For five years, Malissa Martin has overseen the state’s Communities in Schools programs from an office in Lawrence. But next fall will be the first time the organization will venture into a Lawrence school.
A national organization, Communities in Schools is in 53 schools and serves thousands of students statewide. Its aim is to reduce the high school dropout rate, but many of its programs reach children long before then.
Thanks to a partnership with community nonprofits, Communities in Schools will launch its first program at Kennedy School in Lawrence next school year.
“I’m really excited about the (program) in Lawrence because I’m getting to do it at home, which is wonderful to me,” Martin said.
Before moving to Lawrence, Martin worked with the Communities in School program in Texas. Martin continued working as a consultant for the national organization when she moved to Lawrence. Then in 2007, she was named president of the Communities in Schools of Kansas and moved the headquarters to Lawrence.
The organization’s filtration into Lawrence goes beyond its headquarters. Lawrence ranks among the top 10 school districts in the state in terms of the total number of students who drop out of high school. That’s largely due to the Lawrence school district being one of the larger districts in the state.
“If our goal is to reduce the number of dropouts, then we need to go to where the numbers are,” Martin said.
The program at Kennedy, which is expected to cost about $51,000 in the first year, will pull resources from the Douglas County Community Foundation, the United Way of Douglas County and Lawrence Boys and Girls Club. The United Way has committed $20,000 to the first semester of the program at Kennedy and has plans to fund the program by $40,000 a year for the next three years.
The work that Communities in Schools fits well with long-term goals the United Way has established, president and CEO Erika Dvorske said.
“Part of the broader goal around children is: Are they ready and prepared and supported for school every day?” Dvorske said. “So often, readiness is shaped before they show up on the stoop of the school.”
Kennedy was picked as the launch site because it has some of the most at-risk children in the district. This school year 75 percent of its students received either free or reduced-price lunches, a service that is based on income.
The program helps to connect students and their parents with community resources. The program provides a site coordinator who is expected to manage a caseload of about 80 students.
“It’s really about having a person who can get in there and who knows the services that (our community) provides and getting the kids and family connected with them,” Martin said.
A need assessment will be done to see what kinds of services are already available in the community and what gaps need to be filled. Part of the site coordinator’s job will be figuring out which kids go hungry over the weekend, who needs academic support and whose parents need encouragement to stay active in their child’s education.
“We’ll meet the kid wherever they are,” Martin said.
While the program is working with students long before they reach the age of dropping out of high school, Martin said early intervention is key to success.
“If you’ve got a kid in third grade who is falling behind, they are never going to catch up,” she said. “The early years have a big effect.”