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Chatham's Communities In Schools provides help to at-risk students

Posted 1/2/19

This week, we speak with Kim Caraganis, the executive director of Communities In Schools of Chatham County. Caraganis began working at the agency in 1990 and became executive director in 1998. Her …

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News + Record CH@T

Chatham's Communities In Schools provides help to at-risk students

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This week, we speak with Kim Caraganis, the executive director of Communities In Schools of Chatham County. Caraganis began working at the agency in 1990 and became executive director in 1998. Her responsibilities include fundraising, grant writing and budget management, oversight and involvement in all program components, supervision of the agency’s staff, management of local, state, federal and foundation grant reporting, and the agency’s transition to become a Communities In Schools affiliate in 2014. In addition, she serves as a liaison to volunteers, families, grantors, community, state agencies, CIS NC, and the board of directors.

CIS’ mission and focus involves empowering students to stay in school and to help them to reach their full potential. How has that work changed in the three decades youve been affiliated with the organization?

Over the years, there have been several shifts in how we have worked. While many of the projects have changed, the core work has been constant and deepened in its scope. In 1989 the agency began operating as Chatham County Together!Our primary goal was aligned with juvenile justice goals: to keep kids out of the adult criminal justice system by providing one-on-one mentors. One of our first grants through the State of North Carolina under the leadership of Gov. Jim Hunt was called Governors One-on-One programs. We provided mentors and opportunities for youth such as group activities, cultural events, recreation and social skills building. Our work was community-based. We worked with the schools but outside of the school.

In the next decade, we expanded our juvenile justice programs and our program demographics were changing due to the populations shift of new immigrants in Chatham. We began by hiring a staff person who is bilingual in Spanish and bi-cultural. Today, we have three staff with those qualifications because more than 50 percent of the youth we served in 2017-18  have Spanish-speaking parents. In this same decade, we partnered with Chatham County Schools to implement a program called Chatham New School. This was in response to the Columbine shooting and the passage of the Zero Tolerance legislation. We served youth who had been long-term suspended and were not eligible for services at SAGE, the countys alternative school. We implemented a project called “Hablando Claro," or Plain Talk, a teen pregnancy prevention initiative that focused education and prevention with Spanish-speaking parents because of the rising number of the Latina pregnancy rate in Chatham. During that time, we were one of five pilot programs statewide to address youth mental health through Systems of Care. This approach includes parents and youth in services and treatment decisions and began when the NC mental health system changed from a public system  to private health care. The Family Advocacy Program, System of Care and Hablando Claro all focused our programming on working with parents and youth.

We have continued our community based work through Community Service and Restitution, Teen Court Family Advocacy and Mentoring programs.

The year 2014 brought the biggest changes in our work. We became a Communities In Schools affiliate, signing on to the CIS model, in which the affiliate (non-profit) has a staff person embedded in the school serving 10 percent of the students attending with case-managed supports and services.

What that means is that each of those students is referred because they are not reaching their potential in school. We work in schools with high percentage of students living at poverty. In 2017-18, 90 percent of the youth receiving CIS services were considered living at or below the federal poverty level. The staff person or Student Support Specialist works with student to develop a goal for success by creating a support plan, meeting and building a relationship with the student and linking them with resources and services.  The Student Support Specialist works in tandem with school administrators and personnel monitoring their success throughout the school year. We are currently in three schools – Bonlee School, Chatham Middle and Virginia Cross Elementary – using this model.

This year we are also implementing a program we call Youth FIRST (Finding Integrated Resources and Supports Together). We have a staff person working with a small group of identified students — but not as much as 10 percent like the CIS Model School programs — who have barriers inside and outside of the classroom that interfere with their success at three different schools: Pittsboro Elementary, Horton Middle School and Siler City Elementary. Some of these students will work in small groups, one on one with a mentor or Lunch Buddy or with our Student Support Specialist, Shirille Lee. Ms. Lee is also working with other students across Chatham County as she continues to match youth with Mentors and Lunch Buddies. We hope to expand these type services in the future.

In Chatham County, what are the primary obstacles you face in accomplishing your objectives and what solutions and approaches are working best right now?

The primary obstacles for us are funding/sustainability/capacity. As a non-profit we raise about 25 percent of our yearly revenue aside from money we receive through large grants or MOUs. We dont have large corporations in this county, so we are dependent on gifts from individuals as are the many other non- profits doing good work. Each July, the beginning of our fiscal year, we start over with our fundraising efforts, uncertain that we can continue funding the programs/services that youth have been benefitting from.

The other big issue is capacity, and I guess these two go hand-in-hand. We have grown a lot programmatically, but not so much administratively or, in other words, core support. Most donors want to support direct service work, but behind all that work is the administration of running the non-profit so services can be provided. They are closely intertwined. We need to be able to keep well qualified staff by giving them a good living wage and benefits.

CIS Chatham has that continuity with its staff over the years. We want staff, especially our younger staff, to see a future at CIS and a pipeline to leadership opportunities within the organization. Another capacity issue is having enough funds to hire more staff to serve all the students in Chatham County who need CIS services — we estimate we are currently only serving one out of every fivestudents.

CIS uses the ABC+P model to help guide its work. Can you explain what ABC+P is, and why its important?

A is attendance, B is behavior and C is coursework. P is for parent engagement. The CIS staff person (Student Support Specialist) identifies a goal when working with case-managed students. They will have a baseline and track progress throughout the year. They develop a Student Support Plan with the student and identify activities/interventions that will help with this process. Each of the A, B and C goals can be a barrier for kids having success in school. The parent engagement piece is important because students perform better in school when their parents are engaged in some way with the school. A Student Support Specialist connects a student with resources in and outside of the classroom. CIS staff also connect parents with the teachers and help with communicating issues or information coming from the school to the parents or from home to school. They can help build that relationship between schools and home. 

We know from research and practical experience that an at-risk students one-on-one relationship (or lack thereof) with a parent or other mentor who values and promotes education and learning are critical. How does CIS work to make those relationships happen when so many distractions and challenges are pulling studentsfocus away from the need to learn and grow academically?

The relationship between a student and an adult is one of the CIS 5 Basics,” a building block for a students success. It is critical for a students success to have someone guiding them and providing encouragement. A mentor can provide insight into situations, model problem solving not only for the student, but also for the parent who may be overwhelmed with the day-to-day struggle of living. Most parents love their kids and want the best for them - we are on the same team with them to supplement what they are unable to give. While there are many distractions and crises for these kids, they are resilient, creative and open to attention and opportunities that will enhance their emotional and academic growth.

January is National Mentoring Month across the country. What do you have planned to bring attention to your needs?

We plan to highlight some of our Mentor/Mentee and Lunch Buddy matches through our e-newsletter. We have scheduled a Mentor Training from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Jan. 26, from in Siler City. We will also train in Pittsboro on a different date for people who cant make that training. People should be in touch with Shirille Lee, Youth FIRST: Student Support Specialist for more information. shirille@cischatham.orgor 919.663.0116, ext. 404.

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