05/19/14 — Target: Graduation

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Target: Graduation

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 19, 2014 1:46 PM

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Kelsey Fralick, left, a seventh-grader at Grantham School, shares a laugh with Celia James, success coach at the school.

The barriers to graduation might have some common themes, but the county schools' success coaches have to do more than stick to an academic script to encourage students in their schools to set their sights on a diploma.

And that personalized direction is starting earlier and earlier.

Since Communities in Schools introduced the concept of the success coach last year, the intent has been to provide services to benefit both the student body as well as individuals who could use extra time and encouragement.

The challenges for today's youths go beyond academics and behavior issues. These days, there are language barriers and struggles at home -- from parents who are incarcerated or even deported, the coaches say.

"We're seeing children that live in a neighborhood where they fear for their lives. They don't know where their next meal is coming from," said Selena Bennett, executive director of Communities in Schools. "A lot of children have absolutely no control over their destiny outside of what they're doing during a school day.

"For many children, no matter how bad school is, it's the best part of their day."

Success coaches currently serve at four middle schools in the county. The program originated, though, at Goldsboro High School and then Southern Wayne High, in the form of graduation coaches. Mrs. Bennett also hopes to one day have them also working at the elementary school level.

In a sense, that is starting to happen, with two of the middle schools with additional grades affording the coaches an opportunity to work with more students.

"Grantham has that K-8 alignment," said Celia James, success coach at the school. "I have been able to drop down to the fifth grade and work with those students. That's really where I'm seeing the greatest success."

She primarily works with students in grades 5-8, although some of the services incorporate the entire student body of 400. But there is always spillover, Mrs. James said, as word of mouth about the program draws friends of the targeted students.

"Last year my focus was on building relationships with the students and staff," she said. "This year I have tried to reach out to the parents. For a lot of students, that's the missing link to our success."

Among the efforts she has incorporated are parent nights and a newsletter for parents.

Spring Creek also has a unique situation, being both a middle and high school set-up.

"Our middle school kids are just across the way and (students) see 'this is where I'm going to be' and sort of what it's like to be a high school student," success coach Veda McNair said. "I have been able to take advantage of the fact that we do have high school students in our school. They're excellent role models, and those students have been able to mentor and coach our students."

When she started in the role, she said she had about 23 who were failing at least one subject. There has been a shift over the past year.

"When I looked recently, third quarter and into the fourth quarter, all but five or six are passing their subjects," she said. "To me, that's success."

Mary Kay James, success coach at Mount Olive Middle, said students are affected by what goes on at home, especially if they have a parent who has been deported or incarcerated, or they move around a lot.

"I have had to step back and establish some relationships with the students," she said.

She said she has attempted to instill in the students the importance of an education, sometimes breaking it down into manageable pieces.

"The big picture, everything seems like a long way off, so I say, get through the nine weeks, get through the semester, just talk about now," she said.

The other success coach, Elvira Carreno at Brogden Middle, gears a lot of her efforts to working with parents of her Latino students, Mrs. Bennett said.

"She translates for them. She can make home visits with the school social workers, bring them in for a parent night and explain what these things mean on the report card," she said. "To Elvira, connections have really been utilized. It as much parent education as student education."

Gene Jackson, who shares success coaching duties at Southern Wayne with Sharon Patterson, said the job entails being a bit of a match-maker.

"We're matching needs with resources and we do that with connections," he said. "Every student that drops out of high school is a misconnection. Every student that misbehaves is a misconnection. And of course, all our schools are making connections and making matches."

The coaches are in place to support students and families, as well as teachers and staff already in the schools, Mrs. Bennett said. But additional help is always needed.

"We're looking for mentors, tutors, volunteers. We always need math skills, higher level math skills, but we also need volunteers who just will sit down and make a listening connection," Jackson said. "We can use the experts and we can use the people that just care."

For more information on the program or to sign up for the free newsletter, visit the website, wayne.communitiesinschools.org.