Communities in Schools, a nationwide program that works in 2,500 schools across 25 states, has been working in Van Buren County High School since fall 2019, and site coordinator Allison Dodson has found unique ways to meet the needs of her students over the past 12 months.
“The overall goal of my program is to reduce chronic absenteeism,” Dodson said. “It has definitely been challenging since March 2020. Not seeing the kids every day for several months made me have to seek other ways to connect with them and be sure that they had the tools they needed to be successful.”
The non-profit program, which receives funding from the governor to fight chronic absenteeism, seeks to bring community resources into the schools and make them accessible to students, while holding the students accountable for their own success. School-based staff partner with teachers to identify the challenges students may be facing both in the classroom and at home.
“It’s relationships, not programs, that change children,” Bill Milliken, of Communities in Schools, once said. “A great program simply creates the environment for healthy relationships to form between adults and children. Young people thrive when adults care about them on a one-to-one level, and when they also have a sense of belonging to a caring community.”
Through the program in the Van Buren County High School, Dodson provides supportive guidance, both in one-on-one and small group settings, and connects with the students to help them through an array of academic concerns that cover everything from struggling with a particular subject to choosing career or college paths to filling out financial aid paperwork for graduating seniors.
But her work isn’t just focused on the academic portion of the students’ lives.
“I do a little bit of everything,” Dodson said.
Through her position, she has created closets at the school to meet the basic needs of students, including clothing, hygiene needs, and school supplies. Dodson said that having access to these needs makes students feel better about coming to school and staying in the classroom, which is her goal for each student.
“CIS site coordinators like Allison provide student support services that are unique to the school and community, but often include things like assistance securing food, housing, and transportation to health care, counseling, and mentoring services depending on the students’ needs,” Ann Waller Curtis, CIS’s media relations spokesperson, said. “And as you can imagine, those needs have evolved considerably over the last year.”
Dodson said that when schools closed in March 2020, she began delivering basic needs to the students’ homes. She sought ways, whether virtual or through those home visits, to help them stay on course, study for exams, and ensure that they knew they were still important and their success was still the focus of her day.
“There was just as much need during those months, maybe even more, for these students to feel connected,” Dodson said of last spring’s semester.
Dodson said she did everything in her power to keep that connection, from phone calls to writing letters, to hand delivering food and school packets, so they were sure to keep seeing her face and knowing she cared.
“It was an adjustment, but I wanted them to know we were in this together,” Dodson said.
Dodson said returning to in-person learning wasn’t the easiest transition either.
“When we came back to school this year, everything was different, so I adjusted along with the kids,” she said. I listened to what was on their minds. I am striving to meet the needs that they present and ensure that they have what they need to keep being at school day after day. It seems like the past couple of months we are slowly returning to normal.
“Some of the students and families can be a little skeptical when they are first introduced to the program,” Dodson admitted and said that she puts a lot of energy into building a connection with the families. “Once they realize that I’m not leaving them, that this isn’t the same thing they’ve heard over and over, that this isn’t just somewhere to get a few basic items, but someone they can come to and talk to about their struggles and their hopes and what’s going on in their lives, they start to really open up. My goal is to keep building those relationships and connections and helping those kids in whatever way I can. "I want to see them be successful.”