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Turning the tide for disadvantaged students

December 3, 2018

For Capital High School student Sebastian Jowers, it all started with a binder.

He needed one to start his freshman year.

So he went to see Ivan Cornejo, one of three Communities In Schools site coordinators at Capital High. These in-school coordinators help provide emotional and mental health counseling, tutoring, food, clothing and school supplies for students. What Jowers didn’t understand at the time was that he needed much more than a binder to get him through high school.

Making sure a kid has a binder — or perhaps something else that binds him or her to learning — is the bottom line for the Communities In Schools program, which works to help students and families gain a foothold on educational success.

For Jowers and others who’ve been served by the program over the years, the Communities In Schools formula — in essence, providing “wraparound” services that meet a student’s emotional, educational and personal needs — is working.

Capital High Principal Mariah Runyan said the program, which has been at the school for five years, is turning the tide for the roughly 120 students who are part of it on a continuing basis. She said 100 percent of the school’s 1,400-plus students are on the free- and reduced-lunch program, a federal indicator of poverty, and many are not native English speakers, so the program helps many of those students stay in school.

“We could not do the work we need to do academically if we did not have this social and emotional support for those students,” she said.

Jowers’ story is not unlike many who’ve been in the program. He said his mom is a single parent on disability who cannot work and is struggling to make ends meet. When there’s not enough food on the table, Jowers shows up at school on Thursday afternoon for Communities In Schools’ weekly food distribution event, designed to ensure impoverished students do not go hungry at home — an impediment to learning.

Some of his classes, like English, are knocking him for a loop. Cornejo began asking questions and discovered Jowers was facing a number of personal challenges that were throwing him off course at school and leading the teen to consider dropping out last year.

“It took me a while for him to really reach out for help,” Cornejo said of Jowers. “I started digging in more and more and began developing a relationship. Sometimes it was as simple as me calling out to him, ‘Hey, what’s this F about? What can we do to raise that grade?’ But last year was a roller coaster with him.”

In May, Jowers plans to cross the finish line and receive his high school diploma. He credits that achievement to the support of Cornejo and fellow Communities In Schools coordinators Sinte Torrez and Heather Sellers.

“If my grades are falling or I’m having a bad day, I can come and talk to any of them,” Jowers said. “They’re dedicated to me.”

In some ways, Communities In Schools is celebrating its 20th anniversary in Santa Fe. It was founded as the Salazar Partnership in 1998 by Bill and Georgia Carson and United Church of Santa Fe to offer medical, social, academic and extracurricular support to students at Salazar Elementary. The volunteer-driven program was expanded to what was then Agua Fría Elementary School in 2001, and its name was changed to Santa Fe For Students.

Looking to further connect community resources to the public schools, the program merged in 2012 with the national Communities In Schools organization to provide a fuller array of help for students. Communities In Schools of New Mexico’s budget is about $1.6 million, with $450,000 of that money coming from Santa Fe Public Schools. It currently has 13 coordinators, 12 of whom are fluent in both English and Spanish, in 10 schools.

Come January, thanks to a recent school board action, the program will expand to an 11th site, Nina Otero Community School, a K-8 facility located almost across the street from Capital High and full of students who, for the most part, will attend Capital when they are freshmen. The board unanimously voted to pull $250,000 out of its reserve funds to help Communities In Schools with that expansion.

School board President Steven Carrillo said at the time that the Communities In Schools “supports are so important.”

That help can extend to items such as a pair of glasses for a child with vision problems; free dental care; or payments toward rent or utility bills for impoverished families on the verge of eviction, said Julia Bergen, executive director of the program.

The effort also has a positive impact on academics. According to Communities In Schools of New Mexico data, 70 percent of the 500-plus students in the program improved math proficiency rates by an average of 14 points in the 2017-18 school year, while 73 percent improved English language arts proficiency rates by 13 points.

At Capital High, each of the three coordinators has an office, and though each one oversees his or her own caseload of students, there is considerable crossover.

“It takes time to establish a relationship with some of the kids,” Torrez said. “But I’m here every day for them. Every day. Sometimes they just need someone to talk to.”

Angel Martinez, a 17-year old Capital High senior, agreed. She has developed a rapport with Sellers, who has involved Martinez and other girls in a girls empowerment class that meets every week and allows the students to interact with female professionals who share their stories of childhood challenges and career success.

The first step for students in need of support is to reach out for the support that Communities In Schools offers, Martinez said.

“It’s hard to ask for help,” Martinez said. “If I have stuff going on at home, trying to talk about that with an adult can be tough because I don’t know what they will say. But I can go up and tell Heather what’s going on and be safe with her.”

Jowers said he felt that safety net developing around him from the day he went to ask for that binder.

“The three of them are so kind; they have open arms,” he said. “So it’s impossible to not to open up to them.”

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