Communities In Schools aims to serve all SC students with statewide merger

NORTH CHARLESTON — The South Carolina chapters of Communities in Schools have merged into one, allowing the nonprofit to reach more students with its social and emotional support programs.

The nonprofit previously had three affiliates: in North Charleston to serve the Lowcountry, in Columbia to cover the Midlands and in Greenville to cover the Upstate. As of Aug. 16, Communities in Schools of South Carolina serves all of those students from its offices on Turnbull Avenue in North Charleston.

Through its programs, the organization provides access to resources and support that will allow it to overcome barriers to success. It places site coordinators, who are trained adults, into schools to work with students individually and help guide them to graduation.

The nonprofit serves about 18,200 students in 34 schools across the state.

The merger ultimately allows Communities in Schools to expand those programs, said Kristin Garner, vice president of external affairs. For two years, the group has been planning to expand within the state, but only in the past year did it become obvious that the merger was needed.

“We all know that COVID showed huge disparities and educational inequalities throughout the state, particularly with rural communities and high-poverty, under-resourced communities,” Garner said. “That is who benefits the greatest from the work that we do. … It’s more relevant now than ever.”

Site coordinators who work for the organization have seen firsthand the impacts of the pandemic on students across the state.

For many students, balancing social and emotional tasks, such as managing their home life, taking care of siblings and dealing with the stress of the pandemic, got in the way of learning.

“A lot of our students have great family structures, but a lot don’t,” President and CEO Jamie Cooper said. “Their family units, their guardians, their parents, were having to figure out ways to get by financially, which really amplified a lot of the negative situations those students were placed with.”

The nonprofit’s site coordinators were able to help those students during in-home visits, Cooper said. For a lot of the students, the ability to work one-on-one with a site coordinator helped them push past dropping grades and behavioral issues.

Going into the merger, Communities in Schools is especially focused on expanding its programs and reach in rural communities. While many schools in highly populated areas, like Charleston, Columbia and Greenville, have site coordinators, the nonprofit hasn’t been able to have as great of an impact in the more-rural parts of the state.

With a merged office, the organization can better pool its resources to get into more rural communities and help those students, who often have lower graduation rates than their more urban counterparts.

“We know that the resources are lacking,” Garner said. “It’s not unique to South Carolina, this is an issue in rural communities throughout the country.”

The merger also allows for a better understanding of each region of the state and more collaboration, Garner said.

The nonprofit has plans to pool data from all regions of the state to help inform its decisions. Communities in Schools plans to use that data to advocate for student support with state officials.

“There is so much power with us being one united entity,” Garner said.

It comes at a time when school districts are receiving more funding than ever to cover learning loss during the pandemic. The nonprofit hopes it can be considered as one of the community organizations that districts turn to to help boost graduation rates and improve social-emotional learning for students.

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