Sunday, December 21, 2014

New leader aims to build on Communities In Schools success

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 6/9/2014

Becky Nevergold sat alone in her tiny office in the two-story brick building on the corner of Walnut and Fourth streets in Ottawa.

It was fall 2007, and the executive director of Communities In Schools of Ottawa wasn’t sure where to begin, she said.

Becky Nevergold sat alone in her tiny office in the two-story brick building on the corner of Walnut and Fourth streets in Ottawa.

It was fall 2007, and the executive director of Communities In Schools of Ottawa wasn’t sure where to begin, she said.

The former principal of Hawthorne Elementary School had been tasked with launching an after school program for the school district by former superintendent Dean Katt after Hawthorne closed in May 2007.

“Dean Katt wanted to keep me as an administrator, but he didn’t know exactly what to do with me,” Nevergold said, smiling. “He wanted an after school program. I was in the process of helping Hawthorne close, but I got that grant written and we started the after school program in the fall of 2007 with Emma Thayer as the after school program coordinator at Garfield [Elementary School].”

Then Katt came to Nevergold with another idea, she said.

“He had heard of this [national] organization called Communities In Schools,” Nevergold recalled. “He had no idea what it could be but thought it could tie in with the after school program. Communities In Schools [of Ottawa] officially got its start in March 2008, so it kind of started backward because we started with a [after school] program before we were actually an organization.

“I literally remember walking into that little office upstairs [at the former school district central office] and I sat there, not sure what to do,” Nevergold said, laughing.

But under Nevergold’s leadership — accompanied by a strong board and good volunteers, she said — the program quickly grew.

Nevergold, who will retire as Communities In Schools executive director June 30, and incoming executive director Rachel Smith recently sat down to talk about Communities In Schools’ roots in Ottawa and the organization’s direction for the future.

The Reach for the Stars after school program has been an integral part of the organization’s partnership with the Ottawa school district, Nevergold and Smith said. Starting with 60 students at Garfield in 2007, the program grew to 150 students by the end of the school year and at present could accommodate 200 students, with a waiting list at each school building, Nevergold said.

But Nevergold and Smith, who just wrapped up her second three-year term on the Communities In Schools board, are quick to point out the after school program is one of more than three dozen programs and activities Communities In Schools is involved in each year.


students’ lives

During the 2012-2013 school year, Communities In Schools provided accessible prevention and intervention services, known as its Level I programs, to 1,854 students or 78 percent of Ottawa school district’s student population, according to its 2012-2013 annual report.

Some of the organization’s Level I programs include an after school program for kindergarten through fifth-grade students, K-5 Weekend Warriors BackSnack program, K-12 YouthFriends Mentoring program, 6-12 WhyTry resilience education program, and an annual Day on the Job event. 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, including grants, foundation gifts/grants, corporate sponsors, organizations individual donors and fundraisers.

Another important piece of CIS of Ottawa’s work is the one-on-one case management counseling and mentoring work undertaken by the group’s site coordinators as part of its Level II program.

“There were about 200 or 210 Level II students this [2013-2014] school year, and the year before we had 90,” Nevergold said. “We hit a critical mass last year when we were able to put Cassie Myers [Ottawa High School site coordinator] and Steven Lane [Ottawa Middle School site coordinator] in the buildings full time.”

Michelle McCalley and Lisa Rivers are the part-time site coordinators at Eugene Field and Lincoln elementary schools, respectively, and Jamie Keiter is the Reach for the Stars after school program director.

“There are so many things [Communities In Schools] can do if you have people in buildings,” Nevergold said. “Cassie started two years ago and asked the [OHS] staff to tell her what problems or needs there were at the school. She only received seven [needs assessments] back, and they all said basically there were no issues. She got 40 [needs assessments] back this spring. Cassie being there full-time has made a difference.”

Communities In Schools strives to provide services that will make students want to come to school each day, Nevergold said.

“The No. 1 thing is to make it so kids want to come, and everything will fall into place,” she said. “We have shown through mentoring programs that a child with bad attendance will come to school on the day when the mentor is going to be there.”

Expanding CIS

Expanding Communities In Schools of Ottawa’s mentoring efforts is one of Smith’s goals for the program, the new executive director said.

“During my six years on the [CIS] board, I’ve seen it grow astronomically,” Smith said. “It’s completely different even than it was just two years ago. I want to build on what Becky has already put in place.”

The Ottawa community has embraced Communities In Schools, Smith said, and she wants to grow the number of volunteers and mentors who assist the organization.

“We know one-on-one relationships are key to success in so many of these children’s lives, and mentoring is a huge piece of that, whether it’s coming in to have breakfast with a young child or tutoring an older child in math or you’re sitting in a room listening to a student talk about their social life, all those things are mentoring. That’s one of the programs we need to build on — all those children need to have people in their lives beyond the case manager.”

Smith comes to Communities In Schools after spending more than 15 years on the staff at Ottawa University, 1001 S. Cedar St., Ottawa. As the director of annual giving, Smith raised more than $1 million in scholarship funds for students. For the past 10 years, she has been the development resources coordinator, doing prospect research and working on grants.

Smith’s experience with writing grants and in fundraising should help her as she tries to raise more funds and obtain more grant monies for Communities In Schools, she said.

“Fundraising is all about relationships,” Smith said. “Because we were a small staff [at OU], you did all the events and you’re involved in every aspect of fundraising and engaged with the board. [Communities In Schools] a good fit, I think.”

“It’s a great fit,” Nevergold was quick to add.

The Communities In Schools board is not an advisory board, it’s a working board, Smith said.

Smith first became aware of Communities In Schools when she was looking for a project for a Franklin County Leadership class and Nevergold told her she needed someone to run the “BackSnack” program, she said.

“It really opened my eyes to the need that was in our community,” she said.

Smith also wants to strengthen the organization’s marketing efforts and work out some kinks with the organization’s software program, she said.

Nevergold does not have any definite plans for retirement, she said.

“Numerous organizations have asked me to volunteer, but I haven’t made any decisions yet,” she said. “When you retire, as with any major change, you shouldn’t make any big decisions right away.”

As with the ever-changing needs in education, Communities In Schools is not a static organization, Nevergold said.

“You have to respond to needs and sometimes those can change very quickly,” Nevergold said as she stood in the Communities In Schools office, located in a modular building behind the school district’s central office, 1404 S. Ash St., Ottawa. “I have enjoyed watching [CIS] grow [since 2008]. We have had great boards and great volunteers, and I would put my staff up against any staff. They have big hearts and good brains, and I think that’s a great combination — they are making a difference [in students’ lives].”

Smith is looking forward to working with the staff, the Communities In Schools board, volunteers, school district staff and community and corporate partners to continue to expand the organization, she said.

“I’m just honored to have the opportunity to be a part of this organization in this capacity,” she said. “It’s exciting and challenging at the same time.”

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