September 5, 2023

Communities in Schools program that organizes counseling, parent groups grows in Lawrence Township

Third graders stand in a dance class at Winding Ridge Elementary in the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township on Aug. 24, 2023. The district is expanding its partnership with Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that helps bring tutoring, clothing assistance, and other resources to students and their families. - Amelia Pak-Harvey / Chalkbeat

Third graders stand in a dance class at Winding Ridge Elementary in the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township on Aug. 24, 2023. The district is expanding its partnership with Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that helps bring tutoring, clothing assistance, and other resources to students and their families.

Amelia Pak-Harvey / Chalkbeat

This article was co-published by Chalkbeat Indiana and WFYI as part of a partnership to increase coverage of township school districts in Marion County. Have a tip or story idea about a township school district? Email in.tips@chalkbeat.org and tips@wfyi.org or fill out this form.

The staff at Winding Ridge Elementary aren’t too shy to ask for help — and Shelia Richardson is there to provide it. 

For seven years, the school has received support from Communities in Schools (or CIS), a national nonprofit that brings community resources into schools through school site coordinators. As Lawrence Township schools recover from the pandemic, the assistance Richardson coordinates as the CIS liaison has come in many forms.

There’s evidence that tutors have helped Winding Ridge students boost their literacy. A growing number of parents in need of clothes or shoes are referred to Richardson, who connects them with Operation School Bell. And an increasing number of students are receiving grief counseling during the school day that Richardson helps coordinate. 

With Richardon’s help, Principal Rose Graham said, “We’re getting back into our groove again.”

The experience of students, staff, and families at Winding Ridge has been positive enough for Lawrence Township to go all-in on the Communities in Schools model. And more schools around the state are following suit. 

This year, $1.2 million in philanthropic funding for Communities in Schools of Indiana is helping to increase the number of participating Lawrence schools from 10 to 15; all five of the new schools are elementary schools.  

That means that every elementary school — and nearly every school — in the district has a coordinator like Richardson, who in turn is coached and supported by CIS staff to help make the community resources they provide more effective.  

This year, there will also be two new site coordinators at schools in the Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township — one at the new Decatur High Ability Academy, and a second site coordinator at Lynwood Elementary. The Lafayette School Corporation will also receive coordinators at Amelia Earhart and Vinton Elementary schools. 

Some districts, including Lawrence and Decatur, pay for their CIS coordinators but pay the nonprofit for coaching and support.

In total, Communities in Schools will provide CIS coordinators to 35 traditional public schools statewide and one charter school, compared to 27 last year. Districts receiving the funding are also providing their own matching funding. 

With a CIS site coordinator, teachers don’t have to be de facto social workers, said Hadley Moore Vlahogeorge, executive director of Communities in Schools Indiana.

“That’s just an incredible benefit,” she said. “We don’t want teachers to burn out. We don’t want them to be the only ones meeting student needs.”

The CIS model has been slow to expand in Indiana, Moore Vlahogeorge said. 

“I think we have this attitude among Hoosiers of ‘I’m going to do it myself, this is my responsibility to take care of my kids,’” she said. “Sometimes it can be a little scary to bring in partners to do that.”

But for the past several years, Richardson has been doing just that: running the student council, resurrecting the parent-faculty organization, and even trying out a new “dad’s club” to get fathers more engaged in the school. 

Both Graham and Richardson say the efforts have paid dividends. 

When Richardson started working at the school, there were no parents in the parent-faculty group, she said. This year, 37 people signed up to join the group at back-to-school night. The group had 25 people involved last year. 

“Just being open to the community coming in has been a big difference since I first started to now,” Richardson said. 

And the outside tutoring efforts that Richardson helps coordinate have also helped academics, according to Graham: The school’s pass rate on the third grade IREAD exam jumped by over 18 percentage points from 2022 to 2023.

Richardson has also seen increased engagement from students, who hug her or gleefully talk to her as she walks through the school.   

She thinks of the people in the neighborhood who drop off school supplies just before the start of the new school year. 

“They keep coming every year,” she said. 

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at apak-harvey@chalkbeat.org

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