Every student’s path to graduation is different and some roads hold greater challenges than others, but Yelm Community Schools is on a mission to support students and hurdle all barriers to graduation.
Conversations about the impact of COVID-19 on education often center around academic losses resulting from months without in-person instruction. But equally important, for the past year and a half, students have been cut off from their peers and unable to socialize properly just as financial tensions in many households have increased. Rates of homeless students have risen along with levels of anxiety and depression among children and teens. Although students have mostly returned to school, they haven’t left behind the physical, mental and emotional effects of the pandemic.
Within Yelm Community Schools, the staff has created an innovative and comprehensive approach to address these issues. The Office of Student Support coordinates wrap-around efforts to meet student needs, ranging from basic items like food and clothing to counseling and connectivity to multiple community resources.
Director of Student Support Shannon Powell hired two clinical social workers to cover the district’s elementary and secondary schools and three Community Outreach Specialists to identify and address needs. “It’s such important work, especially right now,” says Shannon Gubser, the district’s social and emotional learning coach. “Because of the hiring Shannon Powell has done across the district, we’ve been able to attack some of these things on a systemic level.”
Skylar Cole is one of the social workers. She’s seen an increase in what professionals call “suicidal ideation,” along with heightened levels of anxiety and depression. “At the secondary level, students are really struggling with being back around so many kids again,” says Cole. “We have a lot of students who are self-harming. It’s not new but it feels so much bigger than it has in the past.” Cole and Dena Winter, her counterpart at the elementary level, communicate regularly with teachers, special education case managers and school counselors to get students the services they need. They also conduct assessments, follow up with students, create safety plans and connect families with state and community resources.
“Sometimes I’ve had families come in who might have been aware that their kid was struggling but didn’t realize how badly,” says Cole. “It provides a great opportunity to talk with parents about mental health, what symptoms can look like and next steps. Parents and kids can collaborate around strategies.”
Cole and Winter also provide support for district staff, a new and welcome development, according to Gubser. “Our staff has had some secondary trauma because of issues with students,” she explains. “In the past, if you had any mental health issues, we didn’t have anything in place to help you. Now we’re going to be offering drop-in sessions using a curriculum of stress management.”
The district is able to provide essentials, like clothing and hygiene items, to students experiencing homelessness through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law that provides funding for students who lack fixed, regular, and adequate housing. However, the act doesn’t cover those who have housing but are at risk. “There has always been a gap between students and families who need the same services but are borderline,” says Andrew Kollar, YCS community relations coordinator. “They may be unable to pay their power bill or provide adequate clothing for their child. We’ve had this open loop. This year, we’re starting to close it, and we know exactly what services are being provided to each student.”
In previous years, the district worked with outside agencies to identify and meet immediate student needs such as clothing, food and hygiene products. With the hiring of Community Outreach Specialists Maya Benbrook, Ryan Caldwell and Haylee Bratcher, that process is now in-house. “The biggest request I get for kids is clothing,” says Benbrook. “When I first started, I had to go through a lot of people to meet those needs. Now I can get students what they need right away. That’s been the biggest difference.”
Caldwell notices that being on campus throughout the day is effective. “I have the opportunity to walk around at lunchtime and recognize kids that are sitting by themselves,” he says. “I’ve met multiple kids already this year who really needed my support and otherwise might not have been noticed.”
A large part of their work is made possible through Learners Without Limits, a new program designed to address the exact needs of students and keep them engaged in school. Teachers, Counselors, and outreach specialists are able to identify students in need but have previously been limited in the support they can provide. The local nonprofit Bounty for Families serves as fiscal agent for the program, enabling the support staff to provide basic needs for students who battle poverty and food insecurity but are not covered by McKinney-Vento.
“Our mission is helping families,” says Bounty for Families board chair Jeevan Anandasakaran. “If you were in a position where you repeatedly saw a kid with holes in their shoes, you’d probably take that kid to the nearest shoe store and support that student out of your own pocket. This program allows the school district to solve that problem on a larger scale.
Bounty for Families had already collaborated with the district in 2020, providing 50 Thanksgiving meals for YCS families. Learners Without Limits will help to streamline the district’s holiday giving program by centralizing efforts. “Before we had to get meals from many different community groups,” says Kollar. “It’s a testament to how generous the Yelm community is, but it wasn’t sustainable. Now we’re in a position to advocate for grant funding to cover meals and they’re all coming from one place.” Yelm Grocery Outlet owners Greg and Stefanie Vinyard are purchasing all supplies, storing the food, and helping pack meals for 200 families this Thanksgiving.
Planning for Christmas has already started, and many local organizations want to participate. “We’re building the program to let counselors know that there are different ways to help,” says Kollar. “There is an internal adopt-a-family within the district and community giving trees. Now, through Learners Without Limits we have a back-up to make sure that each student has a season to remember.”
Learn more by visiting the Yelm Community Schools website.