CIS of the Midlands serves approximately 2,800 students, K-12, in five schools in the region and offer individualized case management services to 280 students.
The midlands region of South Carolina encompasses 26 counties in the central part of the state and is home to approximately 750,000 people (Central Midlands Council of Government, 2012). At the center of the midlands lies the state capital Columbia. As the second planned city in the United States, Columbia has a rich history stemming back to colonial times (History of Columbia, n.d.). The city boasts over 160 individual historical Landmarks and five national historic landmarks (Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, 2017). Landmarks include the Robert Mills House, a 1823 home built by Robert Mills who designed the Washington Monument, and the South Carolina State House, which is decorated by six bronze stars marking the spots where it was struck by union cannons during civil war Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, 2017).
As of 2015, the population of Columbia was 134, 309 and 28.4% of the population lived below the poverty line (“Columbia, South Carolina (SC) Poverty,” 2015). The most common race or ethnicity living below the poverty line in Columbia is Black or African American. Black or African American individuals represent 60.1% of the individuals living in poverty compared to Caucasian persons who represent 30.2% of this population (“Data USA,” 2015).
Among Columbian children, 33.2% are living in poverty (“Columbia, South Carolina (SC) Poverty,” 2015). Low-income children often experience unstable families, a lack of consistency, inadequate health care, and food insecurity among other issues. These pervasive adversities translate into high rates of absenteeism, poor academic performance, behavioral problems in school, and subsequently, the failure to graduate on time.
While the South Carolina high school graduation rate has been consistently increasing over the past decade, it remains a problem for low-income youth. A disproportionate number of economically disadvantaged students dropout compared to their non-disadvantaged counterparts. During the 2014-2015, the dropout rate among all students was 2.6%, compared to 3.5% for low- income students (Spearman, 2016). Communities in Schools (CIS) of the Midlands began providing services in the region to respond to high drop put rates among low-income youth. According to Terry Linder, the Executive Director of Communities in Schools of the Midlands, the mission of CIS is to surround students with a community of support…so students will be promoted on time, graduate on time, and have a successful future”.
CIS of the Midlands serves approximately 2,800 students, K-12, in five schools in the region and offer individualized case management services to 280 students. A high percentage of the students they work with live in poverty. Jillian Fosse, the Student Achievement Coordinator for Wood Elementary School, estimates that 63% of students who attend Wood Elementary qualify for free and reduced lunch. In one school district in which CIS of the Midlands operates every student is eligible for Title 1 funding for free and reduced lunch.
Communities in Schools Model
CIS of the Midlands is one of four affiliates of CIS that operates in South Carolina. CIS, as a national organization, works to help the 14.5 million children living in poverty succeed in school and in life, and in the process, building stronger, healthier and more economically stable communities. CIS Affiliates operate in 25 states and the District of Columbia and serve over 1.5 million students annually.
CIS works with schools and teachers to identify challenges students face in class or at home and coordinate with community partners to bring outside resources inside schools. CIS works with the community to offer students support in school using a three-tiered approach.
- Tier 1 supports: Provide school-wide prevention services
- These include short-term resources such as school supplies, clothing, or health screenings available to all students at a school.
- Tier 2 supports: Provide target intervention programs
- These include long-term resources such as, tutoring, mentoring, case management, and specialized curriculum for students who need additional help with attendance, behavior referrals, or course achievement.
- Tier 3 supports: Provide individualized support to students with the greatest need
Students who require Tier 1 and Tier 2 support demonstrate warning signs that they are ‘sliding’, or falling off-track to graduating on time, if at all. CIS identifies these students using Early Warning Indicators. Early warning indicators are measures of student behavior and/or performance linked to specific thresholds, below which students have strong probabilities of not graduating (Bruce, Bridgeland, Fox, & Balfanz, 2011).
Early Warning Indicators and their threshold include:
- Attendance: Missing 20 days or being absent 10 percent of school days
- Behavior: Two or more behavior infractions and
- Course Performance: An inability to read at grade level by the end of third grade; failure in English or math in sixth through ninth grade; a GPA of less than 2.0; two or more failures in ninth grade courses; and failure to earn on-time promotion to the tenth grade (Bruce et al., 2011)
Research suggests that when a student is sliding in any of the above areas, they have only a 25% chance of graduating on time. CIS of Midlands want to help these students early- when they are still in the process of sliding and haven’t yet fallen completely below the acceptable thresholds.
The Effects of Poverty and the Home Environment on Children
According to Fosse, the first step in helping the targeted students get back on track in school is by understanding the underlying factors that have lead to their sliding behaviors. She explains that when a student is missing multiple days of school, is acting out, or is performing poorly in class, it is usually an indication of an issue outside of the classroom. According to Dr. Pamela Cantor, the founder of Turnaround for Children, “if children are under stress, the ways they respond are remarkably similar. They get sad, distracted, aggressive, and tune out” (Nocera, 2012). Adverse childhood experiences can contribute to toxic stress that cause students to be distracted, tuned out, impulsive, unable to concentrate, distrustful, and nervous (Yu & Cantor, 2013.). One study found that children experiencing four or more adverse childhood experience have an exponentially higher risk of developing learning and behavioral problems- a 51% likelihood compared to 3% for children with no adverse childhood experiences (Yu & Cantor, 2013).
This is especially true for students living in poverty. The quality of a child’s home environment and of the care they receive, especially during early childhood, profoundly impacts his/her development and the functioning of his/her stress response system (Evans, 2004). Poverty and factors associated with it, such as low maternal education, are associated with adverse home conditions, toxic stress and are highly predictive factors of later outcomes (Evans, 2004).
During the first three years of life, the brain develops to be 80% of its adult size and forms connections that will either be strengthened or weakened by childhood experiences (Urban Child Institute, 2012) According to the Urban Child Institute, “from birth to age three, the quality of care that a child receives helps to determine how rapidly or slowly he acquires the mental, emotional and social skills that all children need to succeed in school and in life” (Urban Child Institute, 2012). Research has linked negative home environments during this time with developmental problems including: 1) poor language development, 2) later behavioral problems, 3) deficits in school readiness, 4) aggression, anxiety, depression, and 4) impaired cognitive development (Evans, 2014). Long term effects of a poor home environment on children include: 1) diminished chances of graduating from high school, 2) high incidence of teen pregnancy, and 3) lower adult earning and employment (Evans, 2004).
Instability is often a defining characteristic of impoverished home environments and can lead to significant stress. Instability is best conceptualized as, “the experience of change in individual family circumstances where the change is abrupt, involuntary, and/or in a negative direction, and thus is more likely to have adverse implications for child development” (Sandstrom & Huerta, 2013). Children exposed to unexpected and dramatic disruptions and frequent, prolonged adversities are at a higher risk of developing toxic stress (Sandstrom & Huerta, 2013).
Children living in low-income homes often experience multiple form of stability at one time (Sandstrom & Huerta, 2013). Types of instability and their impact on children include:
- Economic instability: negatively affects social-emotional, cognitive, and academic outcomes
- Parental employment instability: poor academic outcome, lower educational attainment, poor socio-emotional developemnt, internalizing/externalizing behaviors
- Family Instability: behavioral problems, poor academic outcomes
- Residential Instability: negative impact on mental health, vocabulary development, socio-emotional development, and educational outcomes. (Sandstrom & Huerta, 2013).
The schools in which CIS of the Midlands work experience high rates of residential instability. Poor children experience disproportionately high rates of unplanned and unpredictable housing mobility, which leads to frequent school changes. In 2011, 11% of children in families with higher income moved. However, during the same year, nearly double, or 21% of children in low-income families, moved (Addy & Engelhardt, 2013). Chronic student transiency, or the “non routine and unscheduled movement of students from one school or to school district to another,” is accompanied by a variety of negative emotional, social, physical, psychological, and academic effects (Morre, 2013) Outcomes of this academic and social disruption include anxiety, low self-esteem, self-isolation, stress, and developmental delays (Morre, 2013). Furthermore, research shows that transient students may lose between four and six months of academic progress each time they leave school (Evers, 2011).
Role of Schools and Communities in Schools
Schools have a responsibility to address issues of poverty as they are presented in the classroom (Nocera, 2012). By creating stable, safe, and nurturing environments, schools can provide students with ‘positive counter-influences’ to risk factors associated with poverty and transience (Morre, 2013). When schools have the proper policies, practices, and capacities and integrate community-based services and supports into their culture they can become constructive environments where development is fostered and student academic growth is possible (Morre, 2013).
CIS provides schools with additional services and supports by creating community partnerships. By connecting students with community resources, CIS helps ensure that children’s needs are met. In Wood Elementary Schools, Fosse has created community partnerships that supply the students at her school with clothing, school supplies, and food. The Wood Elementary Schools backpack program, for example, made possible by the efforts of Harvest Hope and a local church, provides 100 students with enough meals to eat over the weekend, every weekend, for the entire school year. Community partnerships can also provide students access to tutoring, mentoring, mental health services.
In addition to creating nurturing environment in schools and integrating community support, CIS of the Midlands works to mitigate the effects of poverty, instability, and stress on children by building strong, trusting bonds with students. Supportive, consistent relationships with adults help children moderate their stress and “develop resilience in the face of adversity” (Yu & Cantor, 2013). Student Achievement Coordinators, who work full time in a single school, provide students with positive relationships and offer one-on-one support to Tier 1 and 2 students. According to Foss, “sometimes students just need to know that someone cares, that someone is there who is a consistent source of support.”
Challenges of Parental Involvement
Over the course of their work, CIS confronts various challenges that impede their ability to work with students. One such obstacle is a low rate of parental consent and engagement.
CIS of the Midlands offers targeted supports and interventions to students referred to them by the school, parents, or the students themselves. After students are referred to CIS, Student Achievement Coordinators must acquire parental consent before they can provide one-on-one case management. Despite the benefits of the program, CIS experiences many difficulties in obtaining parental consent. Fosse estimates that, when sending consent forms home to parents, she only receives responses 40% of the time. Beyond CIS, Fosse recognizes a low level of parent involvement in the school. While there is a PTA program at Wood Elementary, Fosse believes it is underutilized due to issues of parent involvement.
The integration of school and home life is vital to increase academic success of students. A report from the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, concluded that that students with involved parents, no matter their socio-economic status, are more likely to:
- Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs
- Be promoted, pass their classes and earn credits
- Attend school regularly
- Have better social skills, show improved behavior and adapt well to school
- Graduate and go on to post-secondary education (Henderson & Mapp, 2002)
Despite these benefits, research suggests that rates of parental involvement are significantly higher among middle and upper class parents than in low-income families. One study found that in 2011-2012, 45% of children living above the poverty line had a parent who volunteered at their schools, compared to 27% of children living at or below the poverty line (Child Trends, 2013). As such, children coming from low-income families with less parental involvement experience fewer academic benefits than their higher income counter-parts, thereby contributing to the academic achievement gap.Low rates of parental involvement in low-income communities do not reflect a lack of parental investment in their child’s education, but rather challenges associated with low socioeconomic status that preventing parents from participating in traditional ways. Problems with access to consistent transportation and work schedules can inhibit low-income parents from being involved. A parent could fully support their children’s education and want to be involved in their school, but are unable to make it to parent teacher conferences and PTA meetings because they have to work irregular hours and/or don’t have a way to get there.Fosse believes that many parents do not give consent for their children to be in the program because they are do not want to be labeled as disadvantaged or poor, and are too prideful to accept help. She additionally thinks many parents are scared- they don’t know about the program and they are afraid CIS is working with the Department of Social Services who will take their children away.
Strategies to enhance parental involvement in low-income communities must be guided by an in-depth knowledge of the needs and strengths of school families and a more broad understanding of the various ways parents can be involved (Smith, 2006). These strategies must account for the lack of time and resources low SES families may have to contribute and cultural-based differences in communication and parenting styles (Smith, 2006). CIS of the Midlands attempts to increase parental consent by making phone calls and home visits to parents and educating families about the program at open houses and back-to school nights. CIS also works with parents who already know and trust the program and can serve as peer mentors. These peer mentors speak to other more wary parents and help build trust between them and CIS program staff. Finally, CIS of the Midlands leverages their community partnerships to help increase parent involvement. CIS partners with the University of South Carolina Department of Psychology who are conducting research on why parents are hesitant to work with CIS and how to overcome these barriers.
CIS measures their impact in the Midlands region using various methods. Base line assessments taken of student attendance, behavior, and course performance allow CIS to track student’s progress in these edifying areas. Yet, beyond data and indicators, CIS can measure the impact of their programing by evaluating the positive changes in the community and the community’s response to their work. Linder often encounters former students who, once sliding, have since graduated from college and are starting careers. Their stories are testaments to the transformative qualities of the program. Linder also attributes CIS’ s positive reputation in the community as a sign of their success. Principals who have witnessed the transformations in other schools have come to Linder to request CIS programming in their schools.
The success of CIS in the Midlands can be attributed to the hard work and dedication of the CIS staff. CIS also credits the community’s investment in education and willingness to assist their mission. According to Linder, CIS finds partners by discussing the issues and talking to the community about their needs. She says that the community responds by ‘stepping up to the plate’ and demonstrating how they can contribute to fulfilling the needs of students. CIS’ model rests on the understanding that no one can go it alone. Success for students and families and the realization of CIS’ mission is dependent upon the creation of a community of support. As Linder remarked, “a community is only as strong as its educated individuals.” By leveraging the assets and altruism of the community, CIS removes barriers to educational success for low-income students, and in the process, contributes to building a healthier, stronger community.