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Spotlight on Staff…Meet Lauren Sly!

Lauren's Picture

Where are you located (which school)?
I am a Program Director. I supervise 6-7 of the CIS programs at multiple schools.
How long have you been with CIS?
3.5 years
What three traits define you?
Hard working, Big heart, Enthusiastic
What made you choose social work?
Originally I wanted to be a lawyer–a guardian ad litem. My Pre- law advisor suggested I look into social work for my degree, and I fell in love with it. In my classes, I found that in this field I could actually make a difference in people’s lives. That sense of vocation for the field of social work has continued to grow throughout my career.
What are some of the challenges you face as a school social worker?
Each day is different, which can be good or bad. Having variety keeps your job interesting and keeps you on your toes. But if you had a difficult day the day before, and you come in and it gets harder, it can be tiring. It’s in these moments that the grit of a social worker is tested. We must have the ability to focus in and work through situations that might make others break down.
What are some of your favorite parts of the job?
I love getting to work with other social workers and help grow them in their abilities. When we help strengthen social workers, they, in turn, are able to help their students become stronger. The work of our organization creates a ripple effect.
Do you have a story that stands out in your mind as a highlight of your work with Communities in Schools so far?
There is one story that will always stay with me. While working with a sibling group, one sister had to go to the hospital for a few health concerns. This girl was homeless and was staying with a friend on her couch. We were working to get her Medicaid benefits that her mother was trying to deny her. When she needed to get her prescriptions filled, she came in very discouraged and ready to just quit trying. This young girl was fighting to survive, struggling with conflict with her mother and overwhelmed with needs. That’s when I told her to focus on her day at school and that I would take over fighting for her Medicaid benefits. She wanted to protest until I reminded her that as an adult and a social worker, it is my job to make sure she has what she needs in this world. She cried and told me no one had ever told her that. Growing up, she was always on her own and didn’t know it was okay to rely on people. I sent her lunch, and when she came back at the end of the day we talked about what I had done on her behalf. Within four days we had everything straightened up and she had her medicines. A few months later she ended up moving in with a relative in another state, but when she left she was healthy, happy and knew she could ask for help.
Ten years ago, who did you think you would be now?
I thought I would be a super busy lawyer bouncing from case to case.
What’s one thing you couldn’t live without?
The support of my co-workers, staff, and organization
What are you listening to/reading these days?
Outlander, Serial and Undisclosed podcasts
Do you have any pets? What kind?
Lots of pets– two paint horses and two corgi dogs
If you could do another job for just one day, what would it be?
Being a lawyer is still a dream. I think that I would like to continue to gain experience and one day, later in my career, be a guardian ad litem and eventually a juvenile/ family court judge.
What advice do you have for kids who are struggling in school?
You always have a choice. You can choose to make the best or the worst out of things, but you will always have someone who cares about you and your choices. She is sitting right here.
What would you most like to tell yourself at age 13?
Don’t stress so much and apply for scholarships early
What is your dream for the students you serve?
My dream is that they find their way in the world, that they make choices they are proud of and learn from the ones they are not so proud of. I hope that when they are done working with us they know it is okay to ask for help. I hope they leave feeling that they had support and strive for their dreams.


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Summer Struggles

When you think of summer break, what comes to mind? Maybe you associate summer with travel or camps that allow you to explore extracurricular interests. You might think of family road trips to the beach or soccer camp with your friends.  Unfortunately, this is not the meaning of summer for everyone.  For low-income students, in fact, summer can be a real struggle.  Have you heard of a phenomenon called “summer learning loss”?  Studies show that it is a leading factor in the achievement gap between lower and higher income students.  Summer break puts low income students behind their peers academically and impacts long term success with college and careers.  In addition to causing challenges in the classroom, this time when schools are out of session creates problems with getting their physical needs met.  Some students rely on the healthy meals provided at school and the opportunity to be in a safe environment during the week.  This is a serious problem.

Here are a few specifics to put this into perspective:

  • We have more than 25 million low-income public school students in the US.
  • One 2011 study concluded that the average student “loses” about one month’s worth of schooling during a typical summer break. The impact is largely concentrated among low-income students.
  • Low income students often start school behind their middle class peers and continue to fall further behind each summer.
  • By the end of fifth grade, disadvantaged youth are nearly three grade equivalents behind their more affluent peers in reading.
  • One study estimates that only 4% of youth from the lowest income bracket participate in summer camps, as compared to 18% of the highest income youth.
  • Six out of every seven students who receive free- and reduced-price lunches lose access to them when school lets out.

 

In a 2013 Slate.com article, Matthew Yglesias sums it up with this statement, “The basic reality is that parents’ ability to provide enriching summer activities for their children is going to be sharply constrained by income. Working-class single moms in urban neighborhoods—exactly the kind of parents whose kids tend to have the most problems in school—are put in a nearly impossible situation by summer vacation.”

The good news is that we’re starting to take notice and take action to fill the gap. A source from the Johns Hopkins University School of Education says, “With high-profile champions like President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan, summer learning is beginning to get the attention it deserves – and it’s starting to take a new shape.”  Rather than focusing on remedial study programs, summer learning is being re-envisioned to include more hands-on learning, creative projects, sports, skill-building and relational curriculum.  According to the article, this fresh perspective comes from “a strong desire to use summers more strategically as a natural time of year to pilot innovate partnership, teaching and assessment strategies while helping youth living in poverty to get a leg up on their middle class peers.” They see summer as opportunity to develop more dynamic, non-traditional programs.

This trend is encouraging. A quick online search revealed a wide array of summer programming geared toward low-income students across the country.  A few highlights include the L.A. KIDS program, through the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation department. Their mission is youth development in low-income areas.  They strive to “provide valuable programs and nutrition in a well-supervised, safe, structured and nurturing environment”.  They have more than 100 recreation centers in the greater Los Angeles area offering a summer sports academy that includes free transportation and lunch. The Texas Department of Agriculture organizes a Summer Feeding Program to provide nutritious and free meals to children 18 and younger during the summer months. School districts and other eligible sponsors may serve as summer feeding program sites.

Social workers at Communities in Schools of Greater Tarrant County are also doing their part. Several schools put on a week-long summer camp for their students.  Summer Camp YogaThey are also delivering packets to parents during home visits with information on summer camps, summer feeding programs, swimming safety tips and fun, free summer activities in the area or distributing flyers and hygiene kits or passing out scholarship applications for summer school.  CIS is joining efforts across the country to provide support, educational enrichment and food during the summer for kids who wouldn’t have access to these resources otherwise.

Sources:

http://www.summerlearning.org/

http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2013/07/summer_learning_loss_summer_vacation_hurts_kids_in_school_and_is_especially.html

http://www.education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/Journals/spring2010/why-summer-learning/

http://www.laparks.org/lakids/

http://www.squaremeals.org/Programs/SummerFeedingPrograms.aspx

 

 


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All the News That’s Fit to Print

It’s a good day in the office when your organization is recognized by one of the beacons of journalistic integrity and quality. In honor of the new school year, the New York Times featured an op-ed piece by Communities in Schools’ president Daniel J. Cardinali. In the piece, Cardinali tackles tough questions about why kids don’t go to school — ultimately insuring early dropout — and speculates on theories about what it takes to keep them in class. As you might have guessed, Cardinali concludes that CIS is the best solution. Take a moment to read what he wrote; he says it better than anyone else can.

How to Get Kids to Class by Daniel J. Cardinali

 


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Mythbusters

Unlike our slightly whacky friends on the TV series Myth Busters, I offer you no exploding crash dummies, no spontaneous combustion, no free falls from deadly heights…just the facts. Here at CIS as we tell the Communities In Schools story, we come across some interesting myths. While most are understandable, some must have their roots in Comic-Con legends. Here are some fun myths/facts:

  1. CIS is part of Fort Worth ISD. CIS here in Tarrant County owes its beginnings to Fort Worth ISD because Trustees allowed CIS its first shot at establishing credibility inside two Fort Worth high schools and we are still serving them 23 years later …But no, CIS is not part of Fort Worth ISD. CIS is an independent non-profit organization that now serves 46 schools in 10 school districts. BUSTED!
  2. CIS picks the students we serve. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Educators inside our schools pick (actually refer and recommend are better terms) our students based on their observations of risk factors and student/family needs. To further dispel this myth, CIS is required by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to provide hard documentation that the students we serve meet TEA at-risk criteria. BUSTED!
  3. TEA pays for CIS programs. Well, if 15 cents on the dollar is “paying for” CIS, then yes. The truth is that Legislative funding for CIS is administered by TEA. Here in Tarrant County, school districts pay about half of the costs for their CIS programs, TEA pays for about 15% and the remaining 35% is generously provided by local community organizations, foundations and individuals. So no, TEA does not pay for CIS programs. BUSTED!
  4. CIS social workers come from the planet Krypton and are more powerful than locomotives, can leap tall buildings in a single bound and are faster than speeding bullets. Well, the powerful locomotive part is of course correct, but the rest…maybe not so much. Miracle workers – yes; angels – probably so, but super-heroes from Krypton? No; much more down-to-earth and real than that. BUSTED!
  5. CIS is dropout prevention; students drop out of high schools, so CIS is a high school program. This one is partially true. CIS serves students in 16 high schools, but the remaining 30 schools are middle and junior high schools and elementary schools. Why? Because dropping out of school is not an “event” that happens in high school. It is a “process” that begins in early childhood. Our goal is to interrupt that process all along the way so that the dropout event never takes place. BUSTED!
  6. CIS is a school. Oh my! Not even close to our skill set. We do the things inside schools that professional educators wish they could do for students and families but cannot. BUSTED!
  7. CIS chooses the schools we serve. Superintendents and Principals know which schools need a CIS program and they set their priorities for expanding CIS into additional schools. Our job is to raise the matching funding so that we can say YES when they ask for new programs. BUSTED!
  8. CIS is a great place to work. It turns out that the votes are in on this one. CIS has been recognized by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce as a “best workplace for women” in the mid-size company category. TRUE!
  9. CIS is the largest employer of social workers in Tarrant County. This is true also and we are always looking for the next great social worker(s). Apply now. Visit our website at www.cistarrant.org for more information. TRUE!

These last two are not really myths, but I just couldn’t pass up a chance to reach out to some great social workers. I hope this helps to clear up some misconceptions, but let us know if you have questions.

– Mike Steele, President and CEO of Communities In Schools of Greater Tarrant County


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Research-Based “Warm Fuzzies”?

If you have even a passing acquaintance with Communities In Schools, you know that CIS is based on decades of research about why young people drop out of school and what it takes to keep that from happening. This research drives the CIS program model. The model is school-based. It is a comprehensive, wrap-around service approach that depends heavily on collaborative support from dozens of partner organizations who are experts in their own fields. It serves not just students, but whole families. In educational circles, the concept is known as integrated student services.

We also talk a lot about “intensity” and we implement the CIS model in ways that maximize the number and regularity of interactions with individual students. This supports the understanding that occasional brushes with caring adults don’t change the courses of young lives. In fact, our founder Bill Milliken puts it best when he says “Programs don’t change people; relationships change people”.  And this, you may think, is where the research-based stuff goes out the window and the “warm fuzzies” begin. But wait! Not so fast, my friend.

Paul Tough’s 2012 book called “How Children Succeed” recounts the work of numerous other researchers. For decades, society has worked under the premise that cognitive ability (how much we know) was the single most reliable determinant of how a person’s life would turn out. But, it turns out that certain psychological traits were more reliable predictors of what allowed high school students to make it through to graduation. Those traits, including an inclination to persist at boring and often unrewarding tasks, the ability to delay gratification, the tendency to follow through on a plan…also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace and in life in general. This led to some obvious questions like, why do some young people have these traits and some don’t? Can these traits be taught and learned? How?

Most answers turned out to be rooted in childhood development and the medical fields of neuroendocrinology (the study of how hormones interact with the brain) and stress physiology (the study of how stress affects the body). Don’t bail on me here…I promise to stay in the shallow end of the research pool.

Scientists have reached a consensus that the key channel through which early adversity causes damage to developing bodies and brains is stress. Cascading chemical signals through the brain and the body are triggered in reaction to intense situations…..stress. In fact, the evolutionary rush of chemicals designed to save our life from lions on the savanna, is a massive and damaging over-reaction to the stresses of the 21st century. What was designed to give us a momentary surge of protective energy is activated for months on end as stresses about hunger, homelessness, family violence, abuse, grief and loss, and countless other stressors that overwhelm some children. Eventually, stress-management systems overload and break down under the chemical strain. Stress physiologists have found a biological result of this phenomenon as well. The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex which is critical to self-regulatory activities of all kinds. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. And all of these have a direct impact on their success in school.

These self-regulatory processes are generally referred to as executive functions. Here is where the research shakes hands with CIS. The reason that researchers who care about the gap between rich and poor are so excited about executive functions is that these skills are not only highly predictive of success; they are also quite malleable, much more so than other cognitive skills. The prefrontal cortex is more responsive to intervention than other parts of the brain, and it stays flexible well into adolescence and early adulthood. So if we can improve a child’s environment in the specific ways that lead to better executive functioning, we can increase his prospects for success. Furthermore, it turns out that there is a particularly effective antidote to the ill effects for early stress, and it comes not from pharmaceutical companies or early-childhood educators. Parents and substitute or supplemental family figures (hello CIS social workers) who are able to form close, nurturing relationships can foster resilience in children that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment and can even reverse the chemical imbalance that caused the damage. Executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood.

So it seems that close, nurturing relationships do not just make for happier children. Research indicates that kids with these relationships are also be more likely to graduate from high school, to stay out of jail, to delay pregnancy, and to have more positive relationships with their own children…breaking family cycles of damage due to childhood stress. For those of us at Communities In Schools, this is changing the picture of education; one student and one family at a time.

Using words like “relationships” can sound all warm and fuzzy but in fact, even this part of CIS is rooted in cold, hard science. The effect is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical. Yes…research-based warm fuzzies. Who knew?

– Mike Steele, President & CEO, Communities In Schools of Greater Tarrant County


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US Grad Rates Increase, Special Programs Credited

The latest numbers from the Department of Education show increases in graduation rates at both the national and state level, with a notable increase among Texas students (READ MORE). These gains are largely credited to programs and initiatives which are deliberate in providing one-on-one support for struggling students. Today, more than ever, “schools are taking aggressive action, such as hiring intervention specialists who work with students one on one,” to keep at-risk students in school and on the path toward graduation. This is the model that CIS implements every day, reaching more than 25,000 Tarrant County students each year and 1.3 million students nationwide.

Support CIS today, because it works.

Newsday Article


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My First Semester as a CIS Project Manager

Alfi Thazhathel is a new Project Manager serving in Crowley ISD.

I joined Communities In Schools in fall of 2013 as a Project Manager, eager to begin my career in Social Work, especially working with students at a school.

The training sessions were intense–it seemed like there was so much information to absorb! My fellow co-workers encouraged me along the way, reassuring me and empowering me as I moved toward my first day working inside the school.

On my first day at North Crowley 9th Grade Campus, I was introduced to the school staff, a friendly group who welcomed me with open arms. I truly enjoy working with each and every staff member. They make me feel as if I am making a difference and a vital part of the school’s team. Similarly, the students at the school are very respectful and understand that I am there to help them succeed. In just a short time, we have developed strong relationships–they view me as someone who is always there for them.

Even in a short time, there have been many successes to celebrate.  I have coordinated school-wide events, class field trips, and other activities for the students. I have provided effective individual services and case management, with many students showing improvements in grades, attendance, and behavior. Low self-esteem and anger are prevalent at my school, and group sessions with students who struggle in these areas are already proving very successful at addressing the issues.

As with any job, there are some challenges, mainly paperwork! It can be difficult to keep up with intense documentation as time flies by each day. However, a critical part of the CIS model is accountability and tracking the effective and performance outcomes of our program. Student data allows us to analyze our practices, improve where needed, and monitor students’ progress throughout the year. Another challenge is finding adequate time to meet with the students, to provide them with the in-depth support we desire for them. We are constantly trying to strike a balance between providing them with the support they need for individual or group sessions without interrupting classroom time.

Despite the challenges, I truly enjoy going to work every day. I can see the difference I am making. Seeing students come in to my office with a frown and leaving with a smile truly makes my day. The dream I had of making a difference in the lives of young people is slowly coming true. I am thankful to be a part of the CIS team.

Alfi J. Thazhathel, LMSW

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