A student walks into the school office blurry-eyed from a lack of sleep. He was up all night worried about his parents. His dad took off following an argument with mom.
In another building, a teenager struggles to stay focused in class. The teacher responds with a bag of snacks providing a quick fix of energy until lunch.
Every day in schools across Cumberland County, basic needs like food, clothing, hygiene and safety are being addressed on the spot or over time to remove distractions and to clear the way for learning.
“As I think about it, in the course of my career, schools have always been positioned to help meet basic needs,” said Kevin Roberts, superintendent of Big Spring School District.
“The major change over the last 10 or so years is that the needs have continued to increase,” Roberts said. “As a result, we had to build systems to support kids.”
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The individual effort of a teacher, staff member or administrator is still an important component to the overall structure. Each can be alert to red flags, make referrals to social workers or plug an immediate need with items drawn from a building inventory of food, clothing, hygiene items, school supplies and other necessities.
“They know what to do when there’s a child in need,” said Christina Spielbauer, superintendent of the Carlisle Area School District. “They just get it done.”
Signs of need include the student being hungry, tired or wearing clothing that is dirty or unkempt. Other red flags include changes in behavior, mood or personality, a sudden dip in grades, or an unwillingness to turn in homework.
“If they are seeing signs, we encourage people to call the school and talk to its principal,” Spielbauer said. “Share those concerns so we can help support the child and their family.”
Danae Klock, a counselor at Yellow Breeches Middle School with the South Middleton School District, has advice for the general public who want to help students in need.
“We don’t want to stigmatize,” Klock said. “Being a good neighbor is what it boils down to. If you know someone on your street, talk with them. Build a relationship with them. Understand their story and how you can be a support.”
Each system not only strives to identify students, but to put into place channels of resource delivery that connect families to government agencies and social service organizations.
In Big Spring, educators work as a team to develop a plan, often for each student, that holds the system accountable while evaluating progress, Roberts said.
In South Middleton, there has been a greater emphasis lately on tracking and documenting ongoing needs as a student advances from one building to the next, Klock said. This is especially important in cases where a family has children in different schools.
“The parent may have had separate conversations with principals,” Klock said. “We want to make sure everyone is operating off the same page.”
The most common form of direct support from school districts is the lunch and breakfast program. Providing meals to students five days a week helps to relieve some of the strain felt by families. Children from economically disadvantaged households can qualify for free or reduced price meals.
“If you ever tried to learn something on an empty stomach, you really can’t because your brain is on overdrive,” Klock said. “It’s working very hard, but it’s hungry.”
While meals on weekdays are covered, many families need support to carry them over the weekend. In local school districts, that takes the form of food packs that are sent home with students to fill in the gaps on Saturday and Sunday.
Playing a part
Many school districts have organized charitable foundations that support needy families. In Big Spring, there is Operation Bulldog that provides scholarship money to students who can’t afford to pay the cost of a field trip or the fee to take an Advanced Placement test.
At South Middleton, work is underway to stock a room at Yellow Breeches Middle School with an inventory of donated shoes, household items and gently used clothing that can be given out to address the needs of students, Klock said. Earlier this year, letters went out to district families asking them if they wanted to be notified of what programs become available, she said.
“At the middle school, we do a drive where students bring in food,” Klock said. “It has been very successful. Out of that, we create Thanksgiving boxes for our families.” Leftover items are donated to the Project SHARE foodbank in Carlisle.
The best way to help students and their families is to support already existing social service organizations and programs. In recent years, the United Way of Carlisle & Cumberland County has hosted a Fill the Bus campaign in the summer where school supplies and backpacks are donated by residents.
Extra supplies and backpacks are often distributed among Carlisle area schools to distribute to students as needs arise, Spielbauer said. “We are blessed that we have an amazing community with so many organizations that support not only our students but their families.”
She cited as examples Project SHARE, Hope Station and the United Way.
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