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OPINION: South Carolina Students Need Support, Collaboration and Action to Succeed

Sept. 20, 2018

Across South Carolina, back-to-school routines are settling into place. Fall sports and activities are in full swing. Friendships are rekindling after a summer apart. Homework and study regimens are back.

And for many students living in poverty, being back in school means much more than a familiar routine. In schools equipped with the right resources, these students have returned to a safe haven where their basic needs, like food and clothing, are met.

The challenge, of course, is ensuring that all schools are equipped to meet students’ needs outside the classroom. Teachers and school administrators are already overburdened. They can’t do it all.

The solution lies with holistic support systems that provide integrated services — from mentoring and tutoring to clothes and food to mental health and housing referrals — that help relieve students and families of the stresses in their lives. With these, students can focus on why they’re in the classroom: to learn.

But we can only give every S.C. student the support they need if we collaborate. We need schools and nonprofits, health systems and food banks, social service providers and mentoring organizations, mental health providers and higher education institutions to work together. If we can do this, we have a much greater chance of giving every student in this state the success they deserve. Without our collaboration, many students will fall through the cracks.

South Carolina’s education statistics clearly illustrate how poverty exacerbates educational achievement gaps. According to the S.C. Department of Education, just 30 percent of third-graders living in poverty met or exceeded expectations on South Carolina’s annual reading assessment last year, compared to 63 percent of students not living in poverty. The achievement gap continues into middle school, as eighth-graders living in poverty were nearly three times more likely than their peers to fail their math assessment. And in high school, the percentage of students in poverty who met the ACT college-ready benchmarks in the 2016-17 school year lagged behind the percentage of all S.C. students in all four subjects: English, math, reading and science.

But we’ve also seen how taking action to coordinate the help students and families need can turn things around for struggling students. Last year, students in 16 Charleston and Berkeley county schools received a host of integrated services coordinated by the nonprofit Communities in Schools of the Charleston Area, and the results were inspiring: 100 percent of high school seniors who received integrated services graduated, compared to South Carolina’s overall graduation rate of 84 percent. Seventy-four percent of those Charleston and Berkeley county seniors have now gone on to college, community college or vocational programs.

The success of these young people — nearly all of whom were eligible for free or reduced lunch — is proof students can achieve when they’re free to concentrate on studies rather than the challenges of living in poverty. Students like Kenton, who lost his father when he was 5 and by middle school needed more guidance than his mother could provide. He took part in programs that enabled him to cope with stress, make choices that kept him from getting in trouble, and prepared him for college. He is a junior at Morris College. And Grace, who as a high schooler had to care for her mother, who has lung disease and limited mobility. She received counseling and life skills education, and a referral to have their house renovated by a local nonprofit. She attends Winthrop University.

South Carolina is not alone in taking the steps to give young people support if they need it, as we can see as a national organization. Just like many of our schools in South Carolina, NBA star LeBron James’ new I Promise school in Ohio offers an on-campus food bank and job placement assistance for parents.

We’ve seen that offering resources and support makes a difference for students. These efforts aim to lift kids up so they have a chance at graduating high school, attending college, building fulfilling lives and breaking the cycle of poverty.

Dale Erquiaga is president and CEO of Communities in Schools. Jamie Cooper is executive director of Communities in Schools of the Charleston Area.