West Virginia's Communities in Schools program gives students drive to succeed in classroom

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice not only lavished praise on the Communities in Schools program during Wednesday night’s State of the State address, but he also had other good news about future plans for it.

That is because his proposed budget calls for $5 million to make it a statewide initiative after it got off to a good start in Greenbrier County, W.Va.

First lady Cathy Justice also is a fan, and that is extra incentive to grow the program, the governor said.

“My salary, if I didn’t do this, she’d kill me. But my salary is all dedicated, 100 percent, to Communities in Schools,” he said.

Gubernatorial spokesman Butch Antolini wrote Thursday in an email that Justice has been donating his $150,000 salary to the program since taking office in 2017.

The program already is making a difference locally, according to Marjy Lynch, Berkeley County (W.Va.) Schools’ Communities in Schools coordinator.

It is part of the district’s new Family and Youth Services branch, which also includes other human-service programs such as Project AWARE and the Martinsburg Initiative aimed at addressing student and family needs, she said.

Berkeley County was chosen along with Wyoming and McDowell counties to serve as pilot projects, and the effort got underway locally this school year, Lynch said.

Participating local schools include Orchard View Intermediate School, Eagle School Intermediate, and South and North middle schools, she said.

“If you cut it down to the bare bones, it’s like a drop-out prevention program, but is also very multifaceted,” she said.

Participating schools choose a goal, and a site coordinator is given a percentage of students to work with, Lynch said.

Orchard View and Eagle School Intermediate schools are working to increase student attendance rates, while North and South middle schools are working toward decreasing behavioral referrals, she said.

“An issue like attendance can extend to the family as well. So my job is to really go in and look at the picture here to see the student’s needs, as well as some possible interventions that can be put in place to help the student get to school on a more regular basis,” she said.

Participation is voluntary after students are selected to be part of the program, and parents must agree to it, Lynch said.

“We explain to the parents that children were selected based on last year’s data in order to identify the students. From there, we meet with the students individually, and it is all about relationship building,” she said.

There also is some fun involved.

“We’re going to start a program called ‘A Day Without an Absence,’ where we would have competitions between classrooms every month to see who had the best attendance. Maybe have a pizza party for the winners,” Lynch said.

About 125 students are participating in the program, she said.

School staff members are vital and already have gone “way beyond the call of duty” to help make a difference build upon programs already being offered, she said.

It only has been a few months, but students already are responding positively, Orchard View Intermediate Principal Luke Smith said.

“This program fits in seamlessly here because we all share a desire to take a look at what obstacle is getting in the way of a student attending school regularly,” he said.

Every situation is unique, and it is valuable to have an opportunity to work with individual students, Smith said.

“You can see it matters when you talk to them and have that engagement. They really appreciate the extra attention they are receiving, and like the fact that we notice when they miss. They know we want them here, and that extra attention means a lot,” he said.