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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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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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Working Together Towards a Common Goal

I started working as a social worker and project manager for CIS in January of 2009. This year I started at my third school, Watauga Elementary. I have to say that starting at a new school is just like starting a new job all over again. You have to make many adjustments such as handling new policies, a new environment, new staff, and, most importantly, new students. Each school seems to have a different set of needs, which is something else you must acclimate to. Every school I have worked for has been full of supportive staff and amazing students and for that I feel truly blessed.

One of the first things we learn in our training at CIS is how crucial it is to find the people in your school who will play a big part in helping you serve your students. Changing schools has taught me that these people are different in every school. In my experience, the school counselor has always been my right arm. We have always relied heavily on one another to meet the needs of our students and families. Although I am working with an amazing counselor this year, I have come to learn that our school nurse takes on the role of social worker quite often. Nurse Junge has played a vital role in my ability to serve the students and families at Watauga Elementary. She referred many of my current students and continues to inform me of their needs on a daily basis. If something is going on at this school, she knows about it and she makes sure that I know about it, too. My working relationship with Nurse Junge has made it possible for her to trust me and is critical in my ability to do a good job. This trust has made it possible for me to provide resources and services to many of the students and families at Watauga Elementary. I have learned that being able to identify the key people in your school and build relationships with those people is just as important as any service we provide to our students. The people we connect with and the relationships we nurture are the key to running a successful program.

Heather Yeubanks


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Helping Students Beyond the Classrom

Less than a week before the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year I was told I would be placed at Versia L. Williams Elementary to establish a new CIS program. Of course, I was excited about the opportunity to serve a new school but I also expected there to be tons of leg work. As a social worker and project manager with CIS, we are on the front lines and we often find ourselves promoting and implementing our school based stay-in-school program alongside teachers, parents, students, and community members. The effectiveness of the CIS program depends heavily on the partnerships we build with these individuals. So… making a good first impression is priceless!

When I arrived at my new school and began meeting with teachers, staff members, and parents, I noticed a recurrent theme. The well-being and success of students and families is the core of Versia Williams. As an educational institution, the faculty and staff work to ensure students are successful in the classroom, but they also partner with parents to help students achieve success in life. The belief that school professionals, parents, and community members can positively impact the lives of students aligns with the mission of the CIS program and is evident in the work taking place at Versia Williams.

The principal, Mrs. Whatley has formed a strong team of professionals that work together cohesively with one goal in mind, student success. To help accomplish this goal, Versia Williams has master math and reading specialists, a dean of instruction, parent liaison, counselor, school psychologist, and a CIS social worker. In addition to putting together a team of professionals, Mrs. Whatley encourages staff members to collaborate with each other, asses the needs of students and their families, and implement best practices within our specialties to meet identified needs.

With this in mind, the parent liaison and I facilitated a basic computer skills course for parents. The course covered computer basics, such as learning the names and functions of computer hardware, creating an e-mail account, and accessing parent portal (an online database for FWISD parents to monitor their child’s academic progress). Since Versia Williams is a dual language campus, the course was offered in Spanish and English. In addition to providing a computer course for parents, CIS partnered with the Tarrant Area Food Bank to assist parents in completing applications for food stamps to ensure students are not hungry when they arrive at school. The resources and partnerships for each campus served by CIS are unique because they are based upon the current needs of students.

To ensure current needs are met, CIS staff members create and implement a campus plan each semester to help students overcome barriers to success. Campus plans provide a framework for the work that CIS staff do on a daily basis. After reviewing the campus plan, principals are provided an opportunity to share comments regarding the campus plan and Mrs. Whatley’s had this to say…

“Mrs. Rodriguez has developed a thorough and comprehensive plan for our campus. Our campus plan will have a major and positive impact on our students, staff and community. We are very excited about our campus plan and Mrs. Rodriguez has been a great resource and addition to our school family”.

Helping students to achieve is the foundation of the CIS program and it is also the basis for everything we do at Versia Williams. Mrs. Whatley’s comment shows that the CIS program meets a need that many schools, families, and communities share. And as I mentioned previously, first impressions do count!

 

Alecia Rodriguez, LBSW

Versia L. Williams Elementary


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School Begins at Sherrod Elementary

It’s a new year here at Sherrod Elementary and I could not be more excited! I am fairly new to Communities In Schools. I started late in the 2011-2012 school year, so this will be my first full school year with CIS. I absolutely love the school I have been placed at. Sherrod truly does function as a family unit. The students are bright, hard working, and actually excited to be at school! The teachers and staff at Sherrod have been so warm and welcoming. They have bent over backwards to make sure I have everything I need to serve their students. I am excited about all the opportunities this year will bring. Beginning school at the end of last year didn’t leave time to accomplish all I had hoped to before summer. I assured myself that I would soon have an entire school year to plan and implement all these wonderful ideas for the CIS program at Sherrod! Now the time has come to put my plan in to action and I am so excited about all the new opportunities!

When I came to Sherrod last year I was told time and time again, “You were the missing piece of the puzzle.” This school has a large support staff working night and day to serve their students. We have instructional facilitators to assist and empower teachers in the classroom, a parent liaison that does wonders getting parents involved in the school, as well as a behavioral specialist, special education counselor and a wonderful enrichment team. Despite the schools many strengths and resources, the students were still in need. Many of Sherrod’s students struggle with hunger, homelessness, violence, abuse, poverty, and numerous other barriers that influence their education. In my first days of work, I was called to help two separate homeless families find resources in their community. While talking with one family who was living in a hotel, I couldn’t help but think of the children living in that situation. Most of us can’t imagine not having the security of our own bed to sleep in at night or our own home to go to. Despite what these children were dealing with, they were still coming to school expected to focus and learn every single day. I quickly saw why I was the missing piece! I hope this year to have the time, patience, and discipline to serve as many students and families as I can.

-Christina Turner, LBSW

Project Manager


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Transitioning from School to Summer

As the last days of school approach, some would say “it’s winding down”.  How wrong they are! Students are growing excited for summer and starting to itch to be free from school.  Faculty and school staff hurry to finish their last teachings of the year and prepare for the summer.  As a CIS social worker, closing paperwork is just beginning.  We have attended training to learn how to finish all of our paperwork and are now ready to begin the process of closing our students’ files by collecting their final report cards and progress reports on improvements they have made throughout the year. 

Closing files sounds like only doing paperwork, but it also means saying goodbye to students that you have worked with for at least a year or maybe more.  It means seeing students through their great times and their rough times, being there for them and helping them grow in numerous areas, which differ for every student.  As excited as I am for summer, I am also sad I will not be there for some students who rely heavily on a smile and encouraging words each day.

I will watch my students walk out the door on the last day of school and wonder how they will do over the summer and even the rest of their lives.  Will they have food to eat? Will they be safe over the summer? What kinds of choices will they make in their lives?  Summer resources, like a summer feeding program, food banks, and summer camps for kids, have been made available to families to help bridge the gap for those in need during the summer holiday.  I can only hope that I have helped them develop the tools necessary for them to succeed in their lives. 

Azle ISD is blessed to have a CIS in every school above lower elementary.  Starting in 5th grade, CIS is available to students through the 12th grade.  This means they will always have an adult who cares about them to help them break down whatever is barring them from success. Knowing this helps me feel better about the well-being of my students.

Along with being sad to see students go, it is also a joyful time to celebrate each of the student’s successes like new friends made or achieving A honor roll.  CIS is an amazing place where each employee gets to change the lives of our youth.  We have the opportunity to foster relationships with students and help them succeed.  Every day we celebrate because our students are making strides, big and small, but overall huge in an era where lack of education is a growing epidemic. 

So yes, I will be sad to see my students leave and yes, I will think about them over the summer and hope that they are all doing well; but this summer I will also be celebrating the success of another great year working for an agency that makes a difference for so many as I look forward to another awesome year to come! 

Sarah Wagle


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Learn to Weave

I am a Communities In Schools Board Member and a member of the CIS State Advisory Committee. I have been a part of the CIS family for about six years. At a CIS conference in Houston this past January, Bill Milliken author and founder of Communities In Schools expressed his wish that all new hires learn how to weave. The thought being that weaving shows us patterns and in turn we see “our universal interconnectedness”.

Weaving becomes a metaphor for providing the individualized, but interconnected services that our students receive. No two students have the same needs, so CIS social workers use different yarns (provided by our various community partners) woven into different patterns to create a unique fabric for each student to support their success in school.  The results of this interconnected and coordinated way of thinking are amazing, both for kids and for the success of schools. I have met CIS students and seen with my own eyes the life-changing effect of CIS weavers.

Staying in school is more important now than ever before. Smart has become the new rich, which is to say, those with education are increasingly becoming the “haves” in our society. No doubt CIS faces many obstacles but united, weaving the strengths of our community’s fabric, we can unlock the potential of every child that needs our help…..one thread at a time.

Catherine Estrada, CIS Board Member