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Upshur Schools to hire three community facilitators to help at-risk youth succeed

BUCKHANNON – Upshur County Schools has received a $364,000 Communities in Schools grant to help students who are at-risk succeed.

Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus said the grant is for two years and will provide for the hiring of three facilitators to coordinate the relationship between the community and the school in an effort to make learning equitable for all students.

“Over half of our students are living in poverty. We are always looking at food scarcity,” Stankus said. “This program is an initiative of First Lady Cathy Justice.”

Stankus said another focus of the Communities in School program is drop-out prevention.

“The grant will be used not only for the resources to help implement the program, but also to pay for the salaries of the facilitators,” Stankus shared. “After that, the idea is, we will continue the program in our community. We are already doing a lot of the things the program focuses on like the Backpack Program and the Food Pantry.”

According to the Communities in Schools program outline, ‘every student deserves an equitable opportunity to succeed in school and fulfill their potential.’

“In Upshur County, approximately 83 percent of our students are considered needy,” Stankus said. “This means they qualify for free or reduced lunch. We know those kinds of things set barriers for our students and we want to support our families, so those barriers are removed. Other issues include hunger, homelessness, emotional trauma or lack of access to basic medical care. Right now, in Upshur County Schools, we have 441 homeless students.”

Stankus explained that 441 homeless students does not necessarily mean they are living on the streets but that they don’t have a stable, permanent place of residence. She said a number of factors can be at play.

“That means they can be doubled up – multiple families living in one place,” Stankus said. “They can be living with Grandma and Grandpa or maybe Mom and Dad have separated, and the children are displaced and living with Grandma and Grandpa for a period of time.

“They could be living in substandard housing,” she added. “All of these meet the qualifications outside of those who are completely without a home.”

She said these statistics are gathered when students self-identify to a teacher, and families must confirm those circumstances before they are counted as homeless.

“There are a lot of families who are doubled up – families living with brothers or sisters, cousins, and grandparents raising their grandchildren – that is a real common one,” Stankus said.

Stankus said the Communities in Schools program is an initiative of the First Lady.

“We were recently selected as one of the expansion counties of this grant,” Stankus said. According to the West Virginia Department of Education website, there are currently 15 counties with 79 counties participating in the Communities in Schools initiative which have 76 site coordinators or facilitators. So far, the program is having an impact on approximately 27,000 students in West Virginia.

The site says that ‘students from low income communities are twice as likely to drop out of school and children of color are often disproportionately impacted by this reality … Whether it be hunger, homelessness, emotional trauma or a lack of access to basic medical care, students shouldn’t have to face these challenges alone.’

It says the model for the program is ‘designed to address the impact of poverty from every angle and that it builds lasting community relationships with businesses, volunteers, agencies, healthcare providers and educators to help students stay focused today so they can go further tomorrow.’

On Thursday, interviews were conducted to fill the facilitator positions.

“Our pilot schools are Buckhannon-Upshur High School, Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School and Buckhannon Academy Elementary School,” Stankus said. “Those are our three largest schools and those selected will be placed on the personnel agenda for approval at the BOE meeting Tuesday.”

Stankus said she feels hopeful about the Communities in Schools program.

“Our community is very supportive of the schools,” Stankus said. “I see the facilitators as liaisons between community folks, business and industry and resources and the schools. To me, they will help identify resources for kids facing these challenges and connect families to those.”

Stankus said there are several programs already in the community to help students including the ABC Program and Community Care.

“The Communities in Schools program facilitator will meet with and talk with every single student who is identified for this program and then talk to them about their challenges and figure out ways to help them,” she explained. “It may look different in each school – in high school, the facilitator may be helping a student find employment or experience.”

Although their roles at each school will be different, Stankus said she sees the three facilitators working together on projects.

“I think they will work together to streamline our backpack program in our county,” she said. “I love our community, and I think the more connections we can make, the stronger we will be. I think this program will help facilitate those connections.”

Governor Jim Justice and First Lady Cathy Justice were recognized in September 2019 at the Communities in Schools Leadership Town Hall Conference in Chicago for their efforts to empower at-risk students to stay in school and on a path to a brighter future through their support of the program in West Virginia. The governor was also recognized during the conference for donating his state salary to the Communities in Schools program.

Check back with My Buckhannon following Tuesday’s Upshur County BOE meeting to learn more about the three facilitators hired in Upshur County Schools who will help implement the Communities in Schools Program.

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