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Upshur County Principals join Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus in congratulating three new facilitators hired during Tuesday’s Upshur County Board of Education meeting Tuesday. The trio will serve at Buckhannon Academy, Buckhannon-Upshur Middle and Buckhannon-Upshur High Schools with the Communities in Schools program. Upshur County Schools received $384,000 in grant funds for the program. Upshur County Schools welcomed Vicki Shannon, First Lady Cathy Justice’s Executive Assistant and Cynthia Sorsaia, Communities in Schools Support Coordinator to Tuesday’s BOE meeting. First Lady Cathy Justice offered her congratulations online for the grant award. The Communities in Schools initiative in West Virginia is a project of the First Lady.

Get to know Communities in Schools facilitators, Krista Sappey, Justin Bowers and Katy Ross

BUCKHANNON – A Communities in Schools grant in the amount of $384,000 was officially presented to Upshur County Schools Tuesday.

West Virginia Communities in Schools representatives Vicki Shannon, executive assistant to West Virginia First Lady Cathy Justice, and Cynthia Sorsaia, Communities in Schools support coordinator, were on hand to offer their congratulations for the grant, and First Lady Cathy Justice offered her remarks via video to those attending the BOE meeting.

Kayla Yocum, technology/digital communication specialist for Upshur County Schools, introduced the guests to those gathered for Tuesday’s BOE meeting, first introducing Shannon and Sorsaia before showing a video with First Lady Cathy Justice.

Yocum said the grant will allow three Upshur County Schools – Buckhannon Academy Elementary, Buckhannon-Upshur Middle and Buckhannon-Upshur High School – to receive the Communities in Schools program.

In the video, Justice welcomed Upshur County Schools to the Communities in Schools program and said there will be many positive results produced by the program. Justice said the program is currently in 15 West Virginia counties where it is helping to improve attendance rates for schools, higher graduation rates and more.

Yocum said the $384,000 will provide community resources and partnerships for students and families, so needs will be met.

Shannon told those gathered that First Lady Justice is excited to come back up to Upshur County.

“The Communities in Schools is so important because it is a game changer,” Shannon said. “It is in 26 states plus the District of Columbia, and it is a national nonprofit program. In West Virginia, it is being administered through our Department of Education.”

“Justice heard about the program in Greenbrier County where they started it on their own 14 years ago,” Shannon said. “When she became First Lady and decided that education would be her primary initiative, she helped develop the program in West Virginia. We have been working with this for three years, and West Virginia is growing by leaps and bounds. It is making a difference in attendance and graduation rates, particularly because where this is used, graduation rates are mostly higher than the country at large.”

Sorsaia said the most exciting aspect of the program is that it comes with humans.

“It has someone that comes into the schools to help do the things that a lot of the teachers and principals are already doing to meet the needs of students and families, but it puts someone in there to coordinate that and reach out to the communities, which can help remove barriers for students,” Sorsaia said. “We are excited to see the impact that the program can have.”

Three site coordinators were hired via personnel recommendations during Tuesday’s BOE meeting.

Krista Sappey will be the Communities in Schools Facilitator at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School. Dr. Justin Bowers will be the Communities in Schools Facilitator at Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School and Kathryn ‘Katy’ Ross will be the Communities in School Facilitator at Buckhannon-Upshur High School.

In a release from Upshur County Schools, Sappey said she is thrilled to be the new Communities in Schools Facilitator at BAES.

“I am a graduate of Buckhannon Upshur High School and received my B.A. in psychology and sociology from WVWC,” Sappey wrote, adding that she worked as a licensed social worker for various youth programs and was a stay-at-home mom before joining Upshur County Schools as a long-term substitute.

Sappey said in the release she is “excited to be able to work with students and families, to assist them in making sure their needs are met so they can achieve their full potential and find a love of learning.”

My Buckhannon was able to conduct interviews with Bowers and Ross, both of whom are equally excited to get started with the Communities in Schools program.

Bowers said he grew up in Buckhannon and that he and his wife, Carrie, moved back to Buckhannon in 2012 to start the New Community Church.

“Educationally, I finished my Ph.D. in organizational leadership a few years ago,” Bowers said. “Vocationally, I function in multiple realms, serving as the lead pastor of New Community, teaching as an adjunct professor with the University of Charleston’s leadership program and working beside schools and other nonprofits doing leadership coaching and team development.”

Bowers said for some time, he has been working closely with Upshur County Schools from ‘outside’ of the system.

“Our nonprofit, Appalachian Impact, along with the church, has trained and deployed mentors for at-risk students. I have been involved with the trauma-centered trainings, conducted team-building and leadership development experiences,” Bowers said. “My wife and one of our daughters teach in the school system, and our other three daughters all attend at the high school, middle school and Union Elementary Schools. To say the least, we are deeply invested.”

Bowers said when he saw the position posted and began to learn more about the Communities in Schools program, he knew it was something he deeply cared about.

“It is no secret that our schools – and specifically the at-risk students within our schools – are facing some substantial challenges. This program and this position both seem like incredible opportunities to work within our system to effect positive change,” he said.

Bowers said he thinks the question of what qualities he will bring to the position is a tough one.

“I think what I’m most eager to bring to this work is my passion for relational leadership and helping unleash the assets of our communities that already exist,” he said. “I love building teams, getting to know people and seeing how the power of ‘we’ is greater than any one individual. With the Communities in Schools program, the heartbeat is to do the work of connecting communities with needs. I can’t wait to be a part of this.”

Additionally, Bowers said the community needs to go even deeper than they have before in making a difference in the lives of students who need them.

“We are – because of the current pandemic – in uncharted territory where schools and so many other cultural systems are finding new ways to exist,” Bowers said. “Because of this, the work of programs like Communities in Schools is perhaps more important than ever. And we need those folks who are courageous enough to build a relationship with a student who needs them to jump in!”

Ross said she grew up in Coalton, and education runs in her blood with her mother being a teacher and her stepdad being a retired principal.

“I attended West Virginia Wesleyan College and studied psychology and gender studies,” Ross said. “I pursued my MSW Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and I’m set to graduate in mid-August.”

Ross said two opportunities while in graduate school have offered her the opportunity to learn what she feels is needed to be a facilitator at B-UHS.

“I was at Miriam’s Kitchen, where I provided case management services to folks experiencing homelessness and another at a community health clinic, Whitman-Walker, where I engaged in therapy with teenagers and young adults,” she said. “These experiences really shaped my professional interests and the CIS site facilitator position seemed like the perfect intersection of the two.”

Ross said in these internships, she witnessed how difficult it is for folks to function academically and socially when their basic needs are not being met.

“When you have one set of clothes and nowhere to wash them, you’re battling depression but don’t have health insurance to go to therapy, or you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, your education probably isn’t going to be your top priority,” Ross said. “Unfortunately, this is the reality for so many students. CIS will allow us to work with them to eliminate some of the barriers so they can thrive.”

Building relationships with students and their families is what Ross said she is most looking forward to as a CIS facilitator.

“For students facing practical and academic obstacles, having someone in the school system who you trust and who is willing to advocate for you truly makes a big distance,” Ross said. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to connect students with the resources they need to reach their full potential.”

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