Saturday, October 25, 2014

Organizers: Program targets most at-risk students, finds success

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 3/18/2013

An Ottawa school district nurse was faced with a dilemma.

A teenage girl was coming to her three or four times a day, asking for pain medication for her teeth. The nurse asked Cassie Myers, Communities in Schools site coordinator at Ottawa High School, for help.

An Ottawa school district nurse was faced with a dilemma.

A teenage girl was coming to her three or four times a day, asking for pain medication for her teeth. The nurse asked Cassie Myers, Communities in Schools site coordinator at Ottawa High School, for help.

“It’s pretty hard to concentrate in class when your mouth hurts that bad every day,” Myers said of the student. “She needed dental work, and her family did not have the ability to pay for it.”

So Myers talked with a local dentist, who consented to perform the necessary work at no charge.

“It was about $2,000 worth of dental work,” Myers said.

Helping students with life’s challenges beyond the classroom walls is just part of the territory for Myers as a member of the Communities in Schools team. The program marked its fifth anniversary March 13 in Ottawa, Becky Nevergold, the program’s executive director, said.

From the Reach for the Stars after school program for elementary students to the annual Day on the Job event for OHS seniors, Communities in Schools touched the lives of more than 1,800 Ottawa students in 2011-2012, according to the organization’s 2012 annual report. That’s about 75 percent of the school district’s 2,400 students.

Some of the organization’s year-long programs include an after school program for kindergarten through fifth-grade students, K-5 Weekend Warriors BackSnack program, K-12 YouthFriends Mentoring program and 6-12 WhyTry resilience education program. Other grade-level events include Scrubby Bear handwashing program for kindergartners, bike safety/helmet head program for second-graders, Brilliant Bookworms for third-graders, disability awareness program for fourth-graders and Careers on Wheels for fifth-graders.

Communities in Schools is funded through a variety of sources. Last year, the program received $139,537 in grants, $5,250 from foundations, $3,690 from corporate sponsors, $1,776.50 from organizations, $1,521 from individual donations and $6,106.82 from fundraising activities, the annual report said.

Nevergold credits former superintendent Dean Katt with getting Communities in Schools started in Ottawa.

“I was the principal at the former Hawthorne Elementary, and Dean said he wanted to keep me on as an administrator to run an after school program,” Nevergold said. “But then Dean said he wanted to go further than just an after school program. He had heard about a program called Communities in Schools that he wanted to try in our school district.”

Communities in Schools, based in a modular building behind the school district’s central office at 1404 S. Ash St., Ottawa, has continued to expand each year since it kicked off in 2008, Nevergold said.

Reach for the Stars

Ottawa’s Reach for the Stars after school program underwent an expansion this school year with the aid of a nearly $750,000 federal grant. The after school program, which was centralized at Garfield Elementary School, was expanded to all three of the Ottawa school district’s elementary schools: Eugene Field, Garfield and Lincoln.

The new 21st Century Community Learning Centers federal grant, administered through the Kansas State Department of Education, helped cover the costs of expanding the program to all the elementary schools, Nevergold said.

The district will receive $145,279 in grant money for the 2012-2013 year, Nevergold said, the first of five installments during the life of the grant. The five-year payout would total $726,395.

The after school program includes time to complete homework, as well as physical fitness activities and field trips to such places as Ottawa Library, Ottawa Recreation Commission facilities, Prairie Paws Animal Shelter and The Rink, Jamie Keiter, Reach for the Stars program director, said.

“The after school program also incorporates 4-H, robotics, cooking, roller skating, woodworking and many other activities,” Keiter said. “The kids love it.”

The program also uses a web-based tutoring program called Study Island to assist students who need a little extra help with their homework, Keiter said. The program offers students a chance to play a 15- to 30-second game online after they master their math and reading lessons, for example, she said.

Steven Lane, site coordinator at Ottawa Middle School, said Study Island provides enrichment as well as helps students improve their reading and math skills.

“The kids are having so much fun that we can sneak a lesson in on them, and they don’t see it coming,” Lane, a December 2012 graduate of Ottawa University, said, laughing.

‘One student at a time’

Lane, who started out as a volunteer with the after school program, took on more of a mentoring roll when he became the program’s site coordinator at OMS in January.

“I helped Miss Becky give shoes to some kids, and I realized that [Communities in Schools] is making a difference in so many kids’ lives,” Lane, a standout defensive back for the OU football team from Newport News, Va., said. “I wasn’t planning to stay in Ottawa, but I saw that I could help these kids because I can relate to them. I told myself that my work was not done here.”

OMS students have been very accepting of Lane, Nevergold said.

“He’s only been there three months, but I can tell he’s making a difference,” she said.

The students are on a first-name basis with Lane.

“I tell them not to call me Mr. Lane, because I’m not their teacher,” Lane said. “I think they can relate to me because I found myself homeless in the seventh grade. They ask me how I made it through high school and college. And I know they think, ‘If Steven can do it, I can do it.’”

Communities in Schools is aptly named, Lane said.

“It takes a community to raise a child,” he said.

Lane and Myers said they work with numerous students on a one-on-one, case-management basis.

“It’s about helping one student at a time,” Myers said. “Every student is important.”

Whether she’s helping a student with a clothing need or encouraging the teen to seek counseling for a deeply rooted hurt, Myers values her relationship with each student, Nevergold said.

“I get to be their friend,” Myers, who keeps healthful snacks for the teenagers on hand, said. “I get to talk with them when they are angry, mad, troubled, hungry or happy and want to share it with me.”

Lane nodded in agreement.

“One of the hardest parts of the job is knowing the kids are hungry,” Lane said.

The food some students receive at school might be the only meals they eat that day, Nevergold said.

Whether the program provides assistance with clothing, food or other needs, Nevergold said, Communities in Schools’ role is to “even the playing field” for the at-risk students.

“We don’t believe in charity,” she said. “We believe in change.”

Sometimes that requires tough talk, Myers said, like urging a parent to get a job when their government support is about to run out. Or making sure homeless families are put in touch with local food pantries and other organizations that can offer assistance.

Fighting back tears, Myers talked about a senior at OHS who has been homeless since she was a freshman.

“We now have 200 homeless students in the Ottawa school district,” Myers said. “They often move from home to home, staying with friends or relatives, sometimes sleeping on floors.”

The tally was about to climb, Myers said last week, as she learned about a mother and children who were going to be evicted at the end of the month.

Site coordinators Myers and Lane, Reach for the Stars director Keiter and executive director Nevergold each talked about the enjoyment they get from Communities in Schools is being able to help the students and sometimes their families.

“I think we’ve built a solid base through the first five years, and now I think the program is on the verge of really taking off,” Nevergold said.

The Ottawa school board recently approved a memorandum of understanding that it would continue to support the program.

“It’s amazing what you have accomplished,” Dennis George, school board member, told the Communities in Schools representatives at that February meeting. “It’s very important [to the Ottawa school district].”

Nevergold has told the school board and district administrators that she plans to retire in spring 2014.

Lane attributed much of Communities in Schools’ success to Nevergold.

“This will be Miss Becky’s legacy,” he said.

Doug Carder is senior writer for The Herald. Email him at dcarder@ottawaherald.com

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