Communities in Schools aims to boost graduation rates for inner city Richmond students by helping them surmount a deep-rooted culture of poverty.
by James A. Bacon
The City of Richmond has more concentrated poverty than Baltimore, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C. Five to six generations of inner-city poor have been raised in housing projects under the mantle of the welfare state and its perverse incentives. The combination of poverty and family dysfunction make life horrendous in ways that middle-class Americans cannot imagine. The children pay a terrible price.
Consider… The only meals that some children eat are the ones they get at school. Many go home to empty houses where there is no food in the cupboard, no furniture and no electricity.
That’s assuming, of course, that students even have homes to go to. Homelessness is a silent epidemic. Few children sleep on the streets but many have unstable living arrangements, bunking with family members or friends. So many families float from one address to another, often outside the school district, that the student turnover in a few Richmond schools runs 40% to 60% during the school year.
Some mothers are so overwhelmed, disengaged or ill-educated that their children don’t know their ABCs, can’t count to 10 and can’t even name the colors when they get to Kindergarten.
Until recently, school teachers and administrators grappled with those challenges every day. Despite spending $13,500 per student, significantly more than neighboring jurisdictions, Richmond students dropped out at a higher rate and under-performed in standardized tests. The challenges of inter-generational poverty are hard to overcome. “How do you achieve success when students have so much baggage?” asks Rosalind Taylor, principal at Woodville Elementary School, located in one of the city’s poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods.
Now, in partnership with the not-for-profit Communities in Schools of Richmond (CIS) program, Richmond city schools may be making real headway. CIS addresses children’s family issues which schools are ill equipped to deal with. In 2011, CIS coordinators provided intensive, case-managed services to 2,046 students, connecting them with resources they needed to function at school. Drawing from government and not-for-profit organizations, coordinators lined up food, clothing, tutors, mental health counselors, health care, transportation — occasionally even furniture for children’s homes. Says President Harold Fitrer: “We arrange the services that allow children to focus on learning and teachers to focus on teaching.”
According to figures compiled from the organization’s case files, 73% of the students assisted by CIS improved attendance in 2011, 82% improved behavior, 80% improved academic performance and 95% were promoted to the next grade.
James E. Ukrop, a board member and one of Richmond’s leading philanthropists, is a huge fan. CIS changes lives, he says. His dream is to install extended-day programs in every school “until we break the cycle of poverty.”
CIS’s $2.4 million budget is a tiny fraction of Richmond’s $153 million public school budget. But helping students graduate and become productive citizens will save multi-millions in the cost of crime, incarceration and welfare. Says Ukrop: “There’s a great business case for investing money up front.”
Investing money up front to save money down the road is the same argument proffered for dozens of government programs and not-for-profit initiatives that, collectively, have yet to stem the tide of poverty. What makes Communities in Schools different? The program, backers say, supply a critical missing piece of the social safety net. Government and not-for-profit organizations offer a range of resources but a mechanism has been lacking to allocate those resources to where they do the most good. Agencies and not-for-profits operate in silos, typically not communicating. Poor parents (usually poor single mothers) lack the skills to negotiate the social services bureaucracy. Idealistic, well-intentioned volunteers show up at schools but there is no one whose job it is to deploy them effectively. CIS caseworkers make a difference by establishing relationships with children, learning their individual circumstances and steering resources to where they are needed. Read more.