Communities in Schools celebrates student achievement

Senior Raven Saunders shares a laugh with Communities in Schools student support specialist Kartina Bell in the CIS office at Burke High School Thursday. Bell has worked with Saunders since the program started three years ago.

During her sophomore year, Burke High student Raven Saunders found herself overwhelmed by school, troubles at home, relationship issues and athletics. She had a lot going on.

Saunders eventually found herself in the Communities in Schools office inside Burke High. That's when things began to take a turn for the better. Now a senior preparing to graduate, Saunders' GPA has risen from around a 2.1 to a 3.0 and she's earned a track and field scholarship to Southern Illinois University/Carbondale.

Saunders' success is exactly what Communities in Schools is all about - helping at-risk students stay in school and graduate. The national organization operates in 27 states and provides staff in elementary, middle and high schools to help support students who are struggling academically. Local affiliates for Communities in Schools handle the management of direct services to students. There are four affiliates across the state including Charleston, Greenville, Chester County and the Midlands which serves the Columbia area. The Charleston affiliate serves schools in both Charleston and Berkeley counties.

In Charleston Communities in Schools staff have designated offices inside the schools they work in. Some schools, like Burke, have multiple staff members working on the campus.

"What I think makes it so unique for us is that these staff members are very integrated in the school environment," said Jane Riley Gambrell, executive director of Communities in Schools for Charleston. "They just work hand-in-hand with the school administration."

At Burke High, Katrina Bell, a student support specialist for Communities in Schools, said she helps the students with anything and everything. She has a case load of 40 students that she directly manages but she estimates she provides assistance to nearly half of the school's more than 400 students. Helping students might be everything from providing them with free clothes, helping them finish an application for a college scholarship or just talking about whatever problems they have going on in their lives. Case-managed students might get access to extra services like tutoring or services from outside agencies for things like literacy assistance, counseling or behavioral interventions.

Saunders has gotten help with getting supplies she couldn't get at home, but it's really been the emotional support she's gotten from Bell that's made the difference.

"It's really advice I come in here for," Saunders said. "It's really helped me stay focused on a lot of things and the places I'm going in life."

The friendly teen, who has a warm laugh and modest demeanor, is going places now. She's ranked No. 1 in the country among high school girls for indoor track and field shot put. She's ranked No. 2 in the world among women under 20.

"It's a big deal," Bell said.

Communities in Schools South Carolina this week released its spring 2014 report evaluating the dropout-prevention organization's impact on students during the 2012-13 school year. Statewide 24,307 students received support services in 48 schools. Of the 2,710 students who received targeted services, 97 percent of the seniors graduated and 94 percent of students in grades K-11 were promoted to the next grade.

In the 2012-2013 school year Communities in Schools for Charleston served around 10,491 students in 23 schools including 1,442 students who received targeted case-management services. Of the students who received case-managed services, 94 percent were promoted to the next grade and 95 percent of seniors graduated.

David Smalls, executive director of Communities in Schools South Carolina, said school districts decide which schools they would like to partner with the organization. Typically the organization serves Title I schools that have a high percentage of low-income students but that's not a requirement.

Charleston is the state's biggest affiliate. Since last school year, the local program has grown to 30 schools serving around 13,000 students. Much of that growth is because of a federal education grant awarded to the Charleston County School District to target 19 high-need schools including Burke, Stall and St. John's high schools and the elementary and middle schools that feed into them. The district has partnered with Communities in Schools to help provide additional services to some of those schools as part of the grant.

Smalls said the organization focuses on helping the "whole child" not just academics. That means helping with things like school supplies, clothes and food in addition to access to tutoring, providing college tours and mentoring. Helping minority students is especially important, Smalls said, because there are still a larger percentage of minority students living in low income households who are struggling at a greater rate to graduate.

The statewide graduation rate for 2013 is 77.5 percent. The graduation rate statewide for black students is 74.5 percent. In Charleston county the overall graduation rate is 76.9 percent and 71.9 percent among black students. In Berkeley County the overall graduation rate is 77.3 percent and 76.4 percent for black students.

"What our data has found is that when a child's basic needs are met and they receive the support and the consistency of a caring adult, they are in a better position to succeed in their academics," he said.

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or at