HUNTINGTON - The need for social support in West Virginia's public schools is well-documented and equally dire.
There are 10,522 homeless students in the Mountain State - which continues to drag at or near the bottom in most poverty metrics - with the opioid epidemic splintering the family unit at every corner.
But schools in a handful of West Virginia counties are preparing for the welcome addition of new, state-funded and school-based support staff to connect students with outside resources. That comes with the expansion of the Communities In Schools (CIS) program from three to 11 counties for the coming 2019-20 school year.
More than 175 educators met in Huntington on Tuesday for the first of the four-day Summer Learning Institute, hosted at the DoubleTree Hilton by the West Virginia Department of Education and first lady Cathy Justice.
Last year, the West Virginia Legislature allocated $3 million to expand Communities In Schools from a one-year pilot in Berkeley, McDowell and Wyoming counties for the 2018-19 school year to 11 counties starting in the 2019-20 year. Added will be Cabell, Calhoun, Clay, Fayette, Hardy, Lincoln, Pendleton and Raleigh counties - serving 59 schools.
This represents the largest single-state rollout of the program in the national organization's 42-year history, said Elaine Wynn, CIS chairwoman and billionaire philanthropist, speaking at the Huntington conference. West Virginia is also the first state to carry a statewide certificate to expand into all counties at once in the future - rather than district by district as CIS normally connects into schools.
"We're doing something (in West Virginia) that we're attempting to do nationally because the need is so great, rather than growing incrementally like we have been," Wynn said.
CIS is currently active in 25 states and the District of Columbia, serving roughly 1.6 million students nationwide.
At the ground level, CIS trains and places "site coordinators" at schools in need, five days a week, to connect students with available community resources for whatever they may need - described as a fluid combination of a social worker, counselor and a graduation coach.
"By having these resources and that role, it frees up teachers to teach and principals to be principals in schools," added Michael Huang, CIS vice president for communities and practice.
According to the Communities In Schools 2018 Community Matters Report, analyzing the 2016-17 school year, 100% of the 342 case-managed students in Greenbrier County graduated, 87% were promoted to the next grade, and there was an 85% increase in attendance and an 84% increase in academic scores.
Expanding the program is a noted priority of Gov. Jim Justice, who addressed it in his past State of the State speech with a video with famed basketball player Shaquille O'Neal lending his support. First lady Cathy Justice has long advocated for the program since it was first piloted in the Justices' home Greenbrier County in 2004, adding it can be simply an additional person for a child in need to talk to at school.
"We're just trying to get to the counties that are in true need of this right now and expand into the entire state," the first lady said Tuesday. "Every county can benefit from it; every county has problems - it doesn't matter if you're inner city or rural, you all basically have the same problems."
Five schools in Cabell County will have CIS site coordinators: Huntington High School, Huntington East Middle School, Central City Elementary School, Guyandotte Elementary School and Spring Hill Elementary School. All are designated Title I schools, meaning they receive additional federal aid for serving a disproportionate percentage of impoverished students.
Huntington High in particular could benefit from a CIS coordinator on site, said Ryan Saxe, Cabell County superintendent of schools. Huntington High's graduation rate is 75%, well below the county average of 87%.
"We have tremendous resources available in our community, but this is about getting all those resources to the right students at the right time," Saxe said.
As it stands, maintaining a CIS presence in West Virginia is not set in stone. The $3 million allocated by the West Virginia Legislature to operate in the 11 counties expires after a year, meaning it would need to be renewed in the next session.