$2.1 million grant will help prevent students in Washington from dropping out of school

Education officials hope a $2.1 million grant helps more Washington kids graduate high school.
Education officials hope a $2.1 million grant helps more Washington kids graduate high school. Associated Press

Students facing barriers to graduation in Washington state, including in Pierce County, soon could have new resources in their schools to turn to for help.

Communities in Schools of Washington (CISWA), part of the national Communities in Schools nonprofit working to prevent student dropout, received a $2.1 million grant to expand its reach to 25,000 students in the next three years.

The grant was awarded by the Ballmer Group, a national organization working to improve economic mobility for children and families.

The money will be used to hire staff, called site coordinators, whose sole purpose is to connect students in need to resources to help further their education.

“We see those connections being made between students and community resources — and then greater success to the students,” said Jeannie Nist, associate director of CISWA.

According to Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, one in five students in Washington state drops out before graduation. Dropping out can inhibit young people’s ability to earn a living wage and pay taxes, according to CISWA, and increases the likelihood of substance abuse and incarceration.

Students face a number of individual and systemic barriers to making it to graduation, Nist said.

“We’re seeing an increase in the number of students who are homeless, who are lacking access to basic-needs resources like school supplies and food — all these underlying issues that cause students to come to school not ready to learn because they have things going on in their lives that take priority over academics,” Nist said.

In Pierce County, there are currently four CISWA affiliates in the Tacoma, Puyallup, Clover Park and Peninsula school districts.

Together, they help thousands of students with programs tailored to their specific needs.

Programs include a Weekend Backpack Program, where students in need receive backpacks full of food to last them through the weekend, and the Winter Wishes program, which provides students with extra gifts during the holiday season.

Having a site coordinator to help run those programs is invaluable, said Jan Mauk, executive director of Communities in Schools of Puyallup.

“We can give (students) food. We can give them clothes. We can even tutor them. But it’s really having those one-on-one relationships that really empowers the kids ...They know somebody’s supporting and cheering them on,” Mauk said.

Not all Pierce County students have access to a site coordinator directly at their schools.

The $2.1 million grant from the Ballmer Group can help change that, Nist said.

“We’re really looking to partner with new communities and school districts that are interested in the model,” Nist said.

In 2018, CISWA benefited 80,000 students. Of those, more than 4,000 students deemed most at risk of dropping out received individual case management and saw 87 percent improved academics, 76 percent improved attendance and 87 percent improved behavior, according to an annual report.

Of 12th-grade students receiving support from CISWA, 93 percent graduated or obtained a GED.

Different communities and students have different needs. In Puyallup, all site coordinators are located at elementary schools.

“The baseline goal for all of our kids in attendance is (being in school) 90 percent of the time,” Mauk said. “A child is considered (to have) chronic attendance if they missed more than 10 percent of days.”

In Gig Harbor, site coordinators are located at elementary and high schools, providing students with a site coordinator through graduation.

“Dropping out of school isn’t an event, it’s a process,” Communities in Schools of Lakewood board member Christie Flynn said.

CISWA has not yet identified which schools they will partner with as a result of the grant.

“The more students that can be affected by these services and the more communities that can be brought together to help these kids, it’s going to be a positive thing wherever they decide to do that expansion,” Mauk said.

By the numbers

Tacoma CIS

  • Site-coordinated schools: 5
  • Students served: 11,874
  • Case-managed students: 559

Puyallup CIS

  • Site-coordinated schools: 6
  • Students served: 14,000
  • Case-managed students: 457

Peninsula CIS

  • Site-coordinated schools: 8
  • Students served: 3,093
  • Case-managed students: 313

Lakewood CIS

  • Site-coordinated schools: 4
  • Students served: 2,500
  • Case-managed students: 250