Christopher DeVargas / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Dyslexia and a challenging family life in a low-income home left Tabitha Smith struggling in her classes at Sunrise Mountain High School. A tough-girl persona she’d adopted after being bullied in middle school made her reluctant to reach out for help or even accept it.
As a result, she was on a dead-end path — definitely no postsecondary schooling, and possibly even dropping out.
Then came Celinda Pena, a social worker who began working with Tabitha last year as one of two Sunrise Mountain site coordinators for Communities in Schools of Nevada.
“I needed support — just this extra arm to lean on,” said Tabitha, a senior. “And that was Miss Celinda. She pushed me, and the only way I could get her off my back was to start passing my classes.”
As a CIS site coordinator, Pena and her colleague Nicole Pulliam are responsible for giving disadvantaged students what they need to stay on course for graduation. Their support comes in a number of variations — food to take home on weekends, dress clothes for job interviews, information about job openings and scholarship opportunities, coordination of medical care and eye exams, phone calls or even house calls for students who have a hard time waking up for school, references for psychological counseling, help with housing, academic support and much more.
Communities in Schools provides some items directly through donations from individuals and businesses, but also networks with other nonprofits such as Three Square food bank, Project 150 and Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth to help students and their families.
Students who receive services come to CIS on their own or through referrals from staff or their peers. The program operates in 44 schools in the Clark County School District and another 15 elsewhere in Nevada, providing aid to students facing an array of challenges — some are homeless, some struggle with poverty, some have dysfunctional home environments, some are pregnant or are teenage parents, some have multiple siblings in a single-parent home and need someone to make sure they come to school.
Once students are referred, CIS performs an assessment of their needs to determine the level of services they need. The majority are placed in CIS Academy classes, where CCSD teachers who collaborate with CIS provide life-skills education, offer tutoring and focus on preparation for college or employment.
Students with the most critical needs are assigned a case file and receive one-on-one support from site coordinators like Pulliam and Pena.
The program is in continual need of volunteer mentors to give presentations about career possibilities in various professions, host workplace tours, hold regular tutoring or mentoring sessions with students and more. Financial donations are needed, as well, with a significant portion going to bus fare to transport students to extracurricular activities.
“A caring adult can make a big difference in a kid’s life, and that can take a lot of forms,” said Chip Carter, CIS marketing director.
Carter said one thing the organization doesn’t offer is any sort of judgment on students’ families.
“Maybe the parents are gamblers or drug addicts or whatever, but why should the kid have to suffer?” he said. “Our message to the kids is that whatever your issues are, we’re here for you. Because the best course of action for you is to graduate.”
For Tabitha, that meant connecting with a mentor, which wasn’t easy. She didn’t click with Pena last year after being referred to her class. But after Pena pulled Tabitha aside and convinced her she cared about her, a switch flipped. Tabitha’s grades began to improve during her junior year, and she’s now planning to attend Nevada State College or take CSN classes online when she graduates.
She’s gone from resisting Pena’s help to following in her footsteps, volunteering to provide food to her classmates and making plans to pursue a degree in social work.
“I want to help people,” she said. “Someone always needs that one person to help them.”
Editor’s note: Smith is not Tabitha’s actual surname. Out of concern for her safety, her name was withheld to protect her identity.
Communities in Schools by the numbers
58,000: Number of students who receive services from CIS statewide
4,556: Number of Southern Nevada students who received one-on-one support from CIS during the 2015-16 school year
84 percent: Among Clark County high school seniors who receive one-on-one support from CIS, portion who graduate on time
73 percent: Nevada’s overall high school graduation rate
97 percent: Among Clark County students grades kindergarten through 11th who receive one-on-one support from CIS, portion who are promoted to the next grade
$3.3 million: Value of clothing, school supplies, food and tutoring services provided by CIS to Clark County students during the 2015-16 school year
78 percent: Among Clark County students receiving one-on-one support from CIS, portion whose attendance improved during the 2015-2016 school year
85 percent: Among that same group, the portion whose academics improved
84 cents: Portion of every dollar donated to CIS that is spent on programs