By Daniel A. Domenech and Mark E. Emblidge
Last year, 92% of Virginia’s high school seniors graduated on time — continuing Virginia’s 10-year upward trend in on-time graduation rates. While impressive, this number gives the illusion that almost all of our students are meeting graduation requirements. However, if you dig a little deeper, you would see that the majority of these graduates are economically advantaged (57%), compared to their disadvantaged counterparts (43%).
The story takes a dramatic turn when we look at the group of students who dropped out. Disadvantaged students make up 46% of the class of 2019, but represent 82% of the students who dropped out. This disproportionality is a reminder of the separation between the haves and the have-nots in our education system and demonstrates how the road to success is more challenging for a subset of our students. Unfortunately, Virginia’s education statistics, like those of many other states, clearly illustrate how poverty exacerbates educational achievement gaps.
Students grappling with poverty-related stress (e.g., food insecurity, family volatility, residential mobility) are more likely to disengage from learning, have poor attendance, get held back and drop out — costing Virginia millions of dollars in lost revenue each year and perpetuating the cycle of poverty for many families. In most cases, dropping out is not an abrupt decision, but rather a cumulative process of school disengagement that results in students losing sight of their future potential. The unfortunate reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged students in Virginia right now who are predestined to drop out if they don’t receive intervention services.
The challenge is ensuring that all schools are equipped to meet the needs of their students. However, teachers and school administrators already are overburdened, understaffed and struggling to meet the demands of an increasingly diverse and underserved student population. Teachers cannot be expected to meet students’ needs both inside and outside the classroom. One solution to this problem lies with holistic support systems that provide integrated services — from mentoring and tutoring to clothes and food to mental health counseling and housing referrals — that mitigate many of the stressors in students’ and families’ lives.
Communities In Schools (CIS) is the nation’s largest and most effective dropout prevention program. CIS works inside challenging schools to connect students to existing community resources, surround them with a network of support and increase their ability to overcome academic and nonacademic barriers to achievement so they can reach their full potential. CIS alleviates poverty-related strain on our education system by working together with school administrators, teachers, counselors, families and community agencies to weave a system of integrated supports around students. Multiple studies have shown that the coordinated provision of these existing community resources fills a much-needed service delivery gap in our schools, and does so in a cost-effective and evidence-based way. When CIS is in schools helping address students’ unmet needs, teachers are free to teach, and students can focus on learning.
CIS is in 96 schools across six affiliates (Chesterfield, Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia, Petersburg, Richmond and Southwest Virginia) in the commonwealth and provides more than 50,000 students with thousands of school-wide resources like food and clothing. Last year, 4,130 of the neediest students in our schools received more than 38,000 intensive and individualized services (e.g., mentoring, tutoring, college / career preparation, behavioral interventions) coordinated by CIS, and the results were inspiring: 82% of those students improved their attendance, behavior and / or course performance; 96% of students in grades K-11 were promoted; and 95% of high school seniors graduated. Ninety-six percent of those graduates have now gone on to post-secondary education, the workforce, the military or vocational programs. The success of these young people — nearly all of whom were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch — is proof that all students can achieve when they’re free to concentrate on school rather than the challenges of their home life.
We have a greater chance of giving every student access to the resources they deserve when health systems, social service providers, food banks, nonprofits and mental health providers collaborate and work together. Without this system of support, many students would fall through the cracks. For the past 20 years, CIS of Virginia has demonstrated that it is effective in improving the lives of students and the overall health of our schools, resulting in meaningful economic and social impacts for the commonwealth. When we address students’ needs holistically with tailored, coordinated and sustained supports, we level the playing field so all students can have access to the opportunities they deserve.