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When school is virtual, real connections matter

By Dr. Hope Sinclair and Wendy Hosick

A midnight phone call from a student forced to the streets after a family disturbance in her emotionally abusive home; a high school senior forced to choose between helping feed his family or keeping up with school, putting graduation at risk; empty cupboards, stomachs and bank accounts.

Each scenario is real. In each scenario, Communities In Schools (CIS) of Hampton Roads was a lifeline.

A CIS staff member retrieved the student, took her to a safe place, and has been involved in connecting the family to resources ever since; noticing the student had not logged into school for days, a CIS staff member made a personal visit to the student and talked through his specific barriers, resulting in the student’s re-engagement and commitment to obtaining a diploma; 18 CIS staff members regularly distribute food, hygiene products and cleaning supplies to students and families.

Relationships change lives. Communities In Schools was founded on this premise. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when staying connected is more important — yet more challenging — than ever, Communities in Schools continues to empower students with the support they need, setting each student on a path of lifelong success. But, as the examples above show, the potholes along that path often have nothing to do with math or science or reading, and everything to do with the holes life digs for you. Success may only come when you have a caring, trusted adult helping you navigate the obstacles.

In Hampton Roads, one in three school-aged children live in poverty. These students are “our” kids. Our kids carry adult-sized burdens to school every day: unmet basic needs, homelessness, bullying, systemic racism, the emotional effects of trauma, untreated medical issues, language barriers and more. Local communities have many resources to address these challenges, but the maze of services can be challenging to navigate.

Communities In Schools of Hampton Roads’ presence in 19 schools in Suffolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Hampton, Norfolk and Virginia Beach gives 868 of these students a one-on-one relationship with a CIS site coordinator who, for many, is the only trusted adult in their lives. For others, the site coordinator represents an added layer of support, resources, encouragement and advocacy.

Now, more than ever, CIS relationships are changing lives. As soon as schools closed, our team connected with students, first ensuring basic needs were met and then finding new ways to continue the individualized supports that help students set goals, stay on track and succeed. Despite the challenges this spring, 97% of our case-managed students advanced to the next grade and 94% of our seniors graduated.

The ongoing adaptation to virtual learning has proven stressful for families already hanging on by a thread. CIS is relentless in contacting families each week, pivoting programs designed to be delivered in school buildings to virtual formats, and tracking the impact of the crisis so we can collaborate with the school systems and community service providers to clear barriers to success.

Our site coordinators (who are typically in schools) are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. They visit neighborhoods to meet the students who need them wherever they are. They face the realities of poverty, homelessness and hunger head-on. They identify and address the effects of trauma and stress. They triage wide-spanning needs, help provide a stable environment for learning and make sure every student’s potential has the chance to be ignited.

The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn long overdue attention to the need for changes within our education system to ensure equitable access to success. CIS of Hampton Roads is a necessary partner in exploring innovative approaches that incorporate social, emotional and trauma-informed learning and addressing inequities exacerbated by technology-based learning. Our school districts will be stretched thinner than ever over the next few years, and collaboration with partners like CIS will be critical if we are to prevent thousands of students from falling through the cracks.

CIS of Hampton Roads, a not-for-profit organization, is dedicated to surrounding students with a network of trust to foster success in school and beyond. But we can’t do it alone. We, and most importantly our Hampton Roads students, need the support of the community. We urge you to visit our website at www.cisofhamptonroads.org to learn more and support our work. Together, we will create bright futures for our kids.

Dr. Hope Sinclair is executive director of Communities In Schools of Hampton Roads. Wendy Hosick is chair of the board of directors for Communities in Schools of Hampton Roads and a resident of Suffolk.