Schools coordinator Kalah Washington walks and talks with a student at Bridger Middle School Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Program results

    Communities in Schools serves 22,000 students in 37 schools across the state, 12 of them in Southern Nevada. The nonprofit group provides basic resources as well as counseling to help children graduate in a state where 133 students drop out of school every school day.

    CIS has seen improvements at target schools in Clark County. Here are some of the program's key results, according to CIS:

    • About 95 percent of program participants were promoted to the next grade level. About 90 percent graduated from high school.

    • At the elementary school level, the attendance rate improved by 52 percent. In the middle and high school levels, the attendance rate improved by 73 percent.

    • At the middle and high school levels, students' grade-point averages improved by 62 percent.

In the wake of the Great Recession, Las Vegas schools have become more than just places where students learn.

In some of Clark County’s poorest neighborhoods, schools are full-service community centers, offering free medical and dental services, food and clothing and even assistance with utilities and rent. One of these schools — Whitney Elementary in the eastern valley — received national attention for its efforts to help students, many of them homeless.

But often, principals of these schools — such as Whitney’s Sherri Gahn — split their valuable time making sure their students are properly educated and also ensuring the students’ home needs are adequately met. It’s a tough act to juggle, but ultimately, it’s difficult for children to learn if they’re hungry or worried about whether the lights will be on when they get home.

Enter Communities in Schools, a nonprofit group that is helping principals at 12 Clark County schools offer various wraparound services to needy children. Two years ago, the local chapter of the national organization began placing site coordinators at the 12 campuses to help principals and staff deliver services with the help of other nonprofit groups and resources.

Kalah Washington is the site coordinator at Bridger Middle School, where 84 percent of its 1,300 students participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Armed with little more than a hand-held radio and telephone, the energetic 27-year-old Georgia transplant is on the front lines of an effort to combat the effects of poverty on children’s education.

Washington is always on the move, bustling from one corner of the school to another and helping anyone who needs it. Her radio is constantly abuzz with requests.

"I’m here to take the burden off of teachers and administrators," said Washington, who is sponsored by Communities in Schools. "These kids always brighten my day, no matter how my day is going. I love it."

A few years ago, Bridger opened a community resource center inside a sand-colored portable classroom. The center — sponsored by Communities in Schools and supported by groups such as Three Square Food Bank, the Salvation Army and Goodwill — houses pantries full of canned goods, clothes and school supplies for students and their families.

Nearly every day, there are calls to Washington’s radio from teachers and nurses requesting clean shirts and pants for children who show up to school in raggedy attire. Children who can’t afford school supplies are given free pencils and paper.

Click to enlarge photo

Communities in Schools coordinator Kalan Washington helps tutor a student after classes at Bridger Middle School Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012.

More than 400 students have taken advantage of the free school supplies since the start of the year. About 20 families rely on Bridger’s food pantry and clothing depot on a monthly basis.

And the center isn’t just a resource for Bridger students. If a Bridger student has siblings attending other schools, Washington wants to help them, too.

"We try to help them all," she said.

However, Washington’s job extends beyond fulfilling some of the basic needs that students have. She counsels upwards of 72 students who need academic and personal help through one-on-one and group sessions.

Washington eschews taking these students out of class to counsel them. It just doesn’t make sense, she said.

"If you’re failing your class, why should I take them out of class to talk to them about failing class?" she said. "I try to do a lot of it in the in-between time."

So, during breakfast and lunch and in between classes, Washington can be found pulling her "kiddos" aside, chatting them up about their day and how they’re doing in class. Through her big smiles, high-fives and jokes, Washington is building relationships and rapport with students.

"How’s your mom doing?" she asks one student. "How’s the new baby?"

"Your backpack is ripped here," she tells another. "Do you want another one?"

Some students need more hands-on attention. That’s when Washington brings them to the resource center for a 15-minute counseling session.

On a recent day, Fernando is called into Washington’s room. Fernando is struggling in class.

"What do you think your grades are looking like?" Washington asks as she pulls up Fernando’s grades on a computer.

He’s failing in world geography. He hasn’t been doing his homework.

"It’s like the Olympics," Washington tells Fernando in a stern voice. "You’ve got to train and practice, or else you’re gonna get cramps."

Click to enlarge photo

Communities in Schools coordinator Kalan Washington gets serious with students at Bridger Middle School Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012.

After the counseling session, Washington writes a note to herself to check up on Fernando in a few days. If Washington’s students don’t show up to her counseling session, she’ll send reminders and even hunt them down during class to quickly follow up.

Even though Washington doesn’t teach a class, she’s interacting with students nearly every minute of the day. She’s on lunch duty, ensuring that kids are eating their meals, cleaning up after themselves and making sure they’re not getting into trouble. She also tutors about 20 students for an hour after school, helping with homework.

In between her busy schedule, Washington hits the phones, calling nonprofit groups and businesses to help Bridger. Currently, she’s working on getting donations for turkeys to send home to more than a dozen needy families for Thanksgiving. Soon, Washington will be organizing a gift drive for the winter holidays.

In her two years at Bridger, Washington has become a part of the school fabric, said Principal Deanna Jaskolski. Washington’s enthusiasm and personal talks have helped build relationships with students and staff alike, Jaskolski said.

In the process, Washington has bridged the gap between the school and the community, bringing outside resources to students and allowing administrators and teachers to focus on educating students.

"Knowing that someone outside of school cares helps teachers and students immensely," Jaskolski said. "It’s made a tremendous difference on campus."

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  1. realist bob...

    Honestly; you & your ilk are amazingly narrow-minded.
    Yeah, it's ALL about 'getting things for free'.

    You're right; if these poor children just had a little self-respect, and their parents just 'pulled themselves up by their bootstraps', everything would 'magically' be 'right' with the world.


  2. Hate to say this but Bob and gmag are both right.

    There are 1000's that take advantage of these programs that are more then capable of working and taking care of heir families. There are also many that do everything they can but just need that little extra help.

    Either way when you have a hungry child standing in front of you it gets taken care of by these groups. You don't let a child go hungry.

    Sherri Gahn had done a great job of taking care of those in need along with seeing they do better in school and she does not use tax payers money for the needy part.

    Opinions are fine but until you stand in front of a truly hungry child think before speaking.

    It is NOT the children's fault that their parents are not responsible people.

  3. @ vegaslee...

    "It is NOT the children's fault that their parents are not responsible people."

    Well, that's true, sure...
    but the VAST MAJORITY of parents that need assistance for their children are NOT 'irresponsible'.

    Take the Walmart employee, for example...

    "Wal-Mart's poverty wages force employees to rely on $2.66 billion in government help every year, or about $420,000 per store. In state after state, Wal-Mart employees are the top recipients of Medicaid. As many as 80 percent of workers in Wal-Mart stores use food stamps."

    Are the thousands upon thousands of Walmart employees 'irresponsible' parents?

  4. This does show that private non profit can work, maybe better then government in some case. The article did not mention if the program has some parent involvement, one would assume if the child is from a very poor family the parent does not work and would be available to help out at the school and perhaps learn some other skills..

  5. Commenter Peter Fritz made the interesting comment, " would assume if the child is from a very poor family the parent does not work and would be available to help out at the school and perhaps learn some other skills."

    Although a reasonable person would think this, the reality is that the majority of such parents DO NOT involve themselves at the school, either due to the fact that they have other small children to tend to, or (in the case of illegal immigrants) they avoid showing up at schools due to their innate fears of being discovered (although it is not educators jobs to enforce immigration laws). Local PTAs suffer from this plight as well. These folk who have children at school, more than likely have more children at the home. When the children all grow and are all going to school, then these parents usually are getting jobs and working. Every state has differing welfare laws, but an adult, unless severely disabled, usually has no excuse to NOT work when the children are all in school. Then maybe, schools MIGHT see this parent during the required annual Parent/Teacher Conferences.

    Getting volunteers into our poorer schools is truly a wonderful thing when it does happen. Children respond positively when an adult listens to them read or looks over their work and gives them a high five. I would encourage those who don't live in these poorer neighborhood and have the ability, to offer your presence as a volunteer at one of these schools. You would be highly esteemed and regarded and appreciated by the children and teachers. You would truly make a difference just by being there.

    And as tough as some of you Commenters are at times, I don't believe for one moment that any of you would turn away a hungry child, ever.

    Blessings and Peace,

  6. gmag,

    As I stated, I agree with you and my statement about it not being the children's fault I stand by.

    I did not say EVERYONE using services is irresponsible. I say there are 1000's that are.

    You would be surprised at the mix here in Vegas that take advantage of food banks that don't need it. They just go get the food because they can. Many times it is not who you would think is doing it. :(

    BTW, here is another interesting article on Walmart. Look at the numbers closely.

  7. Is Kalan doing more harm that good? Sounds like they are trying to help. And I'm not going to say you have to be a professional or educated in what the "experts" say the right approach is. BUT she is building relationships BASED ON FAILURE. The article (limits our info but this is what we have to go on) indicates she seeks out the failing students. That she cheers on those having more babies instead of dealing with the kids they already have. We ALL know it's not the kids who've chosen to be poor but their mothers have CHOSEN TO BE POOR and are getting more so by having more kids when they aren't supporting (emotionally and otherwise) the students here. I congratulate VEGASLEE and BOB in our attempts to point out that what we've been doing is NOT WORKING. Let's try something else. Something that has a proven success record--SELF RELIANCE by adults. I know the kids get hurt but we have not been helping them. Further, we pay principals and teachers to EDUCATE, not for social work. We already have ENDLESS PROGRAMS for those who are dependent. Let's get that reading, writing, rithmetic back up to basic functionality. You are NOT ALLOWED to use official time to social work. And again, if we could remove the 20-25% of illegal students who are usurping services and funding, OUR KIDS could get the attention.

  8. IF you are sitting at home in the warmth, with no fear of hunger, writing up an opinion on a computer, in which you are making a moral judgement on a student, based on your own prejudices, rather than driving to the nearest school and offering to donate 2 hours of your time each day, then YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. The child is not the problem, the "gubber'mint" is not the problem, the parent is not the problem, YOU ARE.

    The sheer audacity of commenters willing to morally judge others based on circumstantial innuendo is disturbing.

  9. Sort of agree with Sebring. In many cases the parent is the problem. Also agree unless you have been out there dealing with it your opinion is just that, an opinion with no factual experience to go with it.

    I don't down those that don't step up and help but don't spread false information if you don't have the experience in dealing with it.

    There are 1000's of homeless High school kids in this valley that want to complete school. They need food, clothing and supplies. You don't have to give it to them, they are not your responsibility but helping them is not a bad thing if you feel the need and desire.

    Would expect no less of a comment from Roberta Anderson. Can tell she is one that does not have a clue about taking care of kids in need in this Valley. She loves to blame the countries problems on the kids that their folks brought them over the border.

  10. sebring: YOU are the one making moral judgements. You have no information and obviously haven't comprehended this or previous posts. We need to deal with the CAUSE of the problems. I did not say, anywhere, that we should ignore the children. It is well known in professional social work circles that rewarding failure ADDS TO THE PROBLEM. The kid fails his classes BECAUSE he gets special attention when he does. The pregnant-again mom gets special attention each time she gets pregnant. We do not build positive behavior by building the relationships with the kids who are trying and trying and getting by, passing grades--but who could do so much more with a little attention from mom, dad, teacher, non-profits. sebring: YOU SHOULD APOLOGIZE.

  11. by next: Please read above post. Seems to apply to you and a couple of others. You exemplify the point that school is for EDUCATION--which several of you don't seem to have absorbed--the reading COMPREHENSION part. Can you say presumptuous, pretentious, arrogant, reactive?

  12. TomD: Would you please point out where in the article or our posts that anyone said anybody should go hungry? You seem to agree with what I've said but you don't know that--you didn't read what I wrote. I pointed out that intervention services should give positive reinforcement to those who are doing what is expected of them--students not failing, mothers having more kids when the kids they have are neglected. I did not advocate pulling their food stamps or contraceptives.
    by Next: Your response addressed to me runs on about you...? Suggesting schools FOCUS on social services DEMONSTRATED FAILURE TO COMPREHEND. Schools are for EDUCATION. If we focus on the failing and those in need of counselling rather than on educating all the students, more students will fail. Gee that's what's been going on. No wonder CCSD is failing still.

  13. It is wonderful that there are NCO's getting involved to help the children.

    It makes it more likely that I and others would choose to contribute toward those organizations.

    If we can put the blaming aside and focus on the most important intention of the organizations and schools, the children and making it possible for them to get an education. This could eventually change their lives, and we can all get behind this effort.

    While children have a chance for a life change through the efforts of good teachers, administrators, and NCO's, there is another group that is also in need within impoverished areas, the elderly. They cannot be cast aside because they no longer have the potential to be productive. We have two very vulnerable groups that need help in different ways. Both have a protective need.

    Poverty has many reasons, no single reason, no single solution.

    I congratulate those who put so much effort in to help children learn and better their lives, no matter what it takes.

  14. Roberta Anderson, you spent hours writing half a dozen opinions and not a single second solving the problem. Congratulations on punishing children for their parents sins. I'm headed back out, again, to help students unlucky enough to be born to poor parents.

  15. Sebring: Could you cite a single post where I said anything about taking anything from any child? You must have my posts confused with someone else. Many kids born to poor parents are lucky--when the parents support their kids emotionally and otherwise. It almost appears that we could conclude you were not that fortunate--you seem quick to fly off the handle without reading or considering content. How about ADDING efforts that encourage performance and results. How about paying attention to the students who are trying instead of just the kids who are failing?

  16. Sebring again demonstrates why K-12 must be EXCLUDED from social welfare funding--they don't know anything about what works. Sure teachers are paid a lot more than social workers, but social workers have some RELEVANT education and experience.

  17. Ms. Anderson.

    I would suggest spending some time on this web site so you can learn what people make in this state/county/city.

    The social workers in this county starting pay is $15,000 more than a first year teacher and goes up from there. Better benefits and retirement also.

    The program at Whitney Elementary is not supported by your tax dollars and you are not paying her to run it. It is done outside of school. Yes, it is on the school property but you are not paying for her to make the lives of those kids better.

  18. vegaslee: K-12 pays up to $96K and higher to licensed administrators. That's NOT the average pay for social workers--State, federal, city, county, throughout the nation.
    Any and every program or activity on or in a public school has effects on the "education" provided--especially things occurring DURING the school day. And as for me not paying, you have no idea which charities I contribute to and how much. I AM paying for it.
    Further, teachers have NO RIGHT to decide what will and will not be allowed--that is up to the taxpayers and voters within Clark County. It is simply inappropriate for teachers to decide which organizations are sanctioned and which are not.
    Additionally, my point is that TEACHERS need to concentrate on Education by positive reinforcement for all students.