It’s 7 a.m. on a Thursday morning, and Stephanie Walther is heading to work at Aspen Community School. Unlike the teachers in her school who arrive with the day’s lesson plan, Stephanie is concerned about whether some of the families from her school had a bed to sleep in last night, if she will have enough snack packs for the kids who will pass through her classroom for extra food, and how many students her volunteer tutors will be able to help out today.
Stephanie is a site coordinator for the nonprofit Communities In Schools of New Mexico (CIS) and has led CIS’s programs at Aspen, a kindergarten through eighth-grade Santa Fe public school that serves 398 students, for five years. Every day, she helps students experiencing challenges outside of school so they can be more successful in school.
CIS of New Mexico developed from a local grassroots initiative known as The Salazar Partnership, which was started in 1997 by Bill and Georgia Carson and the Rev. Talitha Arnold of the United Church of Santa Fe in response to an appeal by the Salazar Elementary School principal. Nearly 15 years later, the partnership joined the national Communities In Schools network and was renamed CIS of New Mexico, helping to ensure the long-term sustainability of its programs.
CIS’s evidence-based model has been developed and refined in communities around the country over the last 40 years. Today, CIS of New Mexico works inside 11 Santa Fe public schools (Aspen Community School, Capital High School, César Chávez Elementary, El Camino Real Academy, Milagro Middle School, Nava Elementary, Nina Otero Community School, Ortiz Middle School, Ramirez Thomas Elementary, Salazar Elementary and Sweeney Elementary) and serves over 6,000 children — about 50 percent of Santa Fe Public Schools students.
“I love my work,” Stephanie said. “After five years on this campus, I really see where CIS makes a difference. It is incredibly rewarding to have families back on their feet after a lot of struggle, to see kids become more confident as students and to watch our families at Aspen Community School find friendship and connection.”
CIS offers three tiers of support to schools. The first is school-wide, such as distributing bags of food through a partnership with The Food Depot and helping to provide school supplies and clothing closets for community members.
The second tier, called targeted supports, allows coordinators to help groups of students who have common concerns. “I bring those kids together and leverage the incredible resources in our community — like Gerard’s House that comes to our school to work with grieving students, and Girls Inc. that brings their programs to Aspen for girls’ empowerment coaching,” Stephanie said.
The third tier provides individualized case-managed support to students and families. At Aspen, that’s about 10 percent of the student population.
To understand the ways Communities In Schools makes a difference in local schools, let’s follow Walther through a recent Thursday at Aspen Community School.
Fostering a sense of community
The bell rings to start the day, and Stephanie’s first meeting is with her monthly Parent Coffee Group. She has the coffee maker and snacks from her food pantry ready. About a dozen people attend, including a grandmother who wants to know more about helping her grandson succeed in school and a mother who would like to volunteer. For many of the other participants, this is a comfortable way to connect to their child’s school.
Just as Stephanie finishes putting away the parent group supplies, it’s recess time. This is when she distributes snack packs to about 150 kids who will need more food to get through the school day. Student volunteers come to help her push the cart through the halls and pass out the sealed plastic bags containing a nonperishable protein, crackers and fruit cup. As is the case at too many public schools in Santa Fe, 100 percent of the kids at Aspen Community School qualify for the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program. No one would guess that in this beautiful, recently constructed school, the students inside struggle to get adequate nutrition.
While there are overlapping challenges among all of the public schools that CIS serves, at the beginning of every year CIS conducts a school-specific needs assessment. This allows the site coordinator to evaluate the unique needs in each school, which results in a School Support Plan for the year. In the case of Aspen School, Stephanie collaborates with volunteers and more than 30 community partners to provide students with the help they need across five main indicators: basic needs (food, shelter, etc.), attendance, parent engagement, academics and social/emotional well-being.
CIS Site Coordinator Stephanie Walther distributes snack paks to children at Aspen Community School who need supplemental nutrition to get through the school day.
Calling in all resources
Between recess and lunch, Stephanie greets three CIS volunteer tutors who have arrived to provide one-on-one academic support for students that she has identified as needing a little extra help.
“Many of our students are not able to get help on homework because their parents are out of the house working multiple jobs,” she said. “Having the time and support from a tutor builds confidence for these kids to help them become better students. Most of the time, it is the companionship of an adult that means the most to them.”
During lunch, while the tutors are working with their students, Stephanie meets with 20 middle school students from The Sky Center’s Natural Helpers program. This program, which is co-facilitated at Aspen by Stephanie and the school counselor, trains student “listeners” to understand and recognize the warning signs and risk factors for suicide among their peers and direct them to resources for help.
“Many kids in our school are under constant stress and experience so much anxiety. And peers are usually the first to know something is wrong,” Stephanie said. “Giving students the tools to know what to watch for, and how to help their friends, makes a big difference for our community.”
Stephanie’s afternoon is just as busy as the morning. She quickly grabs water bottles and the lesson plan for her after-school program, Girls on the Run, her last program of the day. Between now and the end of school, Stephanie will also meet with some of her case-managed students. Some students at Aspen are identified as having unique needs that cannot be fully addressed in special group settings, so Stephanie “case manages” about 40 of these students individually to ensure their needs are met. Today, she is meeting with Eden, a fifth-grader. After two years of working together, they have developed a special bond.
“Eden has learned to redirect her emotions and has become a very outgoing young girl,” Stephanie said. “She has blossomed and shows great leadership skills. She wants to be a junior coach” for Girls on the Run.
The bell rings to announce the end of the school day. It takes about 15 minutes for the Girls on the Run group to trickle into the classroom, laughing and talking. They grab a snack and then jump into a discussion about healthy lifestyles.
“Most of the girls sign up for this after-school program for social reasons,” Stephanie said. “I love that at the end of the year we all run a 5K, and so many girls discover athletic talents they didn’t know they had.”
CIS measures outcomes, too. Although New Mexico has the lowest graduation rate in the country, CIS just celebrated the graduation at Capital High School of 85 percent of its case-managed seniors, where the school-wide average is 70 percent. CIS serves Capital as well as all of its feeder schools.
“It is rewarding to see our work making measureable improvements in Santa Fe,” Stephanie said.
To learn how you can get involved with or support Communities In Schools of New Mexico, check the list below or call me at (505) 954-1880.
Sonja Thorpe Bohannon is the development director for Communities In Schools of New Mexico.
How Can YOU Help?
Communities In Schools of New Mexico (CIS) invites you to get involved to help support underserved youth in our Santa Fe Public Schools. How?
Donate new packages of boys’ and girls’ socks and underwear, school supplies or hygiene items (shampoo, toothbrushes and deodorant) for pre-K through high school students.
Learn about seasonal drives that happen throughout the year, including our Coat Drive in the fall and our Giving Tree in November, by following us on Facebook.
Cash is king! Visit our website, cisnm.org/donate, to make a financial contribution.
And most rewarding of all, give the gift of time and become a volunteer. CIS has 75 volunteers that work with students of all ages in various subjects — and we need more tutors for the new school year.
Call us for details, (505) 954-1880, or visit our website, cisnm.org. Thank you!